Lionsgate’s Debmar-Mercury is a company founded on a long string of great ideas, some of which were born of necessity and others that entirely changed the business of syndication.
But that was not the vision that the company’s founders, co-presidents and B&C Hall of Fame inductees Ira Bernstein and Mort Marcus, had when they started the company 15 years ago. Debmar-Mercury began as Debmar Studios during a time when Marcus was between jobs in the early ’90s. He returned to it again in 2003, acquiring the rights from Comedy Central to sell animated hit South Park to TV stations.
After successfully acquiring the series, Marcus soon realized the endeavor would require more work than he wanted to do alone, so he reached out to Bernstein.
Bernstein had the skills and the employment flexibility, as president of worldwide television distribution at Lionsgate Entertainment, that Marcus needed. Bernstein had held on to his own distribution company, Mercury, when he took the job at Lionsgate in 2001, and taking on a side venture interested him.
The South Park deal was revolutionary because, at that time, it hadn’t occurred to anyone that potty-mouthed cartoons off of cable networks could be sold to TV stations.
“It was a bold move,” Mark Itkin, former partner and head of unscripted television at WME, said. “Everyone said to them, ‘Guys, how are you going to put that in daily broadcast television with that content?’ But the guys knew the product so well, they realized that it wasn’t dangerous and if there was something dangerous, they could edit it.”
Debmar-Mercury Is Born
Together, the two sold an edited version of South Park to television stations and did well — even better than expected. Bernstein wrapped up his contract at Lionsgate and the pair merged their two entities into Debmar-Mercury.
While the South Park deal was something new and interesting for syndication, it came after both men had enjoyed successful careers in the TV distribution business.
Prior to serving as president of worldwide distribution for Lionsgate starting in 2001, Bernstein was president of domestic television for Cox Enterprises’ production and distribution studio division, Rysher Entertainment, from 1994 to 1999. Like Marcus with Debmar, he founded Mercury in 1999 when he left Rysher.
While at Rysher, Bernstein oversaw the launch of many first-run action hours into domestic syndication, including Relic Hunter, starring Tia Carrere, as well as seven action hours and three daily series. He also oversaw national advertising and sales on behalf of Cox for series such as off-net drama Nash Bridges and syndicated magazines Entertainment Tonight, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and Star Search.
Prior to that, he served as executive VP and, earlier, director of advertising sales for LBS Communications from 1984-90.
Marcus came from The Walt Disney Co., where held several executive positions. He oversaw Buena Vista Television (BVT) as president from 1994-99. While at BVT, he forged the most expensive pay-TV movie output deal thus far in history, securing a $3.4 billion agreement between Disney and Starz Encore for Disney-produced movies.
In an earlier role as head of Buena Vista Television sales, he was credited with saving a rookie talk show called Live with Regis & Kathie Lee after a relatively weak first season in national syndication. He also renewed off-net sitcom Home Improvement, starring Tim Allen, for massive licensing increases.
Later, he was executive VP of sales and development for Walt Disney Internet Group, helping Disney expand its businesses online. And in 2001, he was named president of Miramax TV and Video.
Prior to Disney, Marcus was president of Qintex Entertainment’s telecommunications business and before that, president of Colex Enterprises, which owned half of LBS and was where Marcus met Bernstein in 1987. Marcus also worked as VP of television sales at the Samuel Goldwyn Co.
But back to Debmar-Mercury. Two years after launching South Park into syndication, the duo got their next chance to revolutionize the business. In 2005, Itkin introduced Marcus and Bernstein to a talent on his roster: Tyler Perry. At the time, Perry had a deal with CBS to do a sitcom, but the process of producing a show for a broadcast network wasn’t working for him. Perry was looking for someone to help him finance his vision while allowing him to maintain creative control. Itkin thought Debmar-Mercury might be the right fit.
“The fact that they weren’t afraid to take risks is exactly why I called them about Tyler Perry,” said Itkin.
That meeting ultimately resulted in what became known as the 10-90 model: an order for 10 episodes that, if successful, triggers an automatic renewal for 90 more. Marcus and Bernstein knew they couldn’t sell a show just based on a 30-minute pilot, but they thought they could sell a show based on a two-week run, assuming that run got ratings. Perry knew his audience and felt certain they would turn out for a TV show produced by him and agreed to produce 10 episodes — largely on his own dime — while Marcus and Bernstein went to find a home for the two-week test.
“It was reverse engineering,” Bernstein said. “The goal was 100 episodes. If we did two weeks in a row, it would be enough for buyers to get a sense of what you can do.”