Lionsgate’s Kevin Beggs

Kevin Beggs, chair of Lionsgate Television Group, talks to World Screen about encouraging relationships with a diverse range of creators and showrunners who have helped cater to underserved audiences and bolster the bottom line.

Lionsgate has always taken chances on new voices. It was among the first studios to embrace prestige TV and produce auteur-driven shows that draw viewers, subscribers and critical acclaim. Today, the studio prioritizes sister company STARZ’s needs while also providing content to some 20 other outlets.

***Image***WS: Comparing the media landscape during the first season of Mad Men or Weeds to today, what have been the biggest changes for Lionsgate Television?
BEGGS: As a nimble, agile company on the smaller end of the “big company” spectrum, we have to maneuver quickly and adapt to the market. We don’t make the market; we respond to it. In that respect, nothing has changed. We’re still a challenger brand. We still have a start-up mentality because if you become complacent, you’ll be boxed out of new business.

The other similarities are the continually emerging new platforms. This is where we found traction in the early 2000s, with new platforms like USA Network, AMC, Showtime, Lifetime, Turner and, at the time, ABC Family and then Freeform. All these newer entries were looking to do originals but couldn’t get the attention of either their in-house corporate studio partners or outside studios because the upside was modest compared to an outsized broadcast network hit.

Those early shows, like Mad Men, Breaking Bad and a slew of others that have come since, were auteur-driven, highly serialized, non-formulaic shows—the antithesis of a broadcast procedural. Back then, they were the outliers, but today they’re the mainstream because the conglomerates have become focused on streaming platforms.

Streaming is consumed on a binge basis that is more like reading a great novel. The shows don’t have to be tied to a weekly airdate or time, which changes the story dynamics immensely in terms of what you can accomplish. And we’ve seen that these kinds of series are capturing more and more critical attention.

In the subscription business, premium series that people feel are worth paying for matter. This is not a cable or satellite package for which you’re paying a flat fee. With subscription services, people are deciding whether they’re going to pay $8.99 or $16.99 each or somewhere in between for several services and whether that’s a good value proposition. So the more premium, the better.

Obviously, broadcast is still massive, and shows like NCIS and various iterations of the Law & Order or Chicago universes continue to get sizable audiences. But they’re typically not in the critical acclaim conversation. Awards and critical acclaim have always been the currency of premium, pioneered by HBO and their focus on getting Emmys and Golden Globes, and the subscription platforms that have followed in their footsteps to become authenticators of great programming.

In a 500-series universe, you have to break out with some noise and heat to get people talking to one another about what they’re watching. And these high-end serialized shows lend themselves to that.

When we started on this journey, those types of shows were on the outside, and luckily for us, we had a wide-open field because they weren’t that interesting economically to a lot of other players. We continue to find and partner with new and emerging players all the time. The biggest new wave of buyers is going to be AVOD, with AVOD players already showing a big appetite for premium programming.

As part of our journey, [Lionsgate CEO] Jon Feltheimer and [Vice Chairman] Michael Burns conceived a strategy of converging our studio and platform businesses by acquiring STARZ, giving us a platform partner to whom we could bring our 17,000-title library and the production capability of our motion picture and television studios. Together with Jeffrey Hirsch, STARZ’s president and CEO, we have a complete virtuous circle for the right shows and right films. STARZ has a very specific framework on the shows they need and, whether or not it’s an exact fit for every one of the shows we create, they are the highest priority.

We are servicing 20 or 25 other buyers at any given time on shows that aren’t right for STARZ. That’s why we have a nice balance between the two. That’s quite different from when we were just a developer-producer-distributor without a platform.

WS: Has the increase in scripted series altered the way shows are developed or produced or pitched?
BEGGS: Yes, because the quality bar has risen on every aspect: the auspices, the performers that go into these shows, the writers and directors, production. This line that used to exist, what I call the Maginot Line, between theatrical movies and television, has been crossed. Talent is freely going back and forth across that line in all areas. There’s almost no motion picture artist that isn’t dabbling in TV in one form or another.

And everything is supercharged. How do you market or get attention for a show in this 500-series universe? In the broadcast era, every network would pick perhaps two shows each season that they decided to market. They couldn’t market all of them; they had a finite budget. In broadcast and even cable, it’s all about the time slot and who you’re following.

No platform in today’s content arms race can fully market every single show, so one of the exciting things about partnering with Jeff and the STARZ team is that they really do promote every show in a curated way—long-lead press, short-lead press, consumer press, focus groups—which in the streaming world you don’t see as often because of the volume. Creators and producers really care about that; it’s part of the ecosystem. Where is the marketing? Who is going to promote? All this leads back to a new enhanced reliance on intellectual property, preexisting material or audiences that come built-in. That leads you into this explosion over the past ten years that has really focused on existing IP—book, feature film, podcast and article adaptations—because there’s an assumption that fans will show up, and if it’s good, stick around.

That reliance on IP is quite different from the traditional rhythms of television 20 years ago, which had been all about original ideas, particularly in series built around procedural engines—medical, law enforcement or legal, and finding a new spin on the premise. Quite different from Matthew Weiner conceiving of Mad Men out of thin air. Or Jenji Kohan conceiving of Weeds out of thin air, or any of the new shows we have: Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist from Austin Winsberg and Eric and Kim Tannenbaum. Or Love Life from Sam Boyd and Paul Feig, starring Anna Kendrick, now going into a second season. These are high-concept original ideas, but they are fewer and farther between in a world of managing risk in which we have to decide where to put our resources and into which subject matter. The Crown is a great example. What a great show; everybody’s going to know what it’s about before you even begin.

WS: Is Lionsgate Television adapting IP from other divisions within Lionsgate?
BEGGS: We have a whole working group called Lionsgate 360. We came up with that name after the STARZ partnership to formalize something we had been doing casually for many years, what I would call elevator synergy. A few of us might end up in an elevator heading for the parking lot on a Friday. One of my motion picture colleagues might say, “Hey, we have this great book. We never quite cracked the script. The option is up in a week. Maybe it’s good for TV.” Then you’re scrambling in a few short days! Or it could be reversed. It might be something that we couldn’t figure out, and said to them, maybe it’s a movie. It wasn’t very purposeful or strategic.

So we decided about five years ago to put that into a more formalized group, which is comprised entirely of creative executives from every vertical in the company: motion pictures, television, STARZ, 3 Arts has a member, so does Pilgrim, our nonfiction company, so does the location-based entertainment and franchise management group, who are doing things like the John Wick game or the Saw experience. We brainstorm. If something can become more than what it once was, it qualifies to be on the list. If it’s never going to be more than a TV show or a movie or a home video release or a syndicated talk show, we don’t get into that. But the minute something can be more—take John Wick, an ongoing feature film franchise. It has game optionality, and there are some in-person theme park-like experiences with it. The blockbuster movie franchise continues. We are working on a series for STARZ called The Continental. Or take Nashville, a show we loved and did for ABC and CMT across six seasons. Our location-based entertainment group is hard at work developing that as a potential Broadway offering.

Or take a series like Blindspotting. The film had great critical acclaim. It was timely, about gentrification and the prison industrial complex transforming Oakland, California. We partnered with Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, who made and starred in the movie. They are the writers and essentially showrunners on the series. It offers the perspective of a woman whose husband has been incarcerated, and she’s left to pick up the pieces. That’s where Blindspotting the series picks up. We’ve been doing it for STARZ and are quite proud of it. That comes out of the treasure trove of titles that are in our library.

WS: Lionsgate has had first-look deals and partnerships with talent for a long time. How is that history of working with talent helping you today?
BEGGS: For many years, we were a boutique television company. We had a slate of approximately ten shows at any given time and the ability within our division to manage and produce them with a unified development and current programming team. Essentially, everyone was across every project. When we made the strategic decision to increase our volume dramatically while not adding overhead, we had to reorganize the creative teams into development led by Scott Herbst and Jocelyn Sabo, with Lee Hollin leading current programming. We also consciously expanded our deal roster with both producers and writers who were prolific in order to generate even more development and opportunities for production. This restructuring, along with the close working partnership with STARZ, has built our current roster to 34 different series. Our development and current teams are across each one, but with very experienced producers working on many of them, we can adjust the day-to-day involvement in an accordion-like fashion and increase efficiency.

In essence, with an eye toward being nimble and adapting quickly, we decided to bet on talent. Not only was the 3 Arts investment an affirmation of that strategy given their amazing client list and what they do so well, but on individual writing-producer or non-writing-producer deals, in which they are generating a lot of IP, concepts and ideas. We can help facilitate getting those into top shape and to market using our expertise and creative skills, but not necessarily relying on our own in-house staff to generate and create every idea.

As we think about the bar being raised, it’s not about volume from any one producer in this auteur-driven space. It’s more about making a huge impact with one show; maybe that builds to two and in a perfect world, three. So it’s remarkable when we have four or five from Paul Feig’s company, which is a fantastic credit to what he and his producing partner Dan Magnante do. You have to curate because you’re only going to have so many shots. Yes, there are many more platforms, but they are under siege from everyone pitching them everything. So yours has to really stand out to even get to a place that they want to take a pitch. And thinking beyond the pitch, if the show gets made, you have to think about whether it will stand out when it’s on.

That’s a different function than traditional development, in which your group comes up with and conceives of every single project, finds a writer, and says, let’s go pitch. We have Jenny Bicks in an overall deal. She’s had great success with Sex and the City and Divorce and is now doing Welcome to Flatch for FOX.

We forged a partnership about three years ago with BBC Studios to become their U.S. studio for scripted. That’s been very successful, giving us access to an incredible roster of formats from the U.K. We have two airing this year, Ghosts on CBS and Welcome to Flatch for FOX. And we have more in development. In this crowded market, everyone wants a hit, but in the back of their minds, they worry about what might happen if this doesn’t work. Seeing something that succeeded elsewhere is always a nice vote of confidence because at least you see a framework of the tone. And, of course, the U.K. has some of the greatest shows.

We’ve assembled a deep roster of world-class production partnerships: in addition to 3 Arts, BBC Studios, Paul Feig and Jenny Bicks, we just announced a producing deal with Bob Greenblatt, one of the most accomplished producers and executives in the television business, who brings a truly major studio and network perspective to our Television Group. We signed Sarah Timberman and Carl Beverly, one of the most successful and prolific producing partnerships in Hollywood. We renewed Eric and Kim Tannenbaum, two incredibly prolific producers who are making shows from Home Economics to Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist to Acapulco for Lionsgate. And that’s just scratching the surface: we have an overall film and TV deal with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s Point Grey Pictures, and producer deals with Katori Hall, the brilliant creator of P-Valley, and Rebecca Cutter, who is heading into the second season of Hightown for us. I could go on and on.

WS: Lionsgate has also been at the forefront of finding diverse and new voices.
BEGGS: We’ve always been the studio that has been willing to invest in new players and new creative voices. We’ve done it very successfully on screen, with Academy Award-winning movies like Crash, Monster’s Ball and Precious, along with more than 20 Tyler Perry films over the years. STARZ has also taken the lead in serving underserved audiences. Think of P-Valley from Katori Hall, an amazing Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright making her first foray into television, and what an impact the first season has had. Now we’re into the second season. That is emblematic of exactly how STARZ and Lionsgate are focused on diverse voices and underserved audiences and delivering at the highest level with a fantastic business result on top of it, which is the fundamental premise of the diversity equation. Working with diverse talent to create inclusive and relatable content for our audiences is not only the right thing to do but smart business as well. Speaking to a diverse audience is a great example of how our Lionsgate and STARZ businesses mesh so well together, and I know our ambition and Jeff’s at STARZ is to find more and more opportunities to do so.

WS: Lionsgate has pioneered innovative financing models. What are some recent ones?
BEGGS: All the credit and leadership for financial models go to Sandra Stern, the president of our Television Group. Every time we discover a new platform that hasn’t yet formulated a template to do originals but has an interest in doing them, Sandra brings the cavalry to the rescue to figure it out! I remember when Sandra and I took Orange Is the New Black to Netflix. We had a lot of business with them selling reruns of Mad Men and Weeds. They had just announced House of Cards. We said, “All those years you said you weren’t going to do originals, and now you are. What can we do together?” We went through nine projects in which they had no interest, and on our way out the door, we said, “Jenji asked us to option this book, which we just did. It’s called Orange Is the New Black, a true story of Piper Kerman and her experience going to jail years after the offense she had been accused of had taken place.” Everyone stopped what they were doing and said, “That sounds great! Send us the book.” They read it immediately. Jenji was in there in very short order to pitch it out, and it all moved incredibly quickly.

Then the deal took nine months to make. Sandra single-handedly engineered an entire business model with Netflix. There was no blueprint, no 50 years of this is how we’ve done it at Warner Bros. and ABC, or any of those things that you typically can draw upon. And she has gone on to do that again and again, with shows at Apple, at Amazon, at Hulu, most recently at Roku. Her partner in crime in that space, because the two of them function hand in hand, is Jim Packer [Lionsgate’s president of worldwide TV and digital distribution].

Roku and Zoey’s comes out of all the business Jim is doing, selling them library and crafting a relationship around movies and reruns of series. He asked, “Is there something we can do with Zoey’s?” That evolved into a movie conversation. Then Sandra and her team helped craft what that will look like. You need to be willing to spend the time to do it because these are important new markets for us, and we have to come up with a formula that’s fair and incentivizes both sides to want to do more. That’s what Sandra and her team spend a lot of time doing, and I think it gives us a unique “superpower” when we’re competing with bigger players.

WS: Are there procedures you had to implement because of Covid that you may maintain after the pandemic?
BEGGS: I think there will be some version of testing for a long time. In a post-Covid universe, if we ever get to that, maybe everybody gets tested before the season or each episode, but not three, four or five times a week. I also believe that the practice of studio and network executives flying to remote locations to meet and greet because that’s expected, and a sign of investment and care, will go by the wayside because that’s just added risk. You’re putting new people into an ecosystem who don’t need to be there.  The practice of set visits that are just a courtesy with no real business agenda will change, just like flying to New York or London for an in-person meeting when a Zoom or Webex will suffice. It doesn’t eliminate the need for in-person collaboration, but people will change their business travel routines to adapt to new protocols.

At the beginning of the pandemic, we formed a task force across our film, television and STARZ businesses to create new health and safety protocols that would allow us to return to production safely and quickly. We began planning these protocols from the moment we suspended production on nearly 20 shows last March, and as a result, we were able to resume production very quickly. At one point earlier this year, we actually had a total of 46 films and television series shooting around the world, with minimal downtime, thanks to the fast implementation of health and safety protocols that will probably, in one form or another, become part of “best practices” forever. Our production and postproduction teams did an amazing job of keeping up our operational tempo without missing a beat, and we owe them a debt of thanks.