Lifetime Gets Edgier With Selena Gomez, Ronda Rousey, Serena Williams and More (Exclusive)

Liz_Gateley_Selena_Gomez_Split - Getty - H 2016
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Liz_Gateley_Selena_Gomez_Split - Getty - H 2016

The network is trading "women in peril" for a new "fempire" with younger content focused on female empowerment. Women “want characters who exhibit those things that they don’t feel the giddy-up to do every day,” executive vp Liz Gateley tells THR.

A version of this story first appeared in the May 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

"Welcome to the fempire" has become as much an internal rallying cry as it has an unofficial tagline as Lifetime looks to get a bit younger, edgier and more focused on female empowerment.

Accompanying a new on-air look and a smattering of ads is a sizable collection of new development centered on the type of strong women who populate the network's critical breakout UnREAL. Among the highest-profile additions: a scripted series inspired by Selena Gomez's life (she will executive produce with Kevin Spacey and Dana Brunetti); a trio of movies from UFC's Ronda Rousey; an UnREAL web spinoff about fan favorite Faith and girlfriend Amy from series co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro; and a push into comedy with the acquisition of Amazon's critically beloved half-hour Catastrophe in early 2017.

The guiding principles of the slate, spearheaded by executive vp Liz Gateley, were born out of — or at least informed by — research commissioned by the A+E-owned network. The most exhaustive of the net's efforts was an outside study of 500 women of all ages and socioeconomic strata, designed to capture everything from what women watch to how they feel in certain situations. The top takeaway, says Gateley, is that it's still challenging to be a woman in America: "We heard about it even in the smallest ways, like being asked to order lunch in a meeting [full of men] or being dismissed in line at the dentist."

But more promising for the exec, who took over the network in April 2015, was that the women surveyed often turned to TV for strength. "They want characters who exhibit those things that they don't feel the giddy-up to do every day," she says, citing Lifetime characters Quinn and Rachel of UnREAL as prime examples. Going forward, the network once famous for "women in peril" movies will rely more heavily on heroines and antiheroines across its portfolio. Having women behind such stories and character is also important to the network, though Gateley stresses that the door is by no means closed to male producers and auteurs.

On the scripted side, Lifetime — which, like much of cable, saw its ratings fall 7?percent in 2015 — has ordered a two-hour pilot for the supernatural drama Sea Change, based on a YA novel of the same name.The potential series will follow a 17-year-old girl who, after her father's death, moves to a Nantucket-like island to live with her estranged mother. It's there that she discovers that the island legend about dangerous Sea Walkers appears to be true. The Following's Liz Sczudlo will write, with MarVista Entertainment and Piller/Segan attached to produce.

The network also is developing its first anthology series, The Firm-produced A Midsummer's Nightmare, wherein each season takes a classic Shakespearean tale and twists it into modern-day horror mystery; a coming-of-age drama adaptation of the I.W. Gregorio novel None of the Above from writer Liz Maccie (Make It or Break It), director Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Davis Entertainment; and a Justin Levy/Tim Kring-produced dark satirical drama, tentatively titled Deadline, which centers on a female journalist who checks her integrity at the door and has to make increasingly deadly moves to keep her story alive.

Other scripted entries in the pipeline: Breeders, a subversive dramedy about support group survival for new parents from Wilfred's Jason Gann; and a still-untitled soap, from writer Holly Brix (The Vampire Diaries) and executive producers Eva Longoria and Ben Spector, about a group of strangers who are brought together by an unknown puppet master who's threatening to expose their past misdeeds and hidden lives.

The net's unscripted efforts include the Weinstein-produced Fashion Inc., a Shark Tank-style series set in the world of fashion with designer Rebecca Minkoff on the panel of experts, and a summer docuseries, Gold Medal Hopefuls, about Olympic athletes including gymnast Aly Raisman and diver Steele Johnson from Charlie Ebersol's The Company. Lifetime's digital push will be focused on shortform content, with Gateley calling the Inside Amy Schumer sketch "Last F—able Day" her "North star." Already, she has partnered with Hello Giggles on a 10-episode series from up-and-coming female comics who share their personal lives.

In film, Lifetime has inked deals for a Serena Williams-produced movie inspired by the annual dance-off she hosts with sister Venus; a Janet Jackson-produced project about the only female gangster during Prohibition; and a film in which R&B singer Michel'le, who dated Dr. Dre and married Suge Knight, will share her side of the story. Finally, under the Lifetime Films banner comes Paris Can Wait, written and directed by Eleanor Coppola and starring Diane Lane. The movie, which is produced by Fred Roos and exec producer Michael Zakin and based on Coppola's own life, will premiere on Lifetime after its theatrical release.

The embrace of the "fempire" mantra didn't come without internal debate, according to Gateley. Earlier iterations of the conversation focused on the word "feminism," but several at Lifetime feared the over-35 audience could be turned off by the term's perceived connotations. "If you think about it, what feminism means for millennials is simply equality," she says, citing 20-something feminists Emma Watson and Jennifer Lawrence, before adding: "But what we wanted is a word that [all ages] would hear and not have to fear it meant we'd be preachy or earnest with our fists in the air."

"Welcome to the Fempire," Gateley's team decided, could do precisely that.