Q&A: Mort Marcus and Ira Bernstein

Debmar-Mercury's dynamic duo are bringing a new business model to television

Veteran syndie execs Mort Marcus and Ira Bernstein joined forces to form Debmar-Mercury in 2004, and the Lionsgate subsidiary quickly built a portfolio of first-run and off-net shows and movie libraries. Then a few years ago the company got into the sitcom business with a unique model for "Tyler Perry's House of Payne," which began with an unheard-of 90 episode order and amassed 172 episodes in two years on TBS and in broadcast syndication. Deb-Mer followed up with Perry's "Meet the Browns" on TBS, which recently sold in syndication, and two other cable comedy series using the same template: a Will Ferrell/Adam McKay sitcom starring Jon Heder at Comedy Central and a series based on Ice Cube's 2005 feature "Are We There Yet?" at TBS.

The Hollywood Reporter: Instead of making a pilot, you produce 10 episodes for your network partners. If they rate well, you get a pickup for 90 more episodes. Why is this an effective model?

Mort Marcus: We're trying to find a way to do shows at the highest quality while saving dollars. This model does it on a couple of bases. One is by attracting the largest, the biggest talent to the mix. They don't need huge episodic rates. They're getting a huge piece of the program in terms of net position, much more than they normally would get. In return they're taking either no fees or very low fees, because they're playing for the bigger picture. So ironically it actually puts them on the same side of the networks, because the only way they get a payoff is if the show is funny and repeats well. And, secondly, once you get an order for 90, the ability to amortize the cost of production becomes fantastic. We're doing the shows for pretty much half of what a network show would be done for, maybe less than half. And yet, nobody believes they're sacrificing quality.

THR: What's in it for the networks? They have to commit to a pretty big production order.

Ira Bernstein: They have several advantages. One is they're in business with a pretty high level of talent that might not otherwise...

Marcus: Not us, not us, not us!

Bernstein: I'm talking about everybody from Will Ferrell, Adam McKay and Jon Heder to Ice Cube and Joe Roth and Tyler Perry. These are people that typically don't do traditional television. So they get to be in business with really high-end talent and their buy-in is very low-risk in the sense of the ten episodes -- even in failure the network won't lose much money on the 10 episodes.

Marcus: Because it's less than what they would have had to pay if they did it themselves.

Bernstein: If they did a really expensive pilot and it didn't work, that's just money that goes down the drain. This is something that's on the air, that even if it doesn't work it's appealing to advertisers because of who's involved in it. So in failure, there isn't much downside to the network. And the plus side they get to see 10 episodes. They get to have research on the 10 episodes and then they get to make a decision based on what the audience reaction was. They're ordering 100 episodes; it's a huge order but it's at a price that's much more efficient than if they were just ordering 12 at a time. And they get to amortize the order, paying for it like an acquisition -- yet it plays for them much more like an original show.

Marcus: They're getting the 90 at less than half of what they would have had to spend.

THR: Your model was born at a time when the pipeline for comedies was pretty dry. Now they seem to be picking up on broadcast TV. Do you think your product will still be attractive?

Bernstein: If you look at what's happening this season, it's great. Maybe there are two (promising) new comedies. But even if you say those two will work, the marketplace needs more than two. And, I think that this is much more efficient for both the cable network and ultimately for the TV stations, because we're pricing it really for the economy of the world in which we're now living.

Marcus: Remember we're doing 100 in about two and a half years. The networks take four to five years to do that. That's also part of the cost-savings. We're looking at both the Will Ferrell sitcom and the "Are We There Yet" sitcom: Once they go past the 10 and work, we're looking at 35-40 episodes a year. Remember, they did 39 "Honeymooners" in one year. I don't understand why no one can do that anymore.

THR: Any interest from the broadcast networks to adopt the model and work with you?

Marcus: We actually didn't show any of these projects to broadcast networks, but we're starting to believe that with the right project, we would like to have a substantial conversation with some of them. We believe it could fit.

Bernstein: For us that would create an extra window, which is a good thing. You theoretically would have broadcast networks, cable and syndication.

Marcus: But if you're a broadcast network, it' s got to be the right creative project. They need to get a high rating, and we totally get it. But if we have the right project that could get a rating, they wouldn't mind saving the money. And we are working on a couple of projects that really would work for a broadcast network.