When Jon Feltheimer first started going to NATPE, it was a three-network world. This year, as he makes the trip back to the show to accept his Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award, the Lionsgate CEO feels energized by the redefinition of NATPE and the rise of television in American culture and as a global business.
“If you go way back, maybe 25-30 years ago, this was a very singular experience,” Feltheimer says. “The NATPE of today is a much more diverse population. It’s more international. It’s much more about creating content and figuring out how to finance those creations. And so you’re meeting with all those disparate players across the cable, satellite, network, station, syndication and online areas, international players, bankers….The focus is on content and how it gets created.”
This evolution mirrors that of Feltheimer, who just signed a contract extension through 2018; and also the growth of Lionsgate. The company, initially film-focused, became a TV powerhouse with revenue exploding from $8 million in 2000 to nearly $400 million in 2013. Its portfolio reaches every corner of the landscape, from syndication (Wendy Williams and the upcoming Celebrity Name Game) to cable (Mad Men) to broadcast (Nashville) to online (Orange Is the New Black).
Long before running a multi-billiondollar company, Feltheimer was a young exec on the rise when he did business with Tartikoff, whose NBC aired Santa Barbara, produced by New World Entertainment. Some aspects of Tartikoff’s approach rubbed off on Feltheimer, who soon found himself running Sony TriStar Television after Sony acquired New World. “We remember him favorably for both his successes and his failures because he was a guy willing to take chances,” Feltheimer says. “That’s the true mark of an entrepreneur.”
That entrepreneurial approach would resurface in 2000, when he took the reins at Lionsgate. It was, in its early stages, an emerging Canadian outfit known as a purveyor of indie !lms such as Shadow of the Vampire and Saw, with a solid library and profit potential but little of the mojo of competitors like Harvey and Bob Weinstein’s Miramax. Having navigated the more corporate, institutional system of a conglomerate-controlled studio, the notion of charting an independent course tapped into Feltheimer’s desire to leave an individual mark on Hollywood.
Unlike many CEOs, though, Feltheimer decided his best chance at succeeding lay in assembling a strong team and giving them the freedom to do great work. Just as he had been mentored by, and worked with, figures such as Harry Sloan, Leslie Moonves and Peter Guber, he hired many people at Lionsgate who remain key partners and lieutenants, among them vice-chairman Michael Burns and television chief Kevin Beggs.
“He was never threatened by someone being more talented than he is. He has zero ego that way,” marvels Eric Tannenbaum, a prominent producer (Two and a Half Men) who worked for Feltheimer for 18 years, beginning right out of college.
“He never hourly says, ‘This is what I’m going to do for you.’ He just gradually brings you into things,” adds Tannenbaum. “For a year I was just in his office listening to calls, observing. Then he’d just say, ‘Look at this piece of paper.’ He scribbled some notes and threw it at me. Then he’d say, ‘What do you think of this idea?’ Or, ‘Did you like that script?’ So gradually you are brought into the process and you know he has your back.”
That last sentiment should be contextualized. While granted immense freedom and autonomy, those who work for “Felt,” as he is called by many, often get reminders that he may not always share their point of view.
“We argued and he would put me through the wringer and he would torture me,” Tannenbaum says with a smile. “But as a leader, he would 100% support me. And he would always back me publicly and not point fingers and that really is rare in this business, where it’s much easier to just throw people under the bus.”
Feltheimer characterizes his style as more instinctual than as a deliberate master plan.
“If you direct every single body and every piece by yourself around, then you’re not getting people’s best ideas,” he says. “My office door is always open. People can walk in with or without an appointment. This is a spontaneous business—if you’ve got a good idea, you had better start making it happen quickly before someone else gets to it. That’s the key, isn’t it?”
Even as Lionsgate has blossomed as a major film entity, having grossed more than $1 billion at the domestic box office for two straight years thanks to The Hunger Games and other hits, television remains a North Star for Feltheimer.
“I’m watching more TV than I have ever watched before,” he says, noting that the viewing usually occurs during a morning workout. “I’m binge-viewing, from Breaking Bad to Game of Thrones toAmericans, Blacklist—I find myself watching a lot of television.…I’m not nostalgic about the old shows because we have honed the craft. We have great technology that enables us to shoot more effectively and efficiently, we’ve got great feature film directors who want to work in television, we’ve got a tremendous diversity of channels that want different things so you can really aim high but at a more concentrated target. TV is better than it’s ever been and I don’t see any reason why it’s not going to continue to be that way.”