Taking chances

Lionsgate president and alum Kevin Beggs dishes on Weeds, Charlie Sheen, Mad Men, critical thinking, and the element of risk

Kevin Beggs
Scenes from Weeds, Mad Men, and Nurse Jackie, all produced by Lionsgate Television (photos courtesy of Lionsgate Television)

“Go where others won’t.”

That’s the time-tested credo of Kevin Beggs (Porter ‘89, politics/theater arts), president of Lionsgate Television Group, one of the most powerful independent producers of TV programming.

Others might hesitate to produce a comedy series about a pot-dealing soccer mom in an upper-middle-class suburb (Weeds), a period drama about promiscuous ad executives working on Madison Avenue at the height of the Cold War (Mad Men), or a dark comedy about an ER nurse navigating the crumbling health care system while hiding an addiction to pain pills and carrying on an illicit affair with the hospital pharmacist (Nurse Jackie).

Others, for that matter, might run screaming from a new show starring Charlie Sheen, freshly fired from Two and a Half Men this spring by Warner Brothers amid allegations of Sheen’s substance abuse, and after a spectacular fracas between Sheen and the show’s co-creator, Chuck Lorre.

But Lionsgate Television—which produces Mad Men for AMC and Weeds and Nurse Jackie for Showtime, and is currently developing a new series called Anger Management with Sheen as the star—seems to thrive in dangerous places.

Beggs is part of a growing coterie of successful Hollywood Banana Slugs including Rick Carter, production designer (Avatar, Jurassic Park), and Ron Yerxa, producer, Bona Fide Productions (Little Miss Sunshine). In June, he served as the keynote speaker at a UCSC symposium, Bridging the Gap, designed to foster strong connections between the campus and its many successful entertainment industry alumni, especially in the film and television industries.

Beggs recently spoke about his life on the edge, and what it’s like to follow his gut instincts in a hyper-competitive market.

“I still feel, as a smaller company, we have to be bigger risk-takers creatively. We have to call bigger and longer shots,” said Beggs, 45, who is responsible for developing and producing original series, movies for TV, limited series, and reality shows for Lionsgate Television. “We have had great success with projects that other people would not do. I would not want to be known as the company that passed on something like Mad Men and Weeds.”

Rejection is part of the creation mythology of Mad Men. Showtime and HBO both passed on the series before the AMC network and Lionsgate took it on. Mad Men is now a cultural phenomenon, but runaway success can lead to unexpected challenges. “Often, managing a successful show is more difficult than handling a less successful show,” Beggs said.

Beggs was referring to the recent negotiations between Mad Men creator and executive producer Matthew Weiner, Lionsgate, and AMC, the network that broadcasts the show.

AMC only had an option for the first five seasons of Mad Men and had to renegotiate a deal with Lionsgate. On top of this, AMC executives had no deal in place with Weiner; they returned to the negotiating table to bring him on board for the next three seasons.

The issues were resolved this summer. On the down side, Mad Men fanatics must wait until 2012 to see the new episodes.

Beggs said he is “relieved, absolutely” that the situation has been resolved. Such disagreements are nothing new in the industry, he said. “This one was maybe a bit more high profile because of Mad Men’s zealous fan base.” He thanked fans of the series for “passion and patience.”

Getting down in the weeds

Beggs prides himself in running a streamlined operation with a “less-is more” approach. While he sometimes finds himself producing shows for larger networks “to pay the bills,” those more conventional moneymaking choices embolden the company to take chances and “develop the kinds of series we would like to watch, personally.”

Citing one edgy example, Lionsgate began producing Weeds, starring Mary-Louise Parker, almost nine years ago. The suburban upper-middle-class potdealer concept hit Beggs on a gut level.

“Maybe, personally, having gone to school in Santa Cruz and spent much of my childhood in Marin County, the series resonated because of the irony, the certain kind of hypocritical moral stances that a lot of people take in life.”

Still, producing any comedy series is a calculated risk because Lionsgate generates much of its income overseas.

“Most comedies don’t travel well,” Beggs said. He cited a few exceptions. “Two and a Half Men is very popular overseas. The Simpsons does great—since it’s animated, they can change all the voices. But in general it’s a risky perspective. Weeds proved a worthwhile risk.”

To date, Weeds has garnered an armful of Emmy awards and drawn upward of 3 million viewers.

Programming on the edge

So far, Lionsgate’s willingness to take on this kind of risky and expectation-defying scripted programming has paid off.

All television, including cable TV shows, could be much edgier, said L. S. Kim, a critical observer of popular media and an associate professor of film and digital media at UCSC.

Kim thinks audiences can be more accepting than TV executives may believe. “Executives/producers sometimes underestimate audiences’ ability to come to terms with unfamiliar or unexpected characters or themes; when they do, by being presented with challenging material, this is social change.”

But she said that the relatively edgy content on several scripted cable shows—including a number of offerings produced by Lionsgate—successfully gives viewers pleasure while pulling them through a discomfort zone, a process that can make viewers stronger fans while creating a “dynamic relationship” between shows and audiences.

That “gray area”—the risky territory that lies somewhere between entertainment and discomfort—is a place where most networks and TV won’t go.

“Lionsgate steps into that area, and crosses that border a little bit,” Kim said. “Cable and premium-cable networks have relatively more ability to push the envelope to present material that may be less comfortable or less familiar. For example, Nurse Jackie is not quite a sitcom. When you think of female nurses, you literally expect comfort. The show is about defying expectations.”

The making of film and TV programs remains a mystery to most viewers. “In fact, it involves a series of decisions,” said Kim. “Someone like Kevin Beggs, who was influenced by his education at UC Santa Cruz, makes decisions to try something a little different, right? ‘The Banana Slug way’ is a slightly different way. It’s something I try to encourage my students to have the courage to do.”

In fact, one of Kim’s students had a chance to look at this decision-making process firsthand when she was a Lionsgate intern this summer in Santa Monica.

The Sheen factor

Asked to comment on Sheen and Anger Management, Beggs compared it to some of the risky content produced by Lionsgate’s movie division, Lionsgate Films.

“When Disney would not release Fahrenheit 911, Lionsgate did, and had the highest-grossing box office in history [for a documentary],” Beggs said, referring to Michael Moore’s 2004 documentary about the Bush administration’s handling of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

In a similar vein, Lionsgate Television won’t shy away from the “tricky and touchy.… A high-profile figure like Charlie Sheen kind of falls under the same category,” Beggs said.

Besides, Beggs insisted that doing a show with Sheen was “not much of a risk, really.…For all the public scrutiny of his life, and his larger-than-life persona, he has been anchoring, for eight seasons, the most successful show on television. No one disputes what a great actor he is.”

He added that Lionsgate had been “in talks with Charlie” even before the Anger Management concept, spun off from a 2003 movie starring Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson, came up.

Besides, said Beggs, Lionsgate was drawn to the idea of a show based on a movie about a man who works to help other people deal with anger issues, but is not entirely in control of his own anger—and then, on top of all that, you get Charlie Sheen playing the role of the unstable protagonist.

“When you put all the elements together… it’s kind of a no-brainer.”

Starting out in a tough business

Looking back on his trajectory, Beggs has plenty of advice for newly minted graduates who are just starting out in the entertainment world.

“Number one: You have to come to Los Angeles,” he said. “And number two, you have to pound the pavement—pound it aggressively, virtually and physically. You almost have to come to a place that is borderline stalker-like to get anywhere.”

He urges new graduates to take first jobs seriously, and not deprive themselves of that first opportunity just because an initial job “does not represent your ultimate career goal. It is almost impossible that the first job you ever get will be assistant to Steven Spielberg. It could happen, but it’s rare.”

Beggs learned all these lessons by pounding the pavement himself.

After graduating with honors from UCSC, he found work as a public schoolteacher, and then as the assistant to an accountant working on a reality show about the FBI—a far cry from the creative work he longed to be doing. Still,he won’t knock it. He helped the show save money by going with the U.S. Postal Service instead of relying exclusively on FedEx.

On top of that, this position led, within a couple of months, to getting on a set as a production assistant, which ultimately helped him land his first TV production job.

Networking and persistence paid off for Beggs, who first made a name for himself as a producer for the syndicated, highly successful Baywatch program starring David Hasselhoff.

When he was hired on at Lionsgate 13 years ago, it was primarily a film company with a smattering of TV assets. His job was to launch new series, taking a less-is-more approach. “We weren’t big or well-capitalized enough to work with big, big broadcast networks but we could work in cable.”

Gradually, the company grew along with the cable industry itself.

“Our capital structure allowed us to be good partners. We crept into larger shows as we got a little bit bigger. Then the company started making some key acquisitions, and all of a sudden we had a home-entertainment infrastructure. Shows were getting sold as DVDs—a new idea at the time.”

One early success was a show Lionsgate Television, in conjunction with CBS Paramount Television, produced for UPN called The Dead Zone, based on the Stephen King horror novel. It wasone of the most successful premieres in cable TV history.

He believes Lionsgate benefitted from the spectacular growth of scripted cable programming.

“More and more cable networks started jumping into original programming because we’d already been in that space,” he said.

Slugs in Hollywood

While making his way in the entertainment world, Beggs has strengthened his connections to his alma mater. This year, Arts Division Dean David Yager reached out to Beggs to be part of a far-ranging arts advisory board. Though Beggs had never been back to UCSC since graduating, he eagerly signed on.

“Kevin is incredibly happy and enthusiastic to give his time and energy,” Yager said. Now Beggs hopes to be part of an effort to make UCSC loom larger in the entertainment business, growing its profile, and its presence in those industries, the way Emerson College, New York University, and Columbia University have done.

“They have giant presences in our business, and they are fostered, in some ways, by the universities themselves,” Beggs said.

Beggs has more than just an affection for UCSC. He often references his college learning in his daily work. He finds himself drawing from both his majors “in a creative field where I shape a lot of creative visions,” and “when I’m simply lobbying for things.

“The term critical thinking’ is thrown around loosely, but UCSC really pushes that,” he said. While theater arts was a “creative immersion,” his politics classes “really threw out every assumption you ever had about any kind of topic. There was an almost aggressive kind of debunking. You don’t just turn that off when you leave college.”

For more information or to support the arts at UC Santa Cruz, visit the Arts Division website.

This article appears in the fall 2011 issue of Review magazine.