The billionaire investor’s love of the Matt Weiner-created drama saved Kevin Beggs’ bacon and earned him the temporary enmity of his fellow executives, the Lionsgate TV Group chairman told UCLA grads today in an anecdote-rich commencement speech.
“After grilling the film executives, Mr. Icahn set his sights on me,” Beggs said to graduates of UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television at a packed Royce Hall. “I braced for punishment, but when he was reminded that it was my division that produced Mad Men, his face lit up like a Christmas tree, he gave a loving glance to his wife, and declared that I was worthy of a ‘gold star’ for being a part of such a fantastic series,” he added of Ichan’s ultimately unsuccessful four-year drive to take control of Lionsgate.
“They watched each episode religiously,” he said of the now-wrapped series to laughter from the now ex-students and their guests. “It was a timely reminder that our business is about great storytelling. Even the most battle-scarred corporate raider wanted to talk about Don Draper and the stories of Sterling/Cooper instead of business strategy.”
Touching on his early days in the industry working as a production assistant on Baywatch to joining Lionsgate in 1998 when it looked like the company wanted nothing to do with TV, Beggs used the platform of today’s address to amuse and inform his audience. “Some of you may remember a scene in Mike Nichols’ classic film The Graduate in which a man whispers into Dustin Hoffman’s ear one word: ‘plastics,’ ” the Lionsgate TV chairman and former president noted to the graduates. “Today that buzzword is ‘television.’ ”
“An afterthought when I started at the company, it is now a substantial part of our overall business and inextricably linked to our creative culture that celebrates provocative storytelling, distinct voices, unexplored worlds, and relentless originality,” said Beggs of Lionsgate, which now has a market cap of $5.4 billion and whose shares hit 52-week high today. The TV Group itself brings in around $600 million a year in revenue to the studio known on the film side for The Twilight Saga and The Hunger Games. “With a lineup including Mad Men, Nashville, Nurse Jackie, Deadbeat, Manhattan, Casual, Graves, Chasing Life, and Orange Is The New Black, we serve up an eclectic blend of compelling series across two dozen networks.”
In many ways Lionsgate’s move into the TV ranks started with the Jenji Kohan-created Weeds back in 2005. The network that wanted to buy the project, Showtime, struggled to find a hit series and many studios would not produce for them, Beggs said Friday. “The agent representing the writer wanted to be paid a packaging fee over and above his normal commission. In order to hear the idea I had to agree. It turned out to be a smart yes as he then handed the phone to his client, Jenji Kohan, who told me about her pot-dealing soccer mom idea which I immediately loved based on my own experience living on my dad’s crazy hippie commune,” the exec revealed.
But the project didn’t move forward quickly and Showtime told Beggs on a Friday night over a decade ago that if Lionsgate wouldn’t get on board, the cabler would produce Weeds itself. “Panicked, I set about writing a weekend-long Jerry Maguire-like manifesto about how Weeds was going to transform Showtime, elevate Lionsgate, and lead the way to a sea change in the television business,” Beggs said to the 2015 class. “I hit send and imagined myself standing on a table in my boss’ (Jon Feltheimer) office the next day until he agreed. As it turned out, he simply responded with two letters to my missive: OK. He wanted to know I was passionate about the project and would defend it.”
“Sandra Stern, our COO, then negotiated a favorable business deal between Lionsgate and Showtime, we cast Mary-Louise Parker as Nancy Botwin, and eight years later we indeed had transformed Showtime, elevated Lionsgate Television, and ushered in a new era in comedy for cable,” Beggs said. “I have never regretted saying yes to the agent that day and he too has a huge house on the beach. So, again, we were both right.”
Beggs later told a similar tale about almost losing Mad Men due to not being able to get the financing together for the show which cost $500,000 an episode more than other cable dramas and had subject matter considered too specifically American for robust international sales. AMC would up financing the pilot. “Luckily for Lionsgate, Matt Weiner made a brilliant pilot and AMC gave us another chance to get involved,” he said. “Seeing the incredible cast on screen in the pilot was all we needed to come aboard as the studio partner and the rest is history and part of television’s second ‘Golden Age.’ ” While Mad Men is over, Lionsgate TV is, after Weeds and OITNB, now on its third project with Kohan, Beggs told the crowd: pilot The Devil You Know at HBO.
Graduating from the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television represents a huge accomplishment,” the Lionsgate TV boss ended his remarks today. “And whether you write, act, direct, design, curate, teach, or produce theater, film, television, or digital content – I urge you to be fearless in your pursuits and ignore the naysayers.”
In this commencement address-heavy time of year, Beggs isn’t the only industry exec giving a speech to UCLA grads this weekend. Showtime EVP Corporate Communications Trisha Cardoso is speaking to the 2015 Sociology class. The cable exec is an alum of the UCLA Sociology school.
Today’s UCLA event also gave special recognition to Samuel Goldwyn Jr. The exec, who passed away on January 9, was a longtime supporter of the UCLA film school. Distinguished Alumni Awards were given to director and producer Donna Deitch and Broadway and feature producer Sarahbeth Grossman.