Elisabeth Murdoch, Stacey Snider and Jane Featherstone have joined forces to form Sister, an ambitious content creation venture designed to develop and produce television and film projects with global appeal. Murdoch, the former Shine Group founder/chairman, will be the lead financier in the venture. She said Snider and Featherstone are co-investors and co-owners.
It is the first job that Snider has taken since leaving as chairman/CEO of Twentieth Century Fox when the acquisition of that studio by Disney was completed in April. The linkup comes after Featherstone, a preeminent producer of sophisticated and limited series like Broadchurch, saw her Chernobyl win 10 Emmy Awards including Outstanding Limited Series.
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Murdoch, the daughter of Rupert Murdoch, will be Executive Chairman of Sisters, while Featherstone will be Head of Sister London and Snider will be Global CEO and Head of Sister LA. Given their long list of career accomplishments, the principals make a formative team-up to navigate a turbulent time in content creation, one in which the rise of digital distribution has turned the business on its ear but created a boom market in international scripted series. It is a natural linkup; while her name had been in the mix for any number of top streamer or studio jobs, it had been expected and Deadline reported that Snider might instead start a production a business backed by Murdoch. Murdoch had already been a minority investor in Featherstone’s Sister Pictures and it was she who thought the three of them would be stronger if they worked together. Since Murdoch sold Shine to Endemol in early 2015, Murdoch has made small investments in numerous companies. This is the first big scale venture since that Shine sale.
“I’ve had the great privilege of working alongside Jane for many years now, when Kudos became part of the Shine Group and we became very firm friends and tight colleagues,” Murdoch told Deadline. “She was essential to the growth of Shine, a big part of the culture and values of what made Shine special. When Jane started Sister Pictures, I was fortunate to be a minority investor so our relationship has long thrived. Meantime, I got to know Stacey quite well over the past couple of years, through work. I realized in talking about material and development and how we got deals done together, that I had two people on opposite sides of the Atlantic that really should know each other. Their total commitment to writers and material was something you don’t find every day. It’s something I value and cherish above everything else.
“What happened was a confluence of events,” Murdoch said. “I saw in the industry a massive opportunity presenting itself because of this huge consolidation, of which I am very much a beneficiary. I saw there was a real time for a true fiercely independent company to be a haven for great talent and writers to be able to navigate this quite fantastic world, but also one that is challenging. These companies are big buyers already of Sister Pictures work. They need places they can turn to for creative excellence. I couldn’t think of two people in the world who have proven that more than Stacey and Jane. They are trusted not only by the buyers but also the talent they look after, who execute at the very highest levels. That is how it coalesced. I was pleased with how it all came together and that I was right, that Stacey and Jane would see in each other what I saw as well. It was a case where 1+1+1 = a lot more than three. Sister Pictures is the foundation of Sister, so that is now. I am the lead financier. Jane and Stacey have skin in the game and they are co-investors and co-owners, but I am certainly the lead financier. There is no outside money.”
The troika said the venture would be platform agnostic. They plan to be completely independent and won’t make a first look alliance. They will develop content and decide if it works best as an open ended series, a limited series, or a theatrical or streaming feature film. Featherstone already is considered one of the top UK-based generators of prestige series, and she already has an infrastructure and an upcoming programming slate. Her team includes Executive Producers Naomi de Pear (The Power, Flowers, Don’t Forget the Driver), Chris Fry (Chernobyl, Giri/Haji) and producer Katie Carpenter (Flowers, The Bisexual). Dan Isaacs, current COO of Sister Pictures, becomes COO of Sister London. Sister Pictures currently has 26 London staffers and it produced 25 hours of scripted television this year, a number that will rise to 32 hours per year in 2020. New series include Abi Morgan’s The Split for BBC One, Giri/Haji for BBC Two and Netflix, an adaptation of the Naomi Alderman novel The Power for Amazon, and Adam Kay’s adaptation of his international bestseller This Is Going to Hurt for BBC.
“I’ve always been able to be independent and work with the talent and buyers I wanted to, who were right for the stories,” Featherstone told Deadline. “In the chaotic and complicated world we live in right now, with so much abundant choices, the scale that this opportunity offers me is incredibly important. For Sister Pictures, this is about expanding our horizons and seeking a more global platform for what we do and proving a home for new talent. We’re incredibly well funded in development and in resources, and I think we have a strong foundation to bring in that new talent and stick to those values which is really important. We see this as being long term, about building something together and growing outward. LA and London they are the centers of our industry. But truly we want to become a beacon of excellence for storytellers all over the world. And we are well positioned to do that. We’ve had much experience, the three of us, and it is time to pass some of that on, and to keep expanding. The scale of Chernobyl was enormous and to have the wherewithal to do that consistently over time and to deliver for the buyers and be a trusted supplier in that way is essential”
Snider will soon start staffing up for the Los Angeles component of the company. “It’s day one and we’ll begin the process of bringing people onboard,” she said. “The idea is not scale for scale’s sake. Liz uses this phrase I love, which is, fit for purpose. We have to have the resources to fulfill the obligation we make to talent that joins us on this journey. I don’t know the number yet, but we want to be fit for purpose, so that we can do our best work.”
While Snider has headed big operations from Universal to DreamWorks and Fox, I have always found her to get most excited by tastemaker books, scripts and auteur films. Over the years, the projects she has championed include Bohemian Rhapsody, Logan and The Greatest Showman, along with former partner Steven Spielberg’s directorial efforts including The Post, Munich, Lincoln and the upcoming West Side Story remake. The new job gives her an opportunity to exercise both talents, she said.
“It’s advice I’ve given my kids, and young people who are coming to interview with me,” Snider said. “I always say, to thine own self be true. You have to take the time to reflect on what makes you happy, what makes you tick, and where you’re going to do your best work. If you love what you do, you’re going to do it more, and you’re going to do it better. I took time after Fox to figure out what drives me, what makes me happy, where I can make a contribution. It came down to what I’ve always done. I love working with writers, I love working with creative people and I felt I could use the experience I have as a studio executive to help navigate what Liz has described, an abundant landscape but one that can be confusing. I also felt lucky that I had incredible mentors and people who taught me. Mentorship is not as available these days as it used to be. If Liz, Jane and I can open the door and guide new talent along this landscape, we will be upholding up the legacy of the business we all love. I went through and feel very fortunate to have met Jane and worked with Liz and that we’re all going to be working together.”
Added Featherstone: “I had a moment there when Stacey said, ‘to thine own self,’ and every day we spend together convinces me more that this is going to work. That’s what my dad said to me, every single day of my life. He would say, the most important thing in life is to follow your heart and to thine own self be true. I hadn’t heard her say that before, but this is what you want, the shared relationship where you can be brave together. It should be fun. We’re making entertainment and we have an opportunity here to do it in a way that will be meaningful.”
While there are three formidable women at the helm of a company called Sister, the partners said they aren’t going to specialize in gender-based programming and films. They said they just want to tell great stories.
“The slates will be mixed and driven by the stories we want to tell,” Murdoch said. “The significance of the name Sister is more about values than the gender. The values of sisterhood, like friendship, honesty, loyalty, having fun with your sister, with your sister telling you off occasionally. But it’s the idea of having a safe place where you’ll find support. We’ll also be a home for great female writers and diverse writers and we’ll want to be a home for any talent who feels they have something to say and we can help try to realize that.”
The company starts strongly in the series creation space because of Featherstone, and it will be on Snider to figure out the feature component. Even in the time since she has left Fox, it seems the landscape has gotten tougher for everyone but Disney or rivals with branded tent poles. I noted that the acquisitions market at Toronto, for instance, was about as slow as anyone could remember.
“It certainly has gotten tougher and we’ve lived through it,” Snider said. “The guiding North Star principle I try to follow, and it’s different from when I started out, is asking myself and the group I work with, is this story urgently theatrical and requires being seen on the big screen? I still believe there are stories like that. Bohemian Rhapsody is an example. It wasn’t a pre-existing IP story and its budget didn’t compare with a big film when we made it. But that story, and the stadium rock component, was fun to see and hear on a big screen in the theater. What we’re seeing is, beyond it being about movies that urgently require being seen in a cinema, the SVOD players are starting to take a swing at making movies themselves. So it becomes about deciding what is best for the story. If it is that it should be told in two hours, and that’s the form I should take, that’s where we’ll be.”
The trio hasn’t set an output goal, at least not one they are admitting to yet.
“Today, we wanted to say hello world, and watch this space,” Murdoch said.
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