Beggs a driving force behind TV arm

On most work days, Kevin Beggs, prexy of Lionsgate TV, usually looks as if he’s just stepped out of a scene from “Mad Men.”

His second skin is a dark suit, pressed just so, and a crisp dress shirt. He wears his California-blond hair just a touch longer than a crew cut. He’s got the boyish charm, the smarts and the coolly confident manner that distinguishes Sterling Cooper’s best and brightest.

But this is not a case of executive infatuation with a show that has been very good to his company — going so far as to win the Emmy for drama series last week. It’s just who he is, and friends and associates say it is those traits that have allowed Beggs to build Lionsgate TV into a biz contender in scripted series at a time when most other indies have fled for the hills.

“He is a cool customer,” says Jenji Kohan, creator and exec producer of “Weeds,” the Lionsgate-produced Showtime comedy. “He’s unflappable. Whenever there’s a crisis on the show, he says, ‘OK, let’s figure it out.’ Always calm and reasonable. I feel lucky that he’s the executive that we answer to.”

Beggs’ unflappability will be tested in the coming weeks as Lionsgate and “Mad Men” cabler AMC work through a renewal agreement for the Emmy-fortified series, and as Lionsgate seeks to cut a deal for the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, to continue as showrunner. These are high-class problems, the kind Beggs couldn’t have imagined facing when he started at Lionsgate.

Indeed, the indie’s TV wing is about to embark on its busiest 12 months ever, with next month’s bow of “Crash,” an ensembler based on the studio’s Oscar-winning pic of the same name, led by Dennis Hopper; the debut early next year of the Edie Falco starrer “Nurse Jackie” on Showtime; the return of “Weeds” and, presumably, a third season of “Mad Men” on AMC.

When AMC was shopping for a studio partner for “Mad Men,” then-programming chief Rob Sorcher sent Weiner’s pilot script out to a lot of Hollywood shops.

“People didn’t even read it. They’d say, ‘It’s period, it’s an ad agency, it’s talky. It’s AMC. What am I supposed to do with this?’ ” recalls Sorcher (who’s now chief content officer at Cartoon Network). “Kevin read it. He understood the power of Matt’s script and became a champion of it.”

AMC wound up financing the production of the “Mad Men” pilot on its own, though Sorcher kept in close contact with Beggs during the whirlwind 10-day shoot. As soon as they had a cut in hand, Beggs was able to persuade his bosses that “Mad Men” was a flier worth taking.

“He wrangled the business plan with Lionsgate, moved the production to L.A. and just gave us a lot of flexibility and creativity in figuring out how to get this done,” Sorcher says.

He and Beggs had been friends and colleagues for a long time, and knowing that Beggs was willing to take on considerable risk to back “Mad Men” was a comfort to Sorcher.

“This was my first big greenlight for AMC. I needed a partner that I could speak openly with,” Sorcher says. “And I knew what kind of person Kevin was. That was a big part of the reason why (Lionsgate) got the show.”

“Mad Men’s” triumph at the Sept. 21 Emmy kudofest came 10 years almost to the day since Beggs joined a fledging Canadian production company that no one in Hollywood had even heard of. A native of the Bay Area, who grew up in a household where TV watching was restricted to one hour a week, Beggs had spent the previous eight years working as the right-hand-man to the showrunners on “Baywatch.”

He was brought in with a mandate to take the Lionsgate (or Lions Gate, as it was known back then) company into the TV series business.

If he’d known what a tall order that was going to be, he might not have taken the gig, not that he has any regrets (especially after this year’s Emmys).

“At the beginning we basically had our Canadian domicile and my eagerness to sell as our currency,” Beggs says. “I didn’t know how badly the odds were stacked against us.”

Beggs got the gig because of the varied experience he brought with him from eight seasons on “Baywatch.” The show in its heyday was a mega-hit, but it was produced with a skeletal staff because it was done in first-run syndication for an indie distrib, not a studio.

Beggs quickly moved up the pecking order from gofer for showrunners Michael Berk, Douglas Schwartz and Greg Bonann to their go-to lieutenant juggling everything from marketing to PR to business affairs issues to dealing with the show’s international TV partners. (Plus he got to co-write on seg and have a one-line role as a waiter in another.)

In retrospect, “Baywatch” was perfect training for Beggs’ job at Lionsgate, where by necessity they focused at first on lower-budget production with strong international appeal.

“Little did I know then but the skills I learned on ‘Baywatch’ would be hugely valuable to me” as he made the transition to Lionsgate. “I already knew why Germany was a really important market. I’d learned from great mentors (on ‘Baywatch’) how to make something work in an alternative way when you first get a ‘no.’”

Lionsgate’s first series productions on Beggs’ watch were modest efforts, to say the least. Pax TV tapped the company to co-produce a drama “Hope Island” (a remake of Brit series “Ballykissangel”), which was followed by two seasons of “Mysterious Ways,” a drama starring future “Heroes” thesp Adrian Pasdar and Rae Dawn Chong that got some play on NBC as well as Pax (the Peacock was an investor in Pax at the time).

But Lionsgate didn’t get on the TV biz’s radar until it fielded a success in 2002 with USA Network’s sci-fi/actioner “The Dead Zone,” based on the Stephen King novel. It was a hard-fought victory for Beggs, as the project started at Showtime, then moved to UPN where a slam-bang pilot earned a midseason order, only to have the netlet do an about-face after it acquired “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

Finally, the Anthony Michael Hall starrer found the right fit at USA, which needed a solid scripted success as badly as Lionsgate TV did at the time. The “Dead Zone” journey reflected Beggs’ tenacity, and Lionsgate’s unwillingness to simply eat the cost of a pilot, unlike a larger studio.

Of course, Beggs’ efforts on the TV side got a big boost when former Columbia TriStar TV chief Jon Feltheimer took over Lionsgate. Feltheimer embarked on a strategic acquisition strategy (Trimark, Artisan, etc.) that brought homevid distribution and library titles into the fold. Moreover, Feltheimer has a deep understanding of the TV biz, which keeps Beggs on his toes and thinking entrepreneurially, as is prized in the Lionsgate culture.

“He’s always five chess moves ahead of me in any of the issues that I come to him with,” Beggs says.

Beggs also points with pride to the strengths of the lean exec team that he and Feltheimer have assembled during the past five years, including Lionsgate TV chief operating officer Sandra Stern (a longtime Feltheimer lieutenant); exec veep and creative steward Barbara Wall; and Craig Cegielski, exec veep of international TV distribution and a key revenue driver for Lionsgate shows.

As Lionsgate TV has grown, so has Beggs’ industry profile, and his extracurricular activities. At present he serves as prexy of the non-profit Hollywood Radio and Television Society, and as co-chairman of the National Assn. of Television Program Executives. He also has the title of “dad” to his two children, Katherine, 8, and Breydon, 4, with his wife, Dianna .

Beggs’ name is often mentioned when senior-level exec openings arise at showbiz’s major congloms. Among the notable members of Beggs’ fan club is Showtime entertainment prexy Robert Greenblatt, who calls him a “fantastic creative executive.” Greenblatt says, “He is one of the main reasons why (Lionsgate’s) lineup of shows is classy, high quality and successful.”

STATS:
Kevin Beggs

Title: Prexy of programming and production, Lionsgate Television

Age: 42

College: Graduated from U.C. Santa Cruz in 1989 (politics and theater arts)

First job: Assistant to the showrunners of “Baywatch”

Shows: “The Dead Zone” (USA), “Weeds” (Showtime), “Wildfire” (ABC Family), “Mad Men” (AMC), ‘”Crash” (Starz), “Nurse Jackie” (Showtime”

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