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Sony TV Chiefs on 'Blacklist' Heat, 'Breaking Bad' and Losing 'Walking Dead' (Q&A)

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Sony Jamie Zach Executive Suite - H 2013
Annie Tritt

As Sony's film division faces scrutiny and Michael Lynton shifts focus to "higher-margin" TV, longtime partners Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg talked to THR about their hot streak -- including NBC's biggest new show, Vince Gilligan's new deal and the big money in cable.

A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Though Sony TV programming presidents Jamie Erlicht's and Zack Van Amburg's fathers worked together at ABC while the two men were growing up, their first memory of each other is when Erlicht, then at production company Greystone, agreed to sit down with Van Amburg, a senior at Georgetown at the time, for an informational interview. Erlicht's advice: "Stay in college."

Two-plus decades later, the duo -- both married, Van Amburg with two kids -- are jointly running Sony's programming group in positions they've held since 2005. Today, the traditionally press-shy pair, who report to Sony TV president Steve Mosko, oversee some 50 employees and can tout 30 ordered series across 15 networks plus syndication this season. Among them: broadcast's freshman breakout, NBC's The Blacklist, which was renewed for a sophomore season earlier this week, as well as ABC's The Goldbergs, Showtime's Masters of Sex and AMC's since-departed juggernaut Breaking Bad. In a competition that had them shell out eight figures, they signed Bad creator Vince Gilligan to a development deal and will produce AMC's series spinoff Better Call Saul.

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Their recent gains have been so pronounced that Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton told investors Nov. 21 that the company would shift its emphasis from film to "higher-margin television." Though it's a topic the co-presidents declined to discuss, Mosko says, "What was apparent at the analysts' conference -- and what I've known for a long time -- is that Zack and Jamie are highly skilled executives and they've spent a long time building our TV business." (TV revenue contributes more than 50 percent of Sony Entertainment's operating income, with the film division to blame for the operating loss of $181 million in the company's second quarter ending Sept. 30.)

Erlicht, 44, and Van Amburg, 43, sat down Nov. 18 in their Culver City office to field questions about the evolving business, the downside of competition and the shows and showrunners that got away.

What's the most surprising trend in the industry today?

ERLICHT: The new digital platforms. There's tremendous opportunity, and it's changed the business faster than anything in the history of television. Cable took over a decade to really make a significant impact and become a competitive platform to the broadcast networks. What we've seen in the past year, with Netflix leading the charge, is the business evolving at a faster pace than we've ever seen. The challenge is ownership. Networks across the board are looking to own more and more of every project, and as an independent studio, that's a challenge we have to be aware of and constantly battle. We do it by attracting top-tier talent that all networks and all platforms need and want to be in business with.

So, more pricey overall deals?

ERLICHT: It's not necessarily more as opposed to the right ones. The Vince Gilligans of the world. The David Shores, the Shawn Ryans. That's one part of the strategy.

VAN AMBURG: It's rare with us that we take a pitch out now that doesn't feel fully formed. What that means is we're often attaching a director earlier on or identifying a star early on and attaching that person prepitch [as Sony did with Greg Kinnear on Fox midseason drama Rake]. We're also putting together a lot of tapes, sort of sizzle flavor tapes, to make it feel real.

Conversely, HBO, which for years has tried to own everything it does, has gone the other way and is now open to working with outside studios. In fact, you just sold Last Tycoon there. What changed?

VAN AMBURG: Competition.

ERLICHT: We've had a lot of shows that are appealing to both [Sony and HBO], it was just a question of making the deals. There is more of a reception now to figuring out creative business models that make sense to both companies.

How do you convince talent to come to Sony rather than a deeper-pocketed studio like Warner Bros.?

ERLICHT: We have more creative freedom here than any other studio. We absolutely compete in a world where most of our major competitors have far more financial resources, but they don't have more clarity of purpose. We're driven by one thing: quality television shows that stand the test of time and then, theoretically, will be worth a lot of money to the studio and the profit participants. We've always sought new ways of doing business. Initially it was the cable division, when no one else was paying attention to cable because it wasn't worth their time and their money. We knew over time hit shows find a way to make money. Breaking Bad was not supposed to be a juggernaut financially, but we knew it had a great voice and vision from Vince Gilligan and that we would find a way to monetize that.

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You have a reputation for coming up with creative ways to keeps shows alive, too …

ERLICHT: With Damages, we found a way to keep that show and let it go to conclusion [by moving it from FX to DirecTV]. And without our independence, who knows what would've happened ultimately with Breaking Bad. AMC has been a great partner, but the show might have ended a little bit earlier than it should have. Or Unforgettable, a show that was canceled even though it got 12 million viewers [on CBS]. Through our international partnerships and our independence, we found a way to get a new model that makes sense to bring the show back. If we can go another couple years, the show will go from a short-lived asset to a successful show, creatively and financially.

VAN AMBURG: We're the only studio where you're looking at two studio heads that care as much about syndication and reality as we do cable and broadcast. Warner Bros. has multiple divisions and separate companies set up. Here, it's genuinely one-stop shopping and we find often, particularly on the scripted side, that something might be a great NBC show but if it was just a little twisted, it could absolutely be a great AMC show. Rake is a perfect example of that where we pitched all the cable networks that we thought were appropriate and we pitched to all the broadcast networks. It was a three-day process where we went to eight different networks.

What was the cable pitch for Rake?

VAN AMBURG: It was just a little edgier, a little darker. Maybe a little more spiraling downward in terms of the central character, and a little less full of redemption or redemptive moments. We really wanted to have a complicated character exploration, and Fox was the bravest and loudest, and we felt that we weren't necessarily going to out-Walter White, Walter White or out-Vic Mackey or out-Tony Soprano.