EXCLUSIVE: When most of the dust settled on the Covid-impacted 2020 broadcast pilot season, indie Lionsgate TV ended up with three new series orders — for Home Economics, which got off to a promising start at ABC, This Country at Fox and Ghosts at CBS — on par with the major, vertically integrated studios and making for a perfect 3-for-3 pilot-to-series conversion ratio.
The recent foray into broadcast is one of several strategic shifts for Lionsgate as it is adjusting to its dual role as the primary studio of a premium network (corporate sibling Starz) and a third-party supplier to other networks and platforms. They also include a move to a more decentralized “pod” model relying on production partnerships with prolific, self-sufficient showrunners and companies, including Courtney Kemp, who is behind Starz’s Power franchise and Dirty Thirty in the works at HBO, as well as majority-owned 3 Arts Entertainment, BBC Studios, the Tannenbaum Co. and Paul Feig, each of which have yielded multiple series, and recent deals with The Timberman-Beverly Company and Rob Hardy.
As a result, Lionsgate has doubled its output, from 12 original scripted series in 2020 to 24 this year, 13 of them at Starz, run by CEO Jeff Hirsch. The studio has two ongoing streaks: all six of its most recent pilots have been picked up to series (Minx and Julia at HBO Max, Ghosts at CBS, This Country at Fox, Home Economics at ABC, Run the World at Starz), and all six of its new series that launched in 2020 were renewed for a second season (Love Life, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, Mythic Quest, Power Book II: Ghost, P-Valley, Hightown).
In an interview with Deadline, Lionsgate Television chairman Kevin Beggs discusses the company’s broadcast and overall deal strategy and reveals details about the studio’s high-profile John Wick TV offshoot The Continental at Starz, including the series’ unusual movie-style three-part format; which character the prequel will be centered on; and whether the films’ Keanu Reeves will appear.
Beggs talks about Lionsgate’s 360 strategy for mining IP that The Continental is part of, reveals that a new series rake on American Psycho is in the works and addresses the long-circulating rumors about a Saw TV series.
He also speaks about the challenges of filming during the pandemic, the headlines-making multiple stoppages on the studio’s series Mythic Quest over positive tests and the changes to the business brought on by Covid that he welcomes and plans to keep.
Lionsgate Is Becoming Broadcast Force, Helped By Streaming Wars
Except for the 2008 NBC summer anthology series Fear Itself, Lionsgate TV had done only one scripted series on the major broadcast networks before last season: the 2012 country music drama Nashville, which started on ABC before migrating to CMT.
When Lionsgate entered the TV business in the early 2000s as a smaller, upstart independent studio, the broadcast model was dominant, with studios raking in billions of dollars from hit, long-running series, selling them in off-network cable syndication, broadcast syndication and internationally (later joined by DVD sales and most recently streaming). But the model also involves risks as studios deficit-finance series, leading to losses of tens of millions of dollars on a flop. Aside from HBO, which had already established itself as an original programming player, the other cable networks, including ad-supported, were just dipping their toes in the water, with major studios largely shunning them because cable shows’ profit margins were slim compared to the potential windfall in broadcast.
“But we were small, nimble, good producers, not a giant deficit capacity, so we were a perfect partner to USA on The Dead Zone, to Showtime on Weeds and Nurse Jackie, to AMC on Mad Men because they were doing budgets that were not quite as robust and as big as broadcast, but they also had deficits that were also not as big,” Beggs said. “There weren’t 22 (episodes a year), they were 10 or 13, and they had no issues with a studio deficit and controlling international distribution where we could hopefully recover some of that deficit — if not all — before we even got to a downstream sale.”
Meanwhile, besides big deficits, the challenge in broadcast was vertical integration, with the networks giving preferential treatment to fully owned series from their sister studios versus co-production with outside studios, which they only partially own. Lionsgate TV was able to break through with Nashville.
“I think it did very well, but it was caught a little bit in that transition period before the advertisers were getting any credit for Live+3 or Live+7 or Live+35 because it remains one of ABC’s biggest catch-up shows ever, but they couldn’t quite monetize that as well,” Beggs said about the soapy drama, which was canceled by ABC after four seasons and ran for two more on CMT, where it broke network rating records.”
The big traditional media companies’ current streaming push has created linear opportunities for indies like Lionsgate TV.
“What’s happened most recently is that, as the vertically integrated conglomerates are prioritizing streaming a little bit more, the broadcasters for the first time in several years have been more open to third-party suppliers in a very meaningful way,” Beggs said. “I think you’re seeing it at Fox, you’re seeing it at CBS, at CW,” Beggs said. “You’re seeing all kinds of different models, Canadian shows are finding their way, a flurry of them, maybe accelerated by pandemic as well; that’s happened in the past during strike eras. But I think for us it’s an interesting opportunity, and (TV Group president) Sandra (Stern) has been very effective at essentially reinventing some of the models that can make it more favorable for both parties, and that’s also been a key for us to open some doors that might have been difficult for us to open before.”
The model tweaks have allowed Lionsgate TV, whose development and current programming teams are led by Scott Herbst, Jocelyn Sabo and Lee Hollin, to beef up its broadcast presence with shows at each of the Big 4 networks, sophomore Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist at NBC, Home Economics at ABC, Ghosts at CBS and This Country at Fox. “We’ve never had that much, and I can tell you, our distribution team, when we’re holding onto those distribution rights, those are very important because as stuff moves into more and more of streaming and closed-circuit systems, there aren’t as many available offerings the way there used to be for the international buyers,” Beggs said. “There’s a little bit of a starvation of programming out there, and so something original and good that we distribute and own and control that’s coming off of a major platform is very valuable.”
Lionsgate’s 360 Strategy & Potential Saw Series
“Speaking on the 360, it was really something we adopted three or four years ago officially,” Beggs said. “I think it was always an unofficial, I used to say that it was Lionsgate’s elevator bank 360 because what would happen is you’d be in an elevator ride with an executive from one of the other creative groups and it’d be like, hey, this option is running out on this book, and we haven’t been able to put it together, maybe it’s a TV show? Then we’d have 24 hours to make a deal. We realized that just doing this informally wasn’t so smart because we were always up against it on a clock on some deal, on a great book, and we all had to read it over the weekend and make a decision by Monday at eight. So that’s when I pitched to (Lionsgate CEO) Jon (Feltheimer) the idea of actually making it a working group, a 360 group that was comprised of motion picture, television, location-based entertainment, which includes Broadway, podcasting, all of those extensions, and Starz, when the companies joined. 3 Arts also has a representative.
“And it’s only creative people because creative people are always leaning in to figure out how to say yes. There will be business obstacles, I’m sure, later, but in that room it’s just green fields and blue skies and what if. That has led to a lot of really great collaborations. We’ve just wrapped up Dear White People which was a really good experience, Blindspotting is coming up, American Psycho is in development. We’re always exploring what we can do in television with something like the Saw franchise, so that’s a conversation.”
Beggs would not elaborate further, but I hear that Lionsgate TV is in early talks on a TV series adaptation of the book of Saw, from Mark Burg and Oren Koules’ Twisted Television. The Saw film franchise, one of the longest-running horror franchises in history and which has grossed over $1 billion at the box office, has long been rumored as ripe for a TV expansion.
The Continental Details – Enter Young Winston, Exit Keanu Reeves In 90-minute “Events”
Beggs singled out Lionsgate’s John Wick as illustrative of the 360 strategy. “It’s such a successful franchise, it’s on its way to its fourth and fifth installments as a movie,” he said. “It’s got such a great mythology and such interesting style, and the gun fu approach of these incredibly poetic stunt esthetics is just out of this world, which is why the movie with Keanu Reeves — who is so amazing in everything he does but particularly compelling as John Wick in our mind — it just cries out to be something in TV. Just like the Marvel Universe and the DC Universe from a TV perspective are incredibly opportunities, and that is our superhero franchise in the family.”
Lionsgate TV worked closely with Motion Picture Group chairman Joe Drake, president Nathan Kahane, president of production Erin Westerman and president of acquisitions and co-productions Jason Constantine, as well as the films’ producers Basil Iwanyk and Erica Lee at Thunder Road and Chad Stahelski and Reeves, to “find a way in that was additive, didn’t cancel out any other plans that they might have down the road for” future movie installments, Beggs said.
“We took a lot of pitches, and then the creative team from this obscure little show called Wayne that was on YouTube came to us with their take,” he said. “we were really blown away because it solved a bunch of problems and was super exciting, about a crumbling New York in the 1970s with a garbage strike that has piled up bags of garbage to the third floor of most brownstones, the mafia muscling in on that business which is why in The Sopranos he’s in the sanitation business, and other things that are really real as an interesting backdrop to explore the origins of The Continental which is famously within the movie franchise the assassin’s hotel in which you cannot kill anyone on the hotel grounds, but of course if you step one foot off you’re fair game, and that’s employed to great effect in many of the plots in the movies. Running all of that is Winston, who is played by Ian McShane (in the movies).”
McShane previously confirmed that he won’t appear in The Continental but could do voice-over work.
“What we’re exploring in The Continental is the young Winston and how it came to be that he and his team of confederates found their way into this hotel which we have met for the first time in the movie franchise 40 years later,” Beggs said. “That’s the arena. I won’t give away more than that, but Starz really leaned into this take also, and they have been great collaborators. And how we’ve approached this first season is as three essentially 90-minute events which you could construe as a limited series or a limited event series.”
Initially, when The Continental was first announced by Starz in 2018, the network’s brass said that “you can expect to see Reeves at some point on the series.” A year and a regime change later, CEO Jeff Hirsch refused to confirm whether Reeves would appear on the series or not. Deadline asked Beggs to clarify the actor’s participation.
“Keanu is in talks to executive produce,” Beggs said. “Because we’re way back in time, way back pre-John Wick and even pre-young John Wick, that character is not finding his way into the universe. We are in the John Wick universe, but it’s way back in time. Think about the Game of Thrones prequels before you know any of the players, but you do know the world. But Keanu and Chad have read every draft and been enthusiastic supporters of expanding this universe in a meaningful way. So, I never rule out anything, but at this point he’s pretty busy making his movies which are very important to us.”
Lionsgate’s Overall Deal Strategy
“It’s a mix. There’s the showverall development deals which are built around proven creator-writer-producers that are already in the family,” Beggs said. “Courtney Kemp and her company End of Episode, Rebecca Cutter who is the creator-showrunner of Hightown, we have a long-term relationship with Katori Hall who is an amazing writer-creator-producer of P-Valley. There are a few that are in essence shared, because Starz has a long-standing overall relationship with Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson and his G-Unit Film & Television who are part of the Power universe and they also have a show that we’re all doing together called BMF. They are very active in developing, and anything that isn’t exactly right for Starz we wind up working together with them on. (We wind up on the Starz things as well, but they have a mechanism if they want to take something off-platform).”
“We’re always open to fostering new voices, usually sourced from our own shows where you’ve discovered a talent. We have a relationship with Laura Chinn who created Florida Girls for us at Pop before Pop got out of the scripted business, and she is really remarkable and an amazing voice.”
“And we also made deals with Temple Hill and Timberman-Beverly, we’re in the early stages of that but already some great things that we’re cooking up. They’re incredibly prolific, quite independent, and we love that as well because we’re a small band, and experienced producers like the Tannenbaums, Timberman-Beverly, Temple Hill, Point Grey, Paul Feig and team who are just off to the races, they’re just letting us know what’s happening as opposed to hey, what should we do. That’s also a great asset in the family of deals because they’re out there, eating what they kill, if you will, and that’s helpful for us because again, we’re very lean.”
The Cost of Making TV During the Pandemic
Like all other Hollywood studios, in March 2020 Lionsgate rushed to shut down all of its productions in the span of one weekend amid the escalating coronavirus pandemic. But it also was one of just a couple of studios that had enough footage to put together a pilot/meaningful presentation last pilot season, due to some quick thinking on the part of Feig, executive producer of the company’s Fox comedy pilot This Country, an adaptation of the British format.
“The irony of This Country, which shot one day in Wilmington, NC, before we shut down, was that Paul told us that morning that he sensed that the curtain might be closing. So he changed the entire shooting schedule for that first day. He brought in every actor even though many were not scheduled, they were working later in the week, and ultimately from that one day of dailies we were able to cut a 16-minute pilot presentation to present to Fox, and it had everybody, which was really great.”
Out of that, Fox ordered the project to series. Originally, only the pilot was supposed to shoot in North Carolina, with the series based in New York. But amid the pandemic, a decision was made to keep the series in Wilmington, a more rural location that fit with the show’s outdoor-driven nature, and it helped get production up and running early.
“Expense is quite significant,” Beggs said about filming during the pandemic with Covid protocols. “It’s like making another two episodes except you don’t get to see them on top of a whole season. Our network partners and we have navigated those thorny financial issues to figure out how to keep going and get it done with an expectation that over time, and hopefully with the vaccine rollout going quickly, that many of these costs will go away. The testing is probably perhaps some of the biggest.”
Mythic Quest‘s Rocky Season 2 Shoot Amid Pandemic
Lionsgate and 3 Arts’ Apple TV+ comedy Mythic Quest, led by co-creator, executive producer and star Rob McElhenney, was among the first series to return to production last fall. Shooting at the CBS Studio Center, the workplace comedy saw a slew of positive Covid-19 test results which led to multiple shutdowns.
“I’m happy to talk about Mythic Quest,” Beggs said. “Every show has had its challenging moments, and Mythic Quest I think more than any show rose creatively to the occasion when they made their Covid episode, which was fantastic, and they got that done in quarantine which was really remarkable.
“And they also, after we explored many, many exotic locations to move the show, from Australia to New Zealand to Hawaii to Budapest, made a decision that we needed to stay in L.A. and adopt the protocols, and basically do everything right. Of course in a pandemic you can do everything right, and the virus will still catch up with you. It’s not a matter of if relative to infections on a show. We get a daily update, the testing and the protocols actually work. The main thing is they detect, and many, many of these things come in through extras, there is no perfect NBA bubble in television, there truly isn’t. You’re shooting for months and months and months. It’s not like a movie and everyone is in Australia, you have a hotel, and nobody goes in and out.
“It’s very different, but I think really the measure of all these shows is how they respond and how they pivot, and Rob and team were insistent when infection did happen across the show to shut it down, forget about the normal responses, let’s just get those two more days and we’ll have an episode in the can, which a studio person like me typically would be saying to them. They did the right thing, and Apple supported us financially to do the right thing because as I said, these things are expensive, but we’ve had some other shutdowns on other shows as well, and sometimes it’s just the luck of the draw. Nobody has been immune. I can’t think of one show that hasn’t had infection. But now we’re seeing a nice drop-off. I hope it’s tied to weather and vaccination, and I think we’re going to be in a better place very soon.”
Covid’s Lasting Impact and “Silver Linings” Of Working During a Pandemic
“The protocols, I think many of them will last forever in terms of just extra thoroughness about health and safety in a non-pandemic environment, but also who knows what the next thing that might be around the corner,” Beggs said. “You’re going to think about catering differently and how you space people on a set, and ventilation, all the same things that everybody who is working in an office environment is wrestling with. So, I think the costs will go down and they will then just become part of all the calculus of any show’s financial picture as opposed to this bomb that dropped out of the blue on everybody.
“We have found, there are some amazing silver linings in terms of productivity and connectivity which this has forced upon us in the Zoom, Webex, BlueJeans, Google Hang era. Everyone is up against the pandemic, so of course that brings everybody together, but I think we’re going to hold onto some of these meeting protocols, these communication and process protocols forever. I will never, ever, ever again do an overnight red eye — which was my specialty — to New York for a 10 a.m. meeting, back on the plane by the end of the day so that I wouldn’t incur another day of hotel costs. I’ve probably done that 40 times in my history at Lionsgate. That’s never happening again.”