When Kevin Beggs decided to join a small, independent Canadian studio called Lionsgate in 1998, tasked with leading its new TV operation, he did so knowing it wouldn’t be easy building a scripted drama division out of a studio known for its edge indie film fare.
“Looking back on it, I would’ve told my then-self, ‘Self, you’re crazy, don’t take that job,’” he jokes, recalling those early years were more about building character than characters.
“We were in the trenches, just lucky to get in rooms,” Beggs remembers of some early meetings with network executives. Eventually, the company started to make some headway, selling the cult hit series The Dead Zone to USA, which premiered in 2002, and following up with the likes of Weeds, which premiered on Showtime in 2005. “We had a couple of shows and we got them made— and we felt really good about them,” he says.
Beggs wasn’t alone in that regard, and those turned out to be just the foundation. Lionsgate’s bustling TV business has since soared from $8 million in revenue in 2000 to nearly $400 million last year. And the exec was rewarded for that success in September with a new multiyear contract that included a title bump to chairman of the studio’s TV group.
“Kevin has been a driving force in the growth and diversification of our TV business. We have more than 30 TV shows on 20 different networks, and Kevin has played a key role in growing the business in the right areas at the right time,” says Lionsgate CEO Jon Feltheimer. “He has a keen grasp of the changing TV landscape.”
Beggs is happy to spread the wealth of credit; he’s quick to point out that when Feltheimer came aboard in 2000, his reputation, from successful, risk-taking exec turns at New World Television and Sony TriStar, carried a lot of weight within the industry. Beggs also credits the relationships built during those early series, including one that opened the door for Mad Men, the show that forged Lionsgate’s reputation for creating intense TV drama.
An early Lionsgate series, Higher Ground, may have aired for only one season on the then- Fox Family Channel (now ABC Family), but it found Beggs working with Rob Sorcher, who was executive VP for the network at that time. Years later, while working as a development exec for AMC, Sorcher called Beggs, wondering if the script that had crossed his desk about 1960s advertising executives wouldn’t be a perfect fit with Lionsgate’s sensibility.
Mad About Men
“[He] called me and said, ‘I’ve got this amazing script on my desk called Mad Men and we need a studio partner; will you consider it?’” Beggs recalls of Sorcher (who is now executive VP and chief content officer at Cartoon Network). “We could never underestimate or ever minimize how big this show has been for us,” says Beggs. “It’s led to so many other opportunities.”
The same can be said for Lionsgate’s relationship with Weeds creator Jenji Kohan. “There was a fanbase in Weeds…who were looking for Jenji’s next show,” Beggs says.
That show has dovetailed into another recent triumph: Lionsgate became one of the first companies to partner with streaming service Netflix; Kohan’s “next series,” the prison drama Orange Is the New Black, has grown to become Netflix’s most-watched original.
Since being elevated to TV chairman, Beggs has been able to take a more “90,000-foot view” than he used to, giving him a better read on the constantly shifting TV landscape.
“You can’t be blind to changes that could instantly subvert the entire business model and make all of us look at each other and go, ‘what happened?’ like the music business,” he says.
It’s All Academic
Similar sea changes came early for Beggs, who graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a double major in politics and theater arts and headed straight into a two-year grade-school teaching gig in Pasadena, Calif. He wasn’t, however, entirely out of the loop, moonlighting on student film work for UCLA.
“[I was] just doing anything and everything to try to get noticed or get my foot in some door somewhere,” Beggs recalls. He eventually secured a PA job on ABC’s nonfiction series FBI: The Untold Stories. At the same time, Baywatch was being reconstituted after its cancellation from NBC more than a year earlier. Beggs moved over, initially working as an assistant to the executive producing team, before rising up to the producing ranks in his eight seasons with the popular lifeguard series.
That’s about when the ever-edgy Lionsgate— building a film rep with the likes of Gods and Monstersand Affliction—was launching its scripted TV drama business. And through a heady mix of skill and Luckies puffed constantly on Mad Men, Beggs has watched the Lionsgate brand smoke the competition.