Jon Feltheimer upbeat about global TV challenges

Lionsgate CEO says demand for content continues to grow

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CANNES -- "Every time I think I have this down, something happens." So said Jon Feltheimer during a wide-ranging and mostly upbeat set of remarks about the challenges and opportunities in the global television biz Tuesday at the MIPCOM TV trade show.

What the co-founder and CEO of Lionsgate most emphasized was that change was pervasive but that the demand for content worldwide has only gotten ever greater. Worldwide daily viewing is now at a record three-hours-plus; in America, it's surpassed five hours a day.

While he did recognize the challenges of more windows, more piracy, more competition, the executive underpinned his speech with a clear call to execs to pioneer deals with new partners -- but at the same time to never get in the way of the creative process.

He also said that his own company was now minting digital dollars, not just pennies, from some of its deals and that he thought there would be "an amazing amount of money generated" as key players like Amazon, Google and Netflix get deeper into the television mix.

The Lionsgate co-founder and CEO is being honored by the MIPCOM TV trade show this week as its personality of the year, an award previously bestowed on media mavens as varied as Ted Turner, Silvio Berlusconi, Tom Freston and Leslie Moonves.

What the MIPCOM organizers are specifically recognizing is Feltheimer's decade-long transformation of Lionsgate from a tiny indie also-ran, with a market cap of $82 million, 100 staffers and negligible product, to a multifaceted media player with a $1.6 billion market cap, six offices around the world and a thriving film and TV production-distribution apparatus. All this plus numerous Oscar and Emmy awards, including ones for "Crash" and "Mad Men." 

Putting the emphasis on the fact that new audiences are ever more nichified but also ever more passionate, Feltheimer said that some of the best programming out there nowadays -- not only his own "Mad Men," "Nurse Jackie" and "Weeds" but also ones from competitors like "Breaking Bad," "Californication" and "Boardwalk Empire" -- appeals to just such niches but also through smart distribution is able to make money for their owners.

Each of these buzz shows, he reminded the audience of TV execs gathered for the five-day market, attracts fewer than 5 million viewers each in their first-run exposure but still have found multiple ways of slicing and dicing the windows and supplying multiple devices.

"What hasn't changed," Feltheimer said, "is demand for good content," and he pointed out it is coming from many parts of the globe nowadays, not just from the U.S.

Another key point the Lionsgate head made in his 20-minute keynote was that executives need to be willing to make mistakes. There are many new relationships to be forged in the business now, and, he added, "we need to monetize them, but we don't know how." You just have to take chances sometimes, he argued. Most importantly: "Don't make a deal; make a show."

His own management style, he said during a follow-up Q&A session, is one in which he empowers his managers and division heads to be their own entrepreneurs. That sometimes leads to mistakes, but it also leads to tremendous staff loyalty and energy. During his decade at the helm, Feltheimer & Co. have also snapped up key assets, including Trimark, Artisan, Debmar-Mercury, Mandate and the TV Guide Channel.

Among the recent moves that Feltheimer and his co-founder Michael Burns have undertaken are a 50-50 joint venture with Mexico's leading media conglom, Televisa, called Pantelion, which targets Hispanics in the U.S. Led by his former colleague at New World, Jim McNamara, the outfit plans to make eight to 10 movies a year for that niche.

Another partnership was just set up in Asia with Haim Saban and Adam Chesnoff as partners called TigerGate, to better produce and distribute into that burgeoning region.

And perhaps to dispel lingering criticism or confusion over the Epix joint venture Stateside with Paramount and MGM, Feltheimer made a special point of noting that the paybox has become profitable after only 10 months of operation and that its deal with Netflix to stream movies is a game-changer worth a billion bucks in and of itself.  

The speech was not without wit and personal touches as well, with Feltheimer saying that his fiercest critic was not, as one might gather from media reports, the stock market maverick Carl Icahn, but his wife, Laurie, who was attending MIPCOM for the first time.

The award was bestowed by MIPCOM organizers at a formal dinner at the Carlton hotel Tuesday night.