Lionsgate's Sandra Stern Upped to TV President, Talks "Showrunner Crisis" and "Lack of Opportunity for Women"
She has 30 shows on the air, 16 more originals this year and two series up for a best drama Emmy ('Mad Men' and 'Orange Is the New Black'). So what keeps the veteran dealmaker up at night? "Everything!"
This story first appeared in the Sept. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Sandra Stern will arrive at the Emmy Awards on Sept. 20 with a supersized pit in her stomach. As the newly upped president of the Lionsgate TV Group, the 12-year company veteran is invested heavily in two drama series frontrunners, AMC's Mad Men and Netflix's Orange Is the New Black. "I always say you love all your children equally, but some are ugly. Well, these two are not ugly," she says with a laugh. Stern, a Brooklyn native with a law degree from UCLA, negotiated the original deals for both series and has been intimately involved in keeping each on the air. Working closely with Lionsgate CEO Jon Feltheimer, with whom she's been employed since 1986, and TV Group chairman Kevin Beggs, Stern spearheads strategy, transactions and dealmaking to continue a growth trajectory that has taken the famously smaller, scrappy TV group from $8 million in revenue in 2000 to nearly $600 million in 2014. Her studio is behind 30 shows on the air, including WGN America's Manhattan, ABC's Nashville and ABC Family's Chasing Life. And it is set to add 16 more originals this year, including Clyde Phillips' AMC drama Broke, Jason Reitman's hourlong Hulu dramedy Casual and the political satire Graves, starring Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon, for Epix. Stern, a lover of tennis and the arts, sat down in her Santa Monica office in early September to discuss the downside of a Netflix series, the future of 10/90 deals and the dearth of original ideas.
What's the most interesting trend in the television business today?
Thanks to Empire, what I'm seeing this season is a lot of focus on African-American programming. Less on Latino programming, but still a push to widen the tent and bring in more audiences. With all of the different players in the marketplace today, you have to grab every eyeball from any place you can — and so those eyeballs that were sort of languishing and not really programmed to are now becoming important. Another thing that I'm seeing is that there is a much greater focus on IP. You used to go into a pitch, the way we did with Jenji [Kohan] for Weeds, and pitch an original story. You don't see a lot of that anymore. You almost can't walk in without a book or a format today.
Al Hirschfeld sketches of 'The Nanny' (left) and 'Mad About You' from the early days of her long relationship with Lionsgate CEO Feltheimer.
What's driving that?
If I were going to be cynical — and I don't believe this is the case — I'd say it's insecurity. No network executive wants to go out on a limb, and this way you can point to something and see that it worked somewhere else. Really, there's a recognition that there are a lot of outlets and there are not enough creators to go around and there aren't necessarily enough original generated ideas. [Henri] Bergson said there are seven original ideas in the entire world — well, we've seen those seven ideas a lot. It costs networks way too much money to put on those new shows every season and not have an audience, not have a direction. We've all done several great pilots, but when you get into it, there really is no show there. So you look at a format and you see where it's going.
There's been a lot of talk this summer about "too much TV." Do you agree?
I don't think you can unring a bell, so I don't know that we're going to go back to four networks. That's just not happening. The proliferation of niche subscription services is where the world is moving. Now, some of those smaller [linear cable] networks may not survive. Some of them may merge. It's going to be Darwinian. And those shows that just aren't all that compelling, the things that we used to watch because we were too lazy to change the channel, those go away.
What's the thing that keeps you up at night?
Everything keeps me up at night! The business side of show business keeps me up because the way of the world is changing. I was on a panel recently with a network exec and a cable exec, and each was talking about the things they are doing to keep programming from going over-the-top. I was the naysayer because I feel like you're not going to be successful not giving people what they want. So the challenge for me is to figure out how we can deliver programming to people the way they want to watch it wherever they are and still not kill the value proposition. So, we love working at Netflix and Amazon and Hulu. I love the programming and the people there, but they're streaming services, so that eats away my SVOD window. That's one revenue stream I don't have, so I've got to make it up somewhere else.
“My go-to fountain pen to bring some grace and civility to my day,” says Stern. A plaque from Jay Mohr, star of her Sony series 'Action,' reminds her “how much fun this business can be.”
With a platform like Netflix, what rights and backend opportunity do you retain?
They pay quite well, and they don't take all rights. They will take as many as they can get and certainly as many territories. But Hulu has a different model from Amazon, and Amazon has a different model than Netflix, and they're all evolving and changing all the time. But there are areas where we are able to make money: International linear is one, and then home entertainment does surprisingly well, which is counterintuitive. Why would somebody buy a DVD? But they want it on their shelves.
Whether it's Mad Men at AMC, Orange at Netflix or Manhattan at WGN America, you've been first or second in the door at several networks. What is the pro and con of that?
I'd say they're more interesting deals, but they also can be much harder to put together because often you're dealing with a network that has absolutely no history of this and nobody wants to make a mistake. So depending on who it is, we do a lot of dancing around each other and a lot of trust building. When we were doing The Royals with E!, which was their first scripted series, E! could look at other scripted networks in their family: What does USA do? What does Syfy do? And how is E! a little bit different? The first thing I look at is, where is it most likely to find an audience, and my bigger concern about The Royals was around whether E! could find an audience for a scripted show without a companion. That was the area we wanted assurances and comfort on.
Networks increasingly want to own their programming. How challenging is that as an independent studio?
At Lionsgate, we don't mind partners, and I think we're good partners. We tend to treat our networks as partners anyway. We involve them in things, even if they're not financial partners. We think it's good business and it makes for a much more pleasant experience because they're invested. It can mean a bit more negotiating. Sometimes you have to work on splitting distribution, so you might give up rights. Sometimes you retain everything. Sometimes it's just a financial partner, sometimes it's a creative partner.
With a few high-profile exceptions, including Matthew Weiner's $30 million deal, Lionsgate hasn't made many overall deals. Given the shortage of showrunners, do you feel any pressure to change your strategy?
There's definitely a showrunner crisis. The best job today is probably the agent representing a good showrunner. But we don't really do overall deals. Matt, Jenji and Clyde Phillips notwithstanding, you look at most of what we have and it's not necessarily the typical television voice. By the time we go out looking for a showrunner, we are in the nice position of being able to say, "We have an order. I can offer you 10 episodes or 13 episodes." That's a very, very attractive proposition because if you talk to any writer, the thing they talk about over and over again is those years of their lives that they'll never get back in development hell.
Mementos from 'Mad Men' are scattered throughout her office. And, she adds of the director's chair from her shortlived Starz series, “It’s always good to be the boss!”
Have you signed Weiner to a new deal? I know you're still trying to get him to consider a Mad Men spinoff.
I am! (Laughs.) But we didn't [sign a new deal]. I would in a heartbeat.
Last summer, Jenji told THR, "I don't think I'm getting paid as much as the men in my position." How did you feel about that comment?
The challenges that women have in entertainment is something that I speak about frequently. I look at all the statistics and they're disheartening. But I would quarrel with that notion that a female showrunner and a male showrunner, apples to apples, are getting paid differently. Having said that, once you look at Jenji, Shonda Rhimes, Ann Biderman, maybe, there aren't that many really kick-ass, successful women showrunners. And to me, that's the issue: the lack of opportunity for women.
'Mad Men' memento
For years, you were having great success with Debmar-Mercury's 10/90 model, where if a 10-episode test run reached a ratings threshold, 90 more were ordered at once. What happened?
Right now, the 10/90s are a little bit less in fashion for what I think is totally the wrong reason. I think it's a good model, a smart model. But sitcoms are hard. What was the last hit sitcom? Probably Big Bang Theory. Sitcoms are really, really challenging. But the model is not what made them challenging. In fact, the model is what, creatively, gave it a much better chance than your typical sitcom.
Did you make money on Anger Management?
We're never satisfied, so we would have liked to have done better. But yeah, we did well. What we found with Anger Management was that the international was huge. So what it really showed us was that there is an enormous appetite for sitcoms internationally, which is so contrary to the conventional wisdom that sitcoms don't translate. I think it helps a lot if they deal with universal things.
What's the most interesting deal you've ever made?
Mad Men will always be a favorite.
Stern keeps a Royal Beaver stuffed animal in her office: “Anyone who watched the first season of 'The Royals' will get the joke,” she says.