Starz Moves into Lionsgate Orbit With Chris Albrecht’s Exit

Starz Moves into Lionsgate Orbit With
Jessica Sample

The exit of Starz CEO Chris Albrecht has thrown a spotlight on the future of the premium channel in a hotly competitive and fast-evolving pay-TV environment.

The bigger question centers on the fate of parent company Lionsgate, nearly two years after its $4.4 billion acquisition of Starz. Albrecht disclosed Feb. 1 that he will depart in March after a nine-year run building up the service that was owned by John Malone’s Liberty Media until it was spun off as a stand-alone entity in January 2013.

Albrecht came to Starz as his second act in the pay-TV arena after a 22-year run at HBO. He leaves Starz a bigger and broader business, albeit one that faces sector-wide headwinds in the coming years.

“We believe, strategically, losing a golden asset like Albrecht leaves a big talent hole in the franchise, and in our opinion this could be another step toward an eventual sale of the company down the road,” Wedbush analyst Dan Ives told Variety via email. “We continue to believe that Lionsgate is an attractive asset for a number of players looking to aggressively add content and streaming ambitions, with Apple front and center.”

Lionsgate has been widely seen as an M&A target at a time of consolidation among media’s largest players. Lionsgate shares are down nearly 50% during the past 12 months as investors await some movement for the company. Insiders maintain that the Santa Monica-based studio’s focus under CEO Jon Feltheimer is on organic growth of existing operations, especially in overseas markets. Starz and its budding OTT streaming platform are a big component of that international strategy.

Albrecht’s team steered the launch of the Starz stand-alone streaming app in 2016. It now claims about 3 million subscribers across the U.S.. It’s also available in the U.K., Germany and Canada, with expansion on deck in France, Italy and Spain. Lionsgate is counting on producing more TV series in international territories, where it can retain more rights and ownership of the content than is possible in a U.S. market dominated by Netflix, Amazon and the major studio conglomerates. Having a local streaming presence in key European territories can only strengthen Lionsgate’s hand.

Albrecht was prepared to exit his CEO post when Lionsgate bought Starz in December 2016, but stayed on to help shepherd the international streaming launch and other projects. As the two-year anniversary of the transaction approached, Albrecht realized the time was right to hand over the reins. He will exit after a four-week transition period.

Starz will be led by Albrecht’s top lieutenants in business and content: chief operating officer Jeffrey Hirsch and programming president Carmi Zlotnik, who will report to Feltheimer. The company’s operations will be more deeply integrated with Lionsgate’s infrastructure, which will likely lead to staff cuts as overlapping functions are eliminated.

The management transition comes amid questions of how Starz and Lionsgate can compete in the premium content arena, with talent costs skyrocketing and Netflix serving up unprecedented volumes of original content.

Albrecht was a vital builder for Starz as the channel sought to shift to original series after years of largely serving up recent theatrical movies. Albrecht spearheaded a slate of originals that included more misses than hits early on. But his team found its stride during the past few years with signature dramas such as the time-travel fantasy “Outlander,” the crime drama “Power” and the surrealist “American Gods.” He strategically targeted African-American and Latino audience that had been mostly overlooked by HBO and Showtime. Starz has built traction with urban-centric shows such as “Power,” family drama “Vida,” the NBA comedy “Survivor’s Remorse” and the risqué “The Girlfriend Experience.”

Albrecht brought Starz into the premium series arena with only a portion of the budget and far less market clout than he wielded during his time at HBO. His career there came to an abrupt end in 2007 following his arrest for an altercation with his then girlfriend.

During Albrecht’s tenure, Starz grew to 25.1 million subscribers, from about 17 million when he joined in January 2010. The channel became an awards contender for the first time on his watch. In addition to original series, Starz also pursued highbrow long-form projects (“Howards End,” “The Missing,” “The White Princess”) that yielded prestige on a modest budget.

Albrecht, 66, has let it be known that retirement is not in the cards. He’ll soon be looking for his next chapter after the transition.

“I’m eager to apply all I’ve learned in the past 10 years, especially having launched a direct-to-consumer platform, to my next chapter,” Albrecht told Variety. “There’s plenty of fire in my belly.”

Ives opined that Albrecht’s reputation “speaks for itself” and that “whoever gets him next will be lucky.”