Sony TV’s New Leaders Reveal Growth Strategy

Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg talk the power and challenges in being indie, and their plans to grow their international business.
Annie Tritt
Van Amburg, left, and Erlicht

Jamie Erlicht was on vacation in Oregon when he got the call from Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton. Erlicht and his partner of more than a decade, Zack Van Amburg, officially were being elevated at Sony Pictures Television, assuming many of the duties of ousted chief Steve Mosko.

When the news was announced June 2, a deluge of congratulatory calls and comical gifts followed. “Why didn’t they consult me first because I may have some things to share,” Rescue Me co-creator Peter Tolan emailed. The Goldbergs Adam F. Goldberg sent over a vintage stand-up arcade game with a big bow to house in their lobby, while A+E Networks CEO Nancy Dubuc had a batch of cookies with their faces etched onto them delivered to their offices. And so began a new era at Sony TV. 

During an interview with THR in their Culver City offices, Van Amburg, 45, and Erlicht, 47, say they anticipate a more streamlined approach to international deals as they look to broaden their focus at a business that generates well over half the profits for Sony Pictures. They say they’ll press forward with the independent studio’s years-old philosophy of being open to partnerships and spending aggressively to secure top producers. 

Both strategies, they note, have become more important in an increasingly competitive marketplace, particularly one in which networks are more interested in owning their own shows. In fact, it was the lack of sales to sister network NBC that ultimately cost Universal TV president Bela Bajaria her job in May. Fittingly, she was replaced by the network’s drama chief. (Although Van Amburg and Erlicht declined to comment on Mosko’s exit, multiple sources say it had more to do with infighting with Lynton than anything else.)

Erlicht and Van Amburg downplay the challenges that come with being an independent studio in today's environment, citing their output coming out of this year's May upfront: five sales, including high-profile post-The Voice drama Timeless at NBC and Kevin James’ television return with CBS’ Kevin Can Wait. They say they intend to remain open to co-productions in a way that rival Warner Bros. Television, for instance, historically has not been (but likely will be going forward). “We live in an era where partnership is a good thing…and that old adage of, ‘I’d rather have a percentage of something successful than 100 percent of a failure’ is a good one,” notes Van Amburg. Adds Erlicht: “Every network will want to have ownership to one degree or another, but no network is going to support their entire development needs internally. And as long as we’re a great home for incredible talent, the best shows will get on the air.”

Which is not to say that the new world order doesn’t concern them. Coming out of upfront week, Van Amburg was less guarded: “You saw a lot of networks want to own their own content, which we never begrudge, but sometimes it feels like it’s at the expense of the best show,” he said at the time. 

But with dozens of outlets buying high-quality shows, some of Sony TV’s more prolific producers see their independent status as an advantage. Among them: Shawn Ryan, who moved over from 20th TV in 2011. “When you’re an indie studio, you have to be a little bit better and provide things [the networks] can’t get in-house and take some chances,” he says. “[Sony TV welcomes] the big swing in a way that I think perhaps sister studios don’t always do. Sister studios sometimes play it safe and steer you toward what the sister network thinks they’re looking for.”

Other showrunners point to Sony’s famous by-any-means-necessary approach to saving shows — a strategy Erlicht and Van Amburg insist they will maintain — as a draw. 

“If you ask any writer who has worked with them and has a show on the bubble or struggling, [Zack and Jamie are] tireless in keeping it going,” says Goldberg, whose Fox comedy Breaking In was revived for a second season after an initial cancelation in 2011. There perhaps is no better example than Community, which they managed to keep on NBC for five seasons despite meager ratings before securing a sixth at Yahoo.

And it might live longer yet. Says Van Amburg with a knowing smirk: “We’re going to do a movie at some point.” 

This story first appeared in the July 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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