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

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.


Ten years ago, when some were questioning whether Sony TV would survive, you focused on cable. Now, how much of a priority is broadcast?

VAN AMBURG: Everything we've done has been with a strategy. Michael Lynton has spoken about the fact that [a decade or so] ago, the corporation through [then-Sony Corp. of America CEO] Howard Stringer was sort of second-guessing how this company was going to attack television and if they were going attack television. When we were put in charge some eight years ago with Steve Mosko, we needed to rebuild brick by brick. First, we were focused on the cable space. Then we were really getting our reality division in a healthy place. So the broadcast network business was the next thing that needed to be fixed. But it's interesting, because while we've needed a hit and wanted a hit and have one in Blacklist, the playing field is actually becoming slightly more level now. If there are any regrets over our tenure here, it's that in a weird way we made The Shield, Rescue Me and Damages too soon seeing now what Breaking Bad has been worth in secondary markets. We rebuilt a DVD business around it, and the Netflix deal was spectacular. Suddenly we had an aftermarket for a cable show that hadn't existed. So, the path to money is so much clearer today with a cable show than it was even two years ago.

ERLICHT: The number of hits off broadcast is shrinking, and the number of financial hits on cable is growing. So, a Big Bang Theory is worth five to 10 cable hits, but there are now five to 10 cable hits for every [broadcast hit].

The Michael J. Fox Show isn't the big hit NBC was after. With hindsight, what would you do differently?

VAN AMBURG: Is the show yet the show that it can be? Probably not. You know, I think there's always that thing that you want to say: Hey, can comedies be funnier? Can all the actors make us laugh as much as the other actors? Are there guest stories and big celebrities that pop up that make us feel like the show is even bigger than it really is? So we're doing all those things right now and I think we're finding it. We've been fairly true to the concept, and Thursday night on NBC is sort of in a place of reinvention. The lead-in has been tough. Bob [Greenblatt, NBC Entertainment chairman] has said it louder and more articulately than we have -- it's hard to get traction on that night.

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What's the project that got away?

ERLICHT: We tried really hard to make a deal with Bruno Heller. Unfortunately, that was one we lost, and the next development cycle, Bruno came up with [CBS'] The Mentalist.

VAN AMBURG: He's now my neighbor and I trick-or-treated with him and I thought, "OK, The Mentalist may be ending, maybe we got him." I put on a goofy-ass costume and went around with that crazy British man all last Halloween and then, of course, Warner Bros. puts him into Gotham and now he's going to go reinvent the superhero genre for the next 10 years. (Laughs.)

ERLICHT: We wanted a deal with Michael Patrick King (2 Broke Girls). We were close. And we were negotiating heavily for the rights to The Walking Dead, too. What we were up against was a network, AMC, that was determined to own their next show and we were not going to win that one. I'm not saying that we knew that it was going to become what it became, but we knew that it had tremendous potential.

VAN AMBURG: There was a moment in time where we probably could have gotten involved with Mad Men. We read the script and really thought it was excellent, but we were really going to go all in on Breaking Bad. That's one that, in hindsight, you're envious that Lionsgate went on and did.

If you could lock one writer into a deal who isn't at Sony, who would you go after?

VAN AMBURG: Shonda Rhimes is somebody whom I really admire. She seems to know her brand really well and yet keeps reinventing it. There are the easy ones like Chuck Lorre, too.

ERLICHT: Or J.J. Abrams.

How would you describe your big break?

ERLICHT: When News Corp. bought out MTM Television [in 1996]. My job was ending, and one of the opportunities that came along was director of current programming at Columbia TriStar, which was a predecessor to Sony, and that's where I met [then-president] Eric Tannenbaum, who took me under his wing and became my mentor.

VAN AMBURG: I was 17 and working as a researcher on a show about what celebrities do when they're not celebrities. Robert De Niro owns a restaurant in New York or Pete Rose owns a nightclub in Cincinnati. Everybody got fired and I got a shot as a segment producer, but Pete Rose was accused of gambling and went into hiding. So, I got to Cincinnati and snuck my way into the club and ultimately talked his business partner into getting Pete to just talk about the nightclub. He not only agreed to do it, he was so comfortable that he ended up talking all about the gambling scandal. It became the first piece of exclusive video about Pete Rose and the gambling thing. I was offered a lot of jobs after that, but I was going off to college.