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This story first appeared in the Jan. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
When Jon Feltheimer — this year’s recipient of the Milestone Award, the guild’s highest honor — became CEO of Lionsgate Entertainment in 2000, the word “niche” was an insult. But thanks in part to the way this Brooklyn-born producer has steered his studio for the past 15 years, nobody’s turning up their nose at niche anymore.
He started by identifying core audiences that were being underserved in the marketplace (say, teens who want to see limbs removed with woodworking tools), then overserved them (with seven Saw movies). Meanwhile, he bet on prestige-building art house projects such as Hotel Rwanda and Crash, which beat Brokeback Mountain to win best picture at the 2006 Oscars. He navigated his company through tricky mergers (with Artisan in 2003), engineered ambitious acquisitions (getting into the Twilight business by buying Summit), expanded Lionsgate’s TV production to include buzzed-about shows (Mad Men and Orange Is the New Black) and turned YA novels Hunger Games and Divergent into two of the biggest-grossing “niche” franchises of modern times. Now, the company — which raked in $1.78 billion at the worldwide box office in 2014 and nearly half a billion dollars in TV revenue a year earlier — boasts a stock valuation of $5 billion.
THR asked Feltheimer, 63, about how he chooses his studio’s slate, what happens to Lionsgate after Hunger Games and if he could reveal every detail of the final episode of Mad Men.
Lionsgate built itself by appealing to niche audiences, but Hunger Games isn’t exactly a niche movie.
If you look at it based on box-office growth or on a worldwide scale, it’s definitely not a niche movie. But it’s funny; when we thought about Hunger Games initially, we thought about it as a movie that we could start with a core quadrant and expand. We thought about it as within one or two quadrants and how to market it to them.
The Hunger Games franchise wraps in November. What’s the future for Lionsgate in the YA space?
We’re always looking for ways to extend all of our intellectual property. We’ve seen that’s what happened with Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. So we’re always looking for worlds within the IP that we haven’t explored yet.
So you’re saying something else in the Hunger Games world isn’t out of the question?
Not saying specifically for The Hunger Games, but we have other franchises, too. If you look at Divergent, for example, after the third book, [author Veronica Roth] actually put out a novella called Four. There may be other material there. One never knows when we dig into the treasure troves of these brilliant writers what we might find.
Can there be another YA franchise as successful as Twilight or Hunger Games? Or has that moment passed?
These franchises are like magic. You can’t prescribe them. They come out of the ether a little bit, and then you hope you manage them well enough to make them everything they can be.
Have you seen the final episode of Mad Men?
Oh yes, I try to watch everything we do. I’m not happy that it’s ending, but I think Matthew [Weiner] did a wonderful job from beginning to end. I think it’s going to always remain as one of the best series ever done. I will say I do feel people have ignored how good the acting is with Jon Hamm never winning an Emmy and the fact that Mad Men didn’t get any Golden Globe nominations this year. I feel like it’s been so good for so long that people began expecting even more. I think the quality has never gone down on that show, and the acting and writing are amazing. We all need to tip our hats to this incredible group.
Is there anything you know now that you wish you’d known back in 2000 when you became CEO?
Everything! (Laughs.) I feel like I learn something new every day, and that’s what’s exciting about my job.
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