Sony TV’s Zack Van Amburg & Jamie Erlicht On New Structure, Corporate Synergy & What’s Next

Zack Van Amburg Jamie Erlicht
Sony Pictures TV

It’s a new era at Sony Pictures TV following the exit of longtime topper Steve Mosko. Under the new executive structure, five division heads — presidents of programming and production Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht, president of worldwide networks Andy Kaplan, president of distribution Keith Le Goy, and president of ad sales & research Amy Carney — report directly to Michael Lynton, CEO of Sony Entertainment.

Van Amburg and Erlicht, who have led Sony TV’s original programming expansion over the past decade, are spearheading the studio’s production operations globally. In an interview with Deadline, the duo outline their strategy for Sony TV’s future as an indie studio in an increasingly vertically integrated environment where U.S. networks have been pushing for ownership and in-season stacking rights. The two, whose contracts are believed to be up next year, also discuss a new level of cooperation with the other Sony divisions, plans for a push in international production and cable reality series, as well as the prospect for more executive changes.

DEADLINE: Sony TV is pretty diversified, producing for broadcast, cable and digital platforms. What is your vision going forward? Is broadcast still attractive to you?

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VAN AMBURG: We have always felt that we needed to be slightly ahead of the curve and that was because we were looking for growth opportunities. Cable was potentially easier to enter; there was an acceptance and an appetite, in the early days, for less-known talent. Therefore, we could compete with some of the majors by just having a better idea. And we felt there was a fairly even playing field, there was more stability in cable. Then we saw a few years ago that that tremendous double-digit growth in original programming on cable was slowing, and the patterns of success ratio coming down a little bit, thirst for ownership increasing. Those are metrics that as an independent studio if you completely ignore, you’re going to be caught off-guard. I think some of our competitive studios out there have had a much more mindful, thoughtful, cautious concerned eye towards streaming platforms. We have five going to six series on Netflix, we have multiple series including the two that are up on the Amazon player right now, we have one series with Hulu with another couple of pilots that we’re working on. There’s been some growth there but I think we shouldn’t be counting on years and years of growth on the streaming side, so, what then becomes the next strategy? Where does growth come from and where does profitability come from? I think it comes from being a smart, thoughtful, global company. And more importantly, are there still growth markets internationally? I would say a hundred percent yes. China is a very interesting market, I think a lot of people have been examining that. We’re already producing a hit series there, Mad About You, we have two or three other projects that are in the mix right now. We had a dynamic conversation today about India. We have a huge networks footprint there.

ERLICHT: We’ve always been in the portfolio business. But it’s been a strategic portfolio business.

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VAN AMBURG: Also, we love the broadcast network business. We were able to come out with some big anchor shows with the greatest time periods on the networks where we made pilots. That’s a tremendous validation about the work that we put out there; it’s a great potential return on investment. Some of our biggest shows, like Blacklist, have come right out of our partnership with broadcast networks and specifically NBC. I think our most important reality franchise, Shark Tank, has been a direct partnership with ABC and them supporting that franchise into a spinoff. So broadcast I think is a) a fantastic business, b) it’s one that I think is evolving. You wrote many articles about how they wanted stacking rights and what was their streaming strategy going to be and there was a lot of thoughtful dialogue on how that got monetized and how we protected the financial backend of our television shows. I think we’ve only seen Chapter 1 of that, I think that’s going to be an ongoing dialogue, but it’s exciting that the oldest business — broadcast — is now trying to emulate and maybe create a direct relationship with their viewers by following the newest business, the streaming business.

ERLICHT: Broadcast television as a business is still very, very viable and successful. If you add the three- and seven-day ratings, there’s still a massive audience coming to that medium and there’s still great storytelling to be done on the broadcast networks. So the way people are watching is definitely changing, but the viability of those networks is very, very strong and yes we will continue to be a significant part of that.

DEADLINE: What about the broadcast networks’ push for ownership and in-season stacking rights? Is it still a lucrative business for you?

Sneaky Pete

VAN AMBURG: Well, it’s a hit-driven business, isn’t it? The speculative nature of the broadcast network business means they can afford to put on a lot of television shows and a good percentage of them won’t work, but the handful that do will pay for the failures. I think that studios have been following that same mind-set for a long time, the failures of many are made up by the success of the few. That’s less a strategy that we’re interested in. I think that we have a creative partnership with the community, with writers, directors, and actors, that hopefully is a little more thoughtful. When we say each television show is the most important one we’re making, that is the truth. I think that is why you’ve seen us protect our series and you’ve seen us save our series and move them from network to network and keep them alive. There aren’t many shows last season that came out of the network pilot system that then found a new home — Sneaky Pete did and I think Amazon is thrilled for it and it has some of the highest marks on that service. We’re having a dialogue (with NBC) about Cruel Intentions. Does that mean we’re going to react differently because of stacking rights and the monetization? Not necessarily, I think we’re looking at: how stable are schedules, where do we think the opportunities are. Had a very thoughtful conversation with Dana Walden a couple of days ago about doing things differently at Fox — the only network where we didn’t make a pilot this season and the only network where we don’t have, forget a show, an anchor show, an important show. That’s a relationship that is important to both of us and I think we reconciled.

DEADLINE: What will be different?

VAN AMBURG: I think rather than develop a lot at Fox we should talk about things that we jointly believe from the very beginning from the top to bottom of our companies that can have real impact and that feel like more of a partnership and more of a sure bet. Fox has a track record of almost exclusively picking up their own shows. And more importantly they have the least number of available hours and half hours. So, if we’re going to go into that space as an independent producer, we need to make sure we’re doing right by our writers and directors and actors who are putting in their time and effort to go and produce something great.

ERLICHT: Ownership issues are not new. They’ve been around ever since the fin-syn rules went away. They’re cyclical and sometimes networks try to demand more ownership and other times they realize that spreading the risk is a better strategy. The reality is, we attract great talent. They’re not going to turn down great shows just because they don’t own a hundred percent of it. We figured out ways to compromise and work with the networks. At the same time and one of the reasons we are such a draw for the talent is we protect their interests, we protect our interests, we protect the show. There are some times we compromise on ownership, in other words giving certain percentage of co-production, but we’re also able to get things from the networks to protect the show and get strong license fees and get strong opportunities that have long-term benefits.

VAN AMBURG: I think that old adage of having a 100% of nothing, what good is that right? Having a different percentage of something viable and interesting where I think it’s an interesting time in the television universe where everyone is realizing that partnership is the way to go. I can’t think of many industries that rely so heavily on the very notion of partnership. We agreed to some stacking rights this year. I don’t think we’re giving up much in the long run in terms of a global product, but it’s exactly that. The economics around our series are very, very healthy.

DEADLINE: What are areas where you want to expand?

ERLICHT: We’re expanding into international production in a much grander way than we’ve been doing. We’ve gotten 4-5 shows on the air internationally through our partnerships that we’ve been working with Andrea Wong and Keith Le Goy on. It’s critical to figure out how you can program both locally and globally. That’s really the key word, we’ve been concentrating on global production and we’re also now going to add a little more local production.

VAN AMBURG: I think the exciting part of being at Sony is that it’s a very entrepreneurial company but it’s also a fairly lean company. A lot of studios, even if you look at our business domestically, have multiple companies doing the same amount of work as this small group. If you take a look at Warner Bros, for example, you have Telepictures on one side doing the syndication stuff, you have Warner Horizon on the other side doing some of the reality and cable programming. You have Warner Bros Television with infrastructure and staff, and yet in this small group here, we are taking on all of those businesses. Under past regimes, we tried to present ourselves to the outside world as one company. I think we were one company emotionally and I think we were one company in terms of our support of our colleagues, but we really operated separate businesses in an interesting way. I will say to you, we’ve had more thoughtful dialogue between the domestic team and the international team at the operating level in the last three weeks than we probably have in the previous three years. Where suddenly we’re realizing that the global business, the international business, is actually a U.S. business. I’ll give you an example: our new pilot with Book Of Strange New Things that Andy Harries is doing out of Left Bank is at Amazon. We’re now having thoughtful dialogue directly with Amazon about some production issues and casting issues and how we set up the infrastructure of the show with the production department here in the U.S. and in the same breath we’re actually heading to go pitch a television show to a couple of the UK buyers that is now being done in concert and partnership with the team that is located in Golden Square in London. We weren’t doing that before.

DEADLINE: Will your executive structure reflect that, having executives oversee both international and domestic?

ERLICHT: The local infrastructure will remain unchanged. We already have a cooperation infrastructure that exists between the U.S. productions and the overseas productions on a limited basis, and we’re going to build on that foundation. We’re just going to build a bigger business, we’re going to take greater advantage of the resources we have here in the United States to be used internationally and the resources they have around the world to bring some of the shows and some of the talent back into the United States.

DEADLINE: Will we see more cooperation with the other divisions of Sony, both entertainment and electronics?

Sony Investor Relations Day, Tokyo, Japan - 18 Nov 2014

VAN AMBURG: Yes. I’ll give you a couple of examples. We did a quick all-hands meeting last week to describe that Sony Pictures Television was one company operating now more closely within a Sony Pictures Entertainment company all aligned under Michael Lynton. We’re producing The Get Down for Netflix with Baz Luhrmann. Simultaneously, we have been making a soundtrack with RCA Records whose chairman Peter Edge and president Tom Corson came in and said, “To us, not only is it going to be spectacular, it’s our No. 1 priority, not only for the summer but probably for the year.” We never really honestly would have been having a dialogue with a (Sony) music company, and often the perception was that we were able to license music and deal with music companies better on the outside than in our own company. We realized that was partly just based on the fact that we were separate entities and didn’t know each other that well. I think now that we really are one legitimate company and Michael and (Sony Corp. CEO) Kaz Hirai have made a tremendous commitment to have those companies come together as truly an aligned media company for the 21st century, we’re not just, that’s a buzz word, we’re actually acting upon it.

Had an amazing conversation with Rob Stringer, who runs Columbia Records, where we’re talking about a number of projects. We’re very close with Andy House who is chairman of PlayStation and we were having a conversation about virtual reality and some of the things we want to do for PSVR around some of our television titles and some of our talent and creating new content for a new space. I think we’re going to be a leader in that arena. We’re having truly dynamic conversations with Tom Rothman and now Sanford Panitch and before that Doug [Belgrad] about not only sharing similar talent — some of the writers who came out of Sony Pictures Television have been writing Spider-Man for example — and we’ve been having dialogue about sharing writers, sharing content.

DEADLINE: Which SPT shows may get VR extensions?

VAN AMBURG: We took a group of seven (showrunners) up to the PlayStation Laboratories, so I’ll give you a few names who showed up and were really enthusiastic about the property: Shawn Ryan, Peter Tolan, Ron Moore, Vince Gilligan, and Graham Yost.

ERLICHT: We were fortunate enough to be invited to the parent corporation in Tokyo and they brought us into an RD lab and showed us VR which is going to continue to explode over the next few years; we’re going to be at the forefront of that. But we’re also being introduced to technology that’s three, five, even 10 years away that will have a real impact on how entertainment is consumed with storytelling and the evolution of that storytelling. We’re not waiting until it’s a month or two away, we want to get in early, we want to learn about their technologies, and our parent company has been great about making sure that we’re introduced to it.

DEADLINE: Will you do more shows for PlayStation and Crackle?

Powers Season 2

VAN AMBURG: Yes. We’re having a lot of dynamic conversations on both. We’ve certainly have had more critical mass on Crackle than we have on PlayStation. Powers has had some pretty spectacular early diagnostics against it. It’s been a driver of their business, PlayStation Plus.

ERLICHT: We’ve always at Sony — out of necessity and desire – been first to markets. We were the most prolific and successful in cable and still are. We were exploring the new platforms, digital platforms, SVOD before anyone knew what they would ultimately become. And it’s been a real calling card for our talent. They know when they come here, yes, we’re going to develop for broadcast television. Yes, we’re going to develop for cable. The whole array of opportunity exists here for that talent and it’s a huge calling card. Vince Gilligan is going to do Better Call Saul, but he also has irons in four other fires that he’s really excited about, of which Crackle and PlayStation fit into that mix.

DEADLINE: And change in your overall deal strategy? A few years ago you moved away from pods toward showrunner-driven pacts?

VAN AMBURG: I think we continue to be very writer-centric, showrunner-centric, and to an extent a little more selective on the directing side.

ERLICHT: And utilizing our overall deals in a far more global way, which we’ve been doing for the last couple of years. Our talent — like Carol Mendelsohn, Vince Gilligan, Graham Yost — wants to work in the global community, want to go and pitch directly to Canal Plus and TF1 and figure out a co-production scenario with a network in the United States. The talent wants to be doing that organically, and yes we’re going to continue to be in that business in a significant way.

DEADLINE: What is the future of TriStar Television?


VAN AMBURG: Super bright, fantastic. TriStar I think has certainly exceeded expectations early on, a couple of series on the air within the first year between Shut Eye and Good Girls Revolt. We’re hoping for some good news on the Amazon pilots and then I think we’ll have a historic growth curve.

ERLICHT: TriStar is a really important brand.

DEADLINE: Any changes in first-run syndication and reality TV?

VAN AMBURG: No, we have some great things happening on both those sides. I think we’ve been smart and strategic and certainly enjoying our deep partnership with Dr. Oz, and we’re always exploring what the syndication business is. I think that’s a business that has really evolved and we have a couple of things that we’re looking at now. And on the reality side, we’ve had a pretty decent track record of putting on some big network shows. I think as goes that business, there seem to be a handful of hits and a lot of things that try to work. A lot of the big franchises in broadcast network are big returning shows and yet I think for the first time we’re starting to see some things like American Idol sunset. What’s now going to replace that? I think we see opportunity there. And on the cable side, we have a diverse portfolio of things and I think there’s probably more growth opportunity for us in the reality space on cable and I think we can take more advantage of it. Our strategy has been more big, high-impact broadcast network expensive budget shows. We may start to evolve to get into some of the lower-cost, higher-volume cable reality series.

DEADLINE: Any more executive changes?

ERLICHT: The television company has been growing and growing every single year, and it’s been a real great business. This management change a) has given Zack and I a lot more day-to-day responsibilities on a global scale. And b), having us report directly to Michael Lynton, the senior manager for all of Sony Pictures Entertainment, really streamlines the process of everything we talked about before; our interaction with music, our interaction with electronics, our interaction with the feature side, our interaction with PlayStation, our interaction with every aspect of the Sony Corporation. That’s an important part of our growth on top of everything else. And it’s a real vote of confidence with everything that we’ve been doing over here.

DEADLINE: So your team is staying intact?


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