CEO Jeffrey Hirsch: Starz Well-Positioned for Standalone Operations

When Lionsgate in early November disclosed it would entertain spinning off Starz (with 18 million SVOD subscribers) as a standalone publicly held company, the studio/distributor was looking to jumpstart investor interest in what it considered to be an undervalued asset.

Speaking Dec. 8 at the virtual UBS Technology, Media and Telecom conference, Starz CEO Jeffrey Hirsch said the decision underlined Lionsgate senior management’s desire to align with shareholders and “do something structural” to the business.

Hirsch, together with vice chairman Michael Burns, has been out front on investor forums touting the Starz brand and its focus on creating content targeting black and female viewers.

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Starz, which Lionsgate acquired in 2016 for $4.4 billion, has transitioned the brand from pay-TV distributor to over-the-top video, including StarzPlay Arabia, a non-consolidated equity method investee. StarzPlay International subs grew 97% year-over-year to 7.5 million across 60 countries.

“That’s exciting for everybody at the company because obviously if you look at the stock price and the valuation, we weren’t getting credit for the tremendous work we’re doing at Starz but also what we’re doing on the studio side,” Hirsch said.

While providing no updates on any possible asset sale, Hirsch said Starz is prepared to operate as a standalone company when that time comes.

“We have a CFO, we have a head of HR, we have a separate marketing group,” he said. “So, all of the personnel stuff that would have to happen to actually break the company apart is already in place. I think that’s something pretty easy to do.”

As a separate company, Starz would remain significantly linked with Lionsgate. Ten of the platform’s current 12 original series are produced by Lionsgate.

“We talk to them almost daily about all aspects of the business,” Hirsch said. “We’ve done a couple of early renewals. And we really are tied-at-the-hip partners.”

Michael Burns: Lionsgate Focused on Catalog Acquisitions as Well as Original Content Spending

In the crush of original content production across studios and streaming platforms, Lionsgate has taken a slightly different path, focusing equally on catalog library acquisitions, in addition to original TV shows and movies.

The Santa Monica, Calif.-based studio/distributor this year acquired three separate movie libraries, including a 20% stake in Spyglass Media Group, securing distribution rights to more than 200 movies and most of the The Weinstein Co. library. Lionsgate also owns stakes in Trimark Pictures, Artisan Entertainment and Summit Entertainment.

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“The ability to buy these libraries when everybody else is standing still, that’s a strategic advantage,” Michael Burns, chairman of Lionsgate, told an investor group.

Speaking Sept. 21 at the virtual Goldman Sachs Communacopia Conference, Burns said Lionsgate has spent $20 billion on content over the past 20 years — much of it on third-party libraries. The company generated in excess of $700 million in revenue on catalog content in 2020.

“The [movie] license business ages extremely well,” Burns said. “We have all the Weinstein product from 2005 to 2018. We’re the largest holder of Quentin Tarantino movies now. We have an opportunity right now to monetize library product like never before. It’s a terrific time to be in the content business.”

Burns said that in addition to SVOD, the burgeoning ad-supported VOD and FAST streaming platforms in the U.S. (i.e. Pluto TV, Tubi, The Roku Channel, etc.) and worldwide has created new distribution opportunities.

“AVOD has turned out to be a great business for us, domestically, as all these players emerge. And they just opened internationally,” he said.

On the conference call, Jeffrey Hirsch, CEO of Starz, said the premium channel is now generating more revenue from digital distribution than pay-television. Linear and streaming now account for 30 million combined subscribers.

“The brand’s streaming platforms are now operating in 59 countries outside the U.S.,” Hirsch said. “We think we are really positioned to capture market share outside the U.S.”

Meanwhile, at a time when industrywide consolidation sees Amazon acquiring MGM and Discovery taking control of WarnerMedia, Lionsgate remains a prime target for third-party acquisition. In the last earnings call, CEO Jon Feltheimer said the company would not be distracted by industrywide “concept of scale,” while at the same time remaining open to discussions with “everyone” and listening to “everything.”

The reality is not lost upon Burns.

“We expect to see more consolidation in the media sector,” he said. “That’s a given. We are one of the last big independent media companies. Our size allows us to be nimble. We are the PT boats surrounded by battleships. We are going to continue to identify ways to increase the value of our stock price.”

Starz Ups Superna Kalle to President, International Networks

Seeking to further expand its global footprint, Starz July 7 announced the promotion of Superna Kalle to president of international networks, reflecting the premium pay platform’s continued international growth — notably in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

Superna Kalle

Kalle previously served as EVP for international digital networks at Lionsgate-owned Starz, which she joined in 2018 to lead the international expansion of Starzplay, now available in 58 countries. Reporting directly to CEO Jeffrey Hirsch, Kalle oversees the international division’s growth for Starzplay, including all aspects of programming and production on the platform’s international original series, distribution, marketing and publicity, along with Lionsgate Play. While at Starz, Kalle has solidified the platform’s presence in Europe, Latin America and Canada.

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“Superna is an incredibly talented and strategic executive who has demonstrated her acute business expertise to help expand Starz into the global premium SVOD service it is today,” Hirsch said in a statement. “She has done a superb job of building a successful international division from the ground up that has formed strategic distribution partnerships and international original productions that contribute to our company’s innovation and distinction. I look forward to even greater global growth under her continued leadership.”

Prior to joining Starz, Kalle was a senior advisor to several media companies guiding them on international SVOD strategy, digital operations, restructuring and global business development. Major clients included Lionsgate and CBS/Showtime.

Kalle spent 16 years at Sony Pictures Television where she served as SVP and GM, Networks. Based out of Sony’s headquarters in Culver City, Calif., Kalle oversaw the company’s television networks portfolio and equity investments in the U.S. and Canada. For the U.S., she launched and served as general manager of the wholly-owned Sony networks, Sony Movie Channel, SPT’s first multi-platform television network; Cine Sony Television, SPT’s Spanish language movie network; and getTV, the Company’s first digital subchannel dedicated to classic programming. Kalle also served on the board of other popular cable and digital channels, including GSN (Game Show Network, LLC) and fearNET (a joint venture with Lionsgate and Comcast). In Canada, Kalle oversaw SPT’s partnership with Hollywood Suite, which carried the Sony Movie Channel brand.

Prior to her domestic role at Sony, she was SVP of international networks and held multiple board positions at Sony’s television networks business in India, Japan and Pan-Asia. She joined SPT from parent company Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE), where she had served as VP of corporate development. She joined SPE as manager of corporate development in 1999.

Kalle currently serves on the board of directors for Starzplay Arabia, as a director of the International Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, and on the board of trustees of Woodbury University. Among her honors and awards, Kalle has been recognized as one of Cablefax’s “Most Powerful Women” and “Top Women in Media” multiple times, and was named a Multichannel News/NAMIC Luminary for her accomplishments overseeing Sony Movie Channel. She is also proud to be a Mentor in the 2021 Women in Entertainment (WIE) Mentorship Program (BBBSLA).

Parrot: Demand for Starz Original Series Way Higher Than Average TV Show

Parrot Analytics June 28 reported an analysis of audience demand across top streaming networks that found Starz’s premium programming delivers the highest hit rate, with the most in-demand series, both domestically and internationally.

In the United States, Parrot Analytics said that in the 12-month period ended June 19, a Starz original series generated five times as much demand as an average TV series. Demand for Starz series is higher than that of any other streaming service’s series, with Disney+ at No. 2 and HBO at No. 3.

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Parrot Analytics also reported that Starz originals are even more in-demand on a global scale: With 5.38 times the global TV series demand average, a Starz original is 6.1% more demanded internationally than it is domestically. Furthermore, on a global scale, the average Starz original is 12.6% ahead of the next-best performing platform’s average original series.

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Parrot Analytics measures demand with a proprietary metric called Demand Expressions, which factors in a wide variety of data sources, including video streaming, social media activity, photo sharing, blogging, commenting on fan and critic rating platforms, and downloading and streaming via peer-to-peer protocols and file sharing sites.

In an adjacent study, Parrot Analytics has found that the typical Starz title travels internationally, across its Starzplay platform, 74% better than the typical Netflix series, and 60% better than the typical HBO series. Markets that have scored highly for “Power Book II: Ghost,” for example, include South Africa, with 82% “travelability” (a measure of a series’ global appeal relative to the appeal in its home market). Kenya scored 81%, followed by France (76%), China (74%) and the United Kingdom (71%).

The average Starz title also has 41% more longevity than the global average; high longevity indicates series that are good at maintaining audience demand.

Jeffrey Hirsch, Starz president and CEO, said in a statement in a Parrot Analytics news release, “These results reinforce Starz’s proven ability to bring audiences high-quality premium programming, which we believe is key to success over raw scale. With our most robust slate ever, Starz is continuing to deliver exceptional premium programming focused on amplifying narratives by, about and for women and underrepresented audiences.”

Parrot Analytics reports that the Starz network between January and April had four out of the ten most in-demand diverse series. These highly demanded diverse series are “Power Book II: Ghost” (13.1 times more demand in the U.S. than the average TV series), “Power” (11.4x), “P-Valley” (9.8x) and “Vida” (9.0x).

“Starz is not afraid to tell the stories of women and audiences that have been traditionally underrepresented on television,” said Wared Seger, CEO of Parrot Analytics.

Starz CEO: Sony Pay 1 Output Deal Wasn’t Working for Us

Starz CEO Jeffrey Hirsch said losing Sony movies to Netflix and Disney was a strategic win for his company as “the value wasn’t there” for Starz.

Netflix and Disney earlier this year made separate sequential Pay 1 output deals for Sony Pictures’ 2022 movie slate, wresting the content from Starz.

The 2017-21 Pay 1 deal between Starz and Sony was projected to generate about $1.3 billion in license fees for Sony — up about $330 million from the previous $739 million pact from 2014 to 2021. Over time, Starz apparently questioned the value of the content it was paying big money for.

Jeffrey Hirsch

Speaking May 12 on the virtual MoffettNathanon 8th Annual Media and Communications Summit, Starz CEO Jeffrey Hirsch said that other than three box office hits — Spider-Man: Far From Home, Jumanji: The Next Level and Venom — the bulk of the studio’s theatrical slate failed to resonate with moviegoers. Hirsch said box office data has always been a big deal in the Pay 1 window — and what he saw from Sony wasn’t compelling.

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“About 50% of the movies coming from Sony that we were paying for made under $10 million at the box office,” Hirsch said. “And if you look at the Top 10 movies over the last 12 months [prior to the pandemic], if you take [those movies out], none of those movies we got [from Sony] were in the Top 10.”

Hirsch said that based on the Starz consumer, on a title-by-title basis, management didn’t think the value was there to extend the agreement. By comparison, the executive said that while the 15 movies Starz is getting from corporate parent Lionsgate, i.e. John Wicks, Borderland, Knives Out, etc., is less than the Sony agreement, the titles’ impact on Starz subscribers is greater.

“We, early on, went negotiating a pay-1 output deal [with Lionsgate] ahead of Sony,” Hirsch said. “We really looked at the data, and other than those three movies, we were paying for stuff that wasn’t really resonating with our consumer. For us the value wasn’t there.”

Indeed, Starz, which is owned by Lionsgate, ended 2020 with 28 million subscribers, which included 14.6 million streaming subs and 13.4 million linear subs — the latter down from 19.9 million at the end of 2019. The streaming sub service, which includes a $8.99 tier in the United States, and $5 internationally, grew almost 70% from 8.6 million in 2019.

CEO Jeff Hirsch: Starz Targeting Underrepresented Audiences

Starz spent much of 2020 extricating itself from the traditional pay-TV bundle in favor of an a-la-carte business model in both the linear and over-the-top video markets. The Lionsgate-owned unit ended the year with 28 million subscribers, which included 14.6 million streaming subs and 13.4 million linear subs — the latter down from 19.9 million at the end of 2019. Streaming subs, which includes a $8.99 tier in the U.S., and $5 internationally, grew almost 70% from 8.6 million in 2019.

Starz CEO Jeffrey Hirsch

Speaking March 9 on the virtual Deutsche Bank Media, Internet & Telecom Conference, Starz CEO Jeffrey Hirsch said the company continues aggressively target underserved audiences — a strategy underscored by Pantaya, the Spanish-language sister SVOD operating in the U.S. since 2017.

“We saw a lot of increased engagement with [Starz] during the pandemic,” Hirsch said, adding the platform targets women and people of color. “People want to be a part of that.”

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Starz launched four new series during the pandemic, including season five of “Outlander”; the first season of “HighTown”; “P-Valley”; and the first “Power” series spin-off, “Power Book II: Ghost.”  Hirsch said the platform is entering its “broadest release slate” in its history, adding that originals fuel subscriber growth and retention.

Other pending series include “Run the World,” a comedy about four African-American women living and working in Harlem; second and third “Power” spin-off shows, “Power Book III: Raising Kanan,” and “Power Book IV: Force”; “BMF” (Black Mafia Family); a second season of “HighTown,”; “The Girlfriend Experience”; and “Gaslight,” a series about Martha Mitchell and John Mitchell (President Nixon’s U.S. Attorney General) before and after the Watergate scandal. The series co-stars Julia Roberts and Sean Penn playing the Mitchells.

“We’ll almost double the slate this year to around 12 originals, getting to 16 originals next year,” Hirsch said. “We feel really good about celebrating growth both domestically and internationally.”

Indeed, StarzPlay is now available in 56 countries globally, partnering with local companies such as Canal+, Vodafone, and others, with a goal to generate 15 million to 25 million subscribers by 2025, with 2% to 4% broadband household penetration in each country; with break even targeted for 2023.

StarzPlay International and StarzPlay Arabia (a joint venture with Dubai-based Playco Entertainment) ended 2020 with 4.3 million and 1.8 million subscribers, respectively, compared with 2.7 million and 1.7 million at the end of 2019.

“We are well on the way to getting there,” Hirsch said.


Lionsgate Ups Jeffrey Hirsch to CEO of Starz

Lionsgate Sept. 26 promoted Jeffrey Hirsch to CEO and president of Starz, replacing former CEO Chris Albrecht, who left the premium pay-TV/SVOD service in February

As CEO, Hirsch will shape the overall business and programming strategy for Starz and oversee the continued evolution and expansion of the brand’s over-the-top video platform around the world.

Hirsch joined Starz four years ago, was promoted to COO in 2016 and has been running the network for nearly a year.

Under his leadership, Starz increased its overall domestic subscriber base from 23.5 million to 24.7 million last year and continued the rapid growth of of the brand’s domestic OTT businesses.

Starz has more than 4.4 million domestic OTT subscribers with successful launches during the last year on Apple, Hulu, Roku, YouTube TV and an array of other platforms.

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Lionsgate operates separate SVOD service Starz Play internationally.

Hirsch shepherded the launch of the Starz app in the U.S. and orchestrated Starz Play’s expansion into nearly 50 countries in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa as well as Canada.

Starz plans to continue its rapid international growth and, as previously announced, expects to have as many as 15 million to 20 million international subs by 2025.

“Jeff continues to lead Starz’s transformation into one of the world’s premier subscription platforms,” Lionsgate CEO Jon Feltheimer said in a statement. “He has a clear strategic vision, great understanding of where our business is headed and strong relationships that will all contribute to Starz’s continued strong growth and evolution.”

Hirsch recently announced that STARZ delivers the highest composition of female viewership in premium cable, and the network continues to build on its success with a focused strategy of developing and producing premium programming that appeals to women and other traditionally under-served African-American, Latinx and LGBTQ audiences.

Starz original programs “Power” has more than 10 million multi-platform views per episode and “Outlander,” a perennial ratings favorite among women.

Hirsch recently greenlit three new series written and/or executive produced by women, including a reimagined “Dangerous Liaisons,” the third season of “The Girlfriend Experience” and the dark comedy “Shining Vale.”

The network is also preparing the launch of “Power Book II: Ghost,” starring Mary J. Blige in a lead role, the first of several “Power”-inspired series that include a prequel shepherded by “Power” creator and showrunner Courtney A. Kempand executive producer Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson as Starz continues to expand the “Power” Universe into a year-round viewing experience.

Hirsch joined the company in 2015 as president of global marketing and product development. Since Lionsgate’s acquisition of Starz in 2016, Hirsch has played a lead role in integrating Starz into the Lionsgate family and exploring opportunities for the two companies’ combined suite of OTT offerings.

Prior to joining Starz, Hirsch served as EVP and chief marketing officer, residential services at the former Time Warner Cable.



Starz Adds 400,000 Q1 Members, Tops 4.4 Million Subs

Starz added 400,000 domestic streaming video subscribers in the first quarter, ended June 30, to finish the period with 4.4 million members since launching in 2012.

It was the $9 monthly Lionsgate-owned OTT video unit’s best-performing quarter in terms of sub growth.

Total Starz sub growth, including pay-TV channels and StarzPlay internationally, increased by 2.6 million to 26.5 million, which includes 24.4 million domestic subs.

As a result of the sub growth, Lionsgate’s Media Networks division increased revenue 4.9% to $372.4 million.

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Segment profit for Starz Networks increased 3.4% to $103.7 million, which was offset by ongoing content investment in StarzPlay.

Indeed, overall Media Networks profit declined to $60.6 million from $88.5 million in the previous-year period due to content costs.

On the fiscal call, Starz COO Jeffrey Hirsch defended the SVOD service’s subscription price as Disney readies less expensive $6.99 Disney+ service on Nov. 12.

“If you look at the history of Starz, we’ve always been a premium, add-on television,” Hirsch said.

Lionsgate’s global expansion of Starz has resulted in the development of an additional 20 episodic programming projects, according to Kevin Beggs, chairman of the media company’s TV group.

Beggs dismissed Netflix’s headline-grabbing mega production deal with “Game of Thrones” creators David Benioff and Dan Weiss, contending Lionsgate doesn’t chase those kinds of deals.

“For writers and directors who are overperforming, there’s always been an unbelievable upside the way we structure our deals,” Beggs said, alluding to Lionsgate’s practice affording content creators with multiple compensation options, including backend unavailable at Netflix’s business model.

Starz Names Ameesh Paleja to Chief Technology Officer Position

Multichannel distributor Starz March 9 announced the hiring of Ameesh Paleja as chief technology officer. Paleja joins Starz from Atom Tickets, where he was co-founder and CEO since 2014. Paleja will continue serving on Atom Ticket’s board and as an advisor and head of innovation.

Lionsgate owns Starz and is an investor in Atom Tickets.

Paleja began his career at Microsoft in 2001, then moved to Amazon in 2003. While at Amazon, he focused on building software and services allowing the company to sell digital goods. Paleja helped launch Prime Instant Video, Amazon’s Appstore, Cloud Drive, and the Kindle product line. He then became the founding employee of Amazon’s R&D facilities in Southern California, where he oversaw more than 550 employees.

“Ameesh is a visionary and world-class technologist whose substantial experience with digital distribution platforms will deepen our brands’ connection with consumers and provide audiences the highest quality entertainment possible,” said COO Jeffrey Hirsch, to whom Paleja reports in Starz’s Englewood, Colo., office.