Unlike a lot of his show business peers, Jon Feltheimer didn’t always dream of moguldom. In his formative years, enjoying late-night TV as a Long Island teen or gigging around L.A. as a 20-something rock musician in the band Lightheart, he didn’t picture himself running a thriving, multibillion-dollar media company. He just kept chasing the thrill he got from entertainment in all its forms—and it certainly didn’t hurt that, armed with an economics degree from Washington University in St. Louis, he knew his way around a business deal.
Decades on, Feltheimer is in his 14th year at the helm of Lionsgate, having parlayed his early music career and stockbroker stint into a talent management run and then successful exec tenures at New World and Sony TriStar. As the free-spirited, fast-rising CEO of Lionsgate, he has overseen the development of TV series from Mad Men to Anger Management to Orange Is the New Black, as well as films from Crash to Saw to The Hunger Games. Last summer, he signed a contract extension through 2018.
Those who have worked closely with Feltheimer describe him as outspoken, direct and firm; those qualities, and his relentless drive, are directed toward distinctly entrepreneurial goals. Lionsgate, like New World Television and Sony TriStar before it, has been forged by Feltheimer’s thirst for risk-taking and ability to reach underserved audiences and revenue sources.
“Jon was always cleverly unpredictable because he resists conventional wisdom and challenges everything until he finds a unique and better way,” says Harry Sloan, former head of New World, MGM and other media companies, and Feltheimer’s mentor. “Usually, when someone presents a project, the listener is trying to fit it into something he’s familiar with. Jon’s not. He’s always looking for the unique concept, for something that cuts against the grain. He tends to say, ‘OK, what if we went the other way with this? What does it look like when I turn it upside down?’”
Feltheimer readily cops to speaking his mind. He summoned a memory of a New World experience in the 1980s, when he attended a casting session for one of his first series. “I remember the casting director saying to me, ‘You’re going to be a really good executive, but you might want to hold back your thoughts and play your cards a little closer to the vest,’” he says with a light chuckle. “I haven’t changed that much. I’m better when I’m direct and let the chips fall where they may.”
Michael Burns has exchanged untold numbers of opinions with Feltheimer. As vice chairman of Lionsgate, he and “Felt,” as many are welcome to call him, have been the company’s top leaders since 2000. Their activities must be so carefully coordinated that their offices are connected by a glass wall.
“I used to know I had a great idea when Jon would say, ‘Hmmm. I don’t hate that idea,’” Burns jokes. “I enjoy when someone has a strong point of view and is passionate about his point of view. Jon has always had that, right or wrong.”
Burns also notes how Feltheimer’s willingness to buck conventional wisdom—and the prevailing sentiment on Wall Street—has sparked incredible growth. The company’s stock price, locked for years in the $9 to $11 range, broke out and tripled when Lionsgate bought Summit Entertainment (home of the Twilight franchise) and expanded its TV footprint. That surge followed a victory over activist shareholder Carl Icahn, who waged a bitter proxy fight with Lionsgate and sought to oust Feltheimer over increased production budgets, which Icahn felt invited risk.
Feltheimer has been able to tune out the skeptics from Day 1, when the company still maintained a headquarters in Toronto and was known for edgy indie film fare such as AmoresPerros and Monster’s Ball. “Way back when, there were much different views about how big the television business could be for us,” Burns says. “Jon was absolutely dead set on being a force in television. He has done a very good job as a creative guy and a businessman, and I think in particular he has succeeded by always believing that we needed to have a diversified company to survive.”
Feltheimer’s TV touch has resulted in a major influx of revenue for Lionsgate. In 2000, the company made $8 million from TV; by 2012, that number had mushroomed to $400 million. Mad Men and Weeds established the studio’s clout; Nurse Jackie and Nashville followed, and the northward trend continues.
The redefinition of the medium amid digital and mobile viewing isn’t threatening to Lionsgate, Feltheimer says: “It’s almost like, what is television? I guess TV is essentially anything that isn’t first released as theatrical. This year we’ll have 30-plus series on 20 different networks, encompassing talk shows, game shows, and scripted dramas and comedies, including series at every stage of development for Hulu, Netflix and Amazon. I’m more excited than ever that there are more buyers, more ways to reach the consumer.”
The roster of partners is long at Lionsgate, keeping overhead and upfront costs low and providing cofinancing on many big ventures such as the upcoming TV Guide Channel reboot with CBS or new film and TV projects with Televisa. The studio owns syndication player Debmar-Mercury and has established stakes in cable networks Epix and FearNet, as well as Asian distributor Celestial Tiger. All of these relationships require finesse—a key Feltheimer trait.
“In negotiations he doesn’t try to get the last nickel,” Burns says. “We’re not the big upfront players, but in success, everybody participates.” The big view is what matters, Burns adds: “The Greeks say you suffer your way to wisdom. You learn a heck of a lot more from failures than successes. That’s been Jon’s philosophy.”