Generate's Jordan Levin: How Hollywood's 'Decision by Committee' Climate Stifles Innovation (Q&A)
It has been seven years since Jordan Levin has had to think about managing a fall television schedule.
These days, the former WB honcho-turned-Generate chief executive is busy managing a multi-platform studio and talent management firm that counts actor-director Tim Matheson, director-producer Emile Levisetti and comedian Charlie Todd among its clients. Levin and his partners bill their Santa Monica and New York based firm as a next generation media company, as apt to land a ad-sponsored web series as it is to score a TV show or comedy tour.
Levin, once referred to as the WB's boy-genius, spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the evolution of the media industry, the future of companies like Netflix and what he describes as the most frustrating part of the entertainment business today.
The Hollywood Reporter: Give us the cocktail party version of what Generate does.
Jordan Levin: We have a talent management division and production development division with an eye towards multiple platforms. The reason for that is simply because I think the industry is becoming largely divided between those who are in the content business and those who are in the distribution business. You can either bet on the pipes and the technology that curates content or you can bet on the value being on the content. If you’re betting on content, which is inherently what myself and my colleagues understand and have a passion for, betting on talent is just doubling down on that bet.
THR: You look at a company Netflix, which recently decided it would be in the content business as well. Do you foresee more people try to play in both areas?
Levin: I think you have to. Distribution is becoming the commodity -- and the more it becomes commoditized, the point of differentiation in value creation is going to reside around content. I believe that in sort of a supply and demand economy, the media business in which we were all predominantly raised was a business in which there was a relatively fixed pool of talent developing and producing content for a very narrow pipe -- a handful of networks and studios-- and there weren’t a lot of choices about where to go if you couldn’t sell to one of those gatekeepers. But now with all of the distribution channels and choices that exist, I still believe that the content pool is relatively fixed. Sure, the discovery method of talent has changed; you might discover talent now because of YouTube vs. a spec script, but the crème rises to the top. For anyone who’s watching American Idol, The Voice or another talent competition on a grand scale, it becomes very obvious very quickly that talent is still relatively rare.
So while we can use digital to source talent, it doesn’t mean that under ever rock is going to sprout a much greater talent pool. Again, the need for quality premium content is still going to come from a fixed group of people. The question really comes of valuation around that content. I think it's unfortunate that the valuation that Wall Street and the investment community puts on technology companies is greater than that of content companies. Traditional media companies get a discounted valuation compared to companies who create value on the back of content itself.
THR: How does that ultimately change?
Levin: I don’t know. I think everything eventually comes back to content because as much as business models cater to consumers’ needs, people in the investment community tend to forget that people’s needs are motivated by what they want to experience, what they want to watch and what they want to hear. Recognizing this has become an education process for every generation. The industry gets itself into an odd cycle wherein technology companies become disproportionally large compared to traditional media companies and those companies start to dictate the shape of business.
THR: Any examples spring to mind?
Levin: You look back at AOL taking over Time Warner and, in retrospect, everyone scratches their heads and asks, 'How could that happen?’ It happened because the Street inflated the value of AOL to such a great degree that it was able to do that. There are technology companies that are evolutionary --in some cases, even revolutionary-- right now, but their value is disproportionally higher than that of traditional media companies whose revenues, income and EBITDA are greater.
THR: Why would you say that is?
Levin: The content business is perceived as a business that isn’t easily repeatable. There's no formula to it that guarantees success again and again. Obviously it’s a people intensive business. The markets tend to reward companies that can trade a widget or a piece of code because it can be replicated over and over again. And, as we know, people sitting at home watching TV or movies don’t want to see the same things over again. A show like Glee or a movie like Bridesmaids gets rewarded because it’s different.
THR: What's the most frustrating part of the business today?
Levin: How few people are empowered to make decisions and how committee-oriented decision making has become in what is inherently a creative medium. Networks and studios historically that have had any brand resonance in the marketplace have primarily been lead by decision makers who rightly or wrongly decide what it is that they want to produce and distribute. I’m concerned that as the entertainment industry has become more consolidated and more of a multi-national conglomerate industry, creative decision-making is being lead more by traditional business standards like research and decision by committee and attempts to replicate what’s worked in the past.
THR: Which takes a toll on innovation...
Levin: Exactly, real innovation gets lost. When you look at certain networks and film studios and you see some of the output of those divisions, you really wonder whether some seminal pieces of popular culture would be created and supported today. While there’s certainly a role for research, it's very difficult to find companies where there’s a firm hand at the tiller. When you do find them, they’re usually leaders in their space. Look at a company like CBS. It make sense that they’ve been the No. 1 network for as long as they have, because there’s a clear point of view through which decision making is framed in Les Moonves. Some people may not always agree with what his decisions are, but they all respect the fact that he’s willing to make a decision and stand by it.
THR: Would you consider returning to a network chief gig?
Levin: Surprisingly, I get asked that a lot. My answer is that I miss aspects of it very much. I miss being in a seat where you could hear something, get excited about it and get it made and distributed to other people. That sort of curatorial ability was really rewarding, but I’m not sure whether or not the job that I had exists anymore. I was really lucky to have mentors like Bob Daly, Jamie Kellner, Garth Ancier, Bruce Rosenblum and Barry Meyer who were all very respectful in allowing Susanne Daniels and me to make decisions. They allowed us to put on a program like Buffy the Vampire Slayer when maybe they didn’t all see it. I just don’t think people are empowered to that degree anymore.
The challenge of being in that position and trying to rethink what a network is and what it means to be a programming head is extremely exciting in this era, but who the companies are that are really thinking about how to make that change -- how to move forward instead of hanging on to the past -- is unclear to me.