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Oprah Winfrey and her collection of shows are settling in Hollywood.
By year’s end, Winfrey’s Chicago-based Harpo Studios will close its doors, with the 26-year-old company’s productions transitioning to OWN headquarters in Los Angeles. The news, which Winfrey delivered in person to her Harpo staff on Tuesday morning, comes two months after her burgeoning cable network moved into a new space in West Hollywood. Though the Chicago lease continues through April 2016, Winfrey and her key executives intend to stop the back-and-forth routine they’ve been balancing for nearly half a decade sooner than that.
In a phone interview from the Harpo offices in Chicago, Winfrey acknowledges a mix of excitement and nostalgia. “[Chicago has] been everything for me. I’ve spent more hours in this building than I have any other building on Earth. … We were here when there was nothing but hoes and rats on the street, and now it’s one of the hottest neighborhoods [in Chicago],” she says, noting that OWN will stop shooting shows there as of Tuesday. “The time had come to downsize this part of the business and to move forward. It will be sad to say goodbye, but I look ahead with such a knowing that what the future holds is even more than I can see.”
Winfrey, 61, along with OWN and Harpo presidents Sheri Salata and Erik Logan, emphasize the significance of having their team all under one roof, particularly when the 4-year-old network is still in an early growth stage, expanding both its offerings and its reach. Though it’s narrower than many top cable offerings, OWN, co-owned by Winfrey and Discovery Communications, has posted three consecutive years of growth and, in February, ranked as the No. 20 ad-supported cable network among women. It fares even better among its African-American core audience, with ratings up 12 percent year-over-year in that demo. The closure of Harpo, which had produced more than 800 hours of original programming exclusively for OWN, will impact roughly 200 employees, who will remain employed through December.
While running OWN will remain a primary focus for Winfrey going forward, she has and will continue to pursue interests outside of the executive suite, too, including a cadre of film projects (she acted in Lee Daniels’ The Butler and Selma, which she also produced) and this past fall’s eight-city “Oprah’s The Life You Want” arena tour. More recently, Winfrey announced that she’d be moving in front of the camera at her eponymous network, with a recurring role in Queen Sugar, from Selma’s Ava DuVernay. “That’s been my goal,” she says of making her OWN acting debut, calling the drama opportunity a “seminal moment.”
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In fact, the high-end DuVernay drama, inspired by Natalie Baszile‘s acclaimed novel of the same name, is key to Winfrey’s ongoing scripted push at OWN. DuVernay is set to deliver a pilot draft script to Winfrey in the coming days, having spent her post-Oscar week at Winfrey’s Maui writers’ cottage pulling it together. The drama will chronicle a spirited woman who leaves her upscale Los Angeles lifestyle behind to claim an inheritance from her recently departed father — an 800-acre sugarcane farm in the heart of Louisiana.
Once a shooting schedule for Queen is set, Winfrey will be able to figure out what more she can — and cannot — do as an actor. Despite recent reports of her circling the upcoming Broadway revival of ‘night, Mother, in which she would have played a mother struggling to prevent her daughter from killing herself, she says she has opted against it. “I just didn’t want to be in the space of suicide every night for six months,” she explains, adding: “I’d like something with a happier ending.”
Without rattling off titles, Winfrey reveals that she will be heading to New York in the next couple of weeks to take a closer look at two other potential plays. Additionally, she’s set to reunite with Daniels for his upcoming biopic, Pryor, in which she’ll portray Richard Pryor’s grandmother Marie Carter. (Her own Los Angeles-based Harpo Films will remain active, too, with a development slate that includes Henrietta Lacks at HBO and Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 picks Ruby and The Invention of Wings.) And though she says she has “no plans” to embark on another weekend fan experience tour — an experience she calls “spectacularly rewarding” — she does intend to do international speaking engagements.
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Among the other things still on her to-do list: more scripted programming at the network. “For all of those years on the Oprah Show, we were able to encapsulate the stories that connected to our audience in a way that nobody else could,” says Winfrey. “I love telling the real stories of peoples’ lives, and now we get to create them, make them up, and I get to be part of them as an actor and producer.”
At OWN, Queen Sugar will join a quartet of Tyler Perry-scripted series — all of which recently secured additional episode orders — as well as the upcoming two-night Octavia Spencer-led miniseries, Tulsa, already in development. The latter, the network’s first in the genre, centers on the story of the largest race riot in U.S. history, in which more than 300 people are believed to have been murdered. OWN will continue to develop projects in other areas, too, including a seven-part event series, Belief, which will explore humankind’s ongoing search to connect with something greater than ourselves when it bows this fall. The remainder of Winfrey’s lineup, including Master Class and Iyanla Fix My Life, will now be produced within Los Angeles-based OWN.
The Harpo move comes nearly a year after real estate developer Sterling Bay Cos. closed a deal for the production company’s four building facility, reportedly paying a combined $30.5 million. At that time, Sterling agreed to lease the space back to Harpo for two years. “We have been fortunate to have this spectacular city of Chicago as our home for over 25 years,” said Logan and Salata in a joint statement, “and are thankful to everybody who has been a part of this great company.”
A small group of the Chicago-based Harpo staffers will join the approximately 140 OWN employees who have moved into the network’s newly constructed three-floor space at West Hollywood’s The Lot. The latter not only offers sound-stages and post-production studios, which OWN’s previous Miracle Mile location did not, but also a rich Hollywood history: “The idea of being on the lot where Natalie Wood filmed West Side Story or Marilyn Monroe did Some Like it Hot,” says Winfrey, “you automatically feel like you’re part of a community that’s larger than you.”
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