Lionsgate Television is easily one of the more prolific producers of quality and popular television series and specials around, with nearly 30 scripted and reality shows currently on-air or set to debut this year.
The company is also among the leaders in developing projects about and starring people of color, with shows such as its Emmy Award-winning Netflix series Orange Is the New Black and OWN’s drama series Greenleaf, featuring Oprah Winfrey.
Lionsgate is also providing opportunities for people of color behind the camera, backing filmmaker Justin Simien’s development of Netflix dramedy series Dear White People — based on the 2014 film about escalating racial tensions between students at a mostly white Ivy League campus — as well as the Jamie Foxx executive-produced comedy series White Famous, currently in development at Showtime. And Power creator Courtney Kemp just signed an exclusive multiyear development deal to create new projects for Starz and other outlets.
Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead spoke with Lionsgate Television Group executive vice president Chris Selak about the premium Lionsgate puts on developing quality programming featuring stories and images of people of color. An edited transcript follows.
What importance does diversity play into making decisions on what shows Lionsgate ultimately creates?
It’s very important. We’re always looking for interesting ideas or for interesting, compelling characters. I think now with this push for real authenticity and for people relating to and seeing themselves on television, we are actively looking at ways that we can portray characters in circumstances that can enlighten and show other people just what we know to be out there. I think it’s necessary in this competitive marketplace of television.
Is Lionsgate actively looking for these types of projects or are you reacting to demand from networks seeking multicultural-themed programming?
For us it’s been more organic. Orange Is the New Black was a book that really was a memoir of a white lady going to prison. [Series creator] Jenji [Kohan] very quickly wanted to make an ensemble, and so it became about all the characters that are in prison and all of their different cultures, so we expanded that out in the series. The shows we tend to have in development like Dear White People, Greenleaf and White Famous are all based in reality and on people’s personal experiences. These worlds were just interesting to us and we had them on our development slate when the networks were looking for more diverse programs.
Does Lionsgate still see network demand for multicultural content?
There is a huge momentum out there — the doors have been pushed wide open, and I think that’s a great thing. We are aware that everybody is open to find characters that have something new to say. Let’s really delve in and peel the onion back on who people are and how we live together and what is at stake with that. When an idea comes in we develop it and we take it out to as many networks that want to hear it.
Are you actively looking for writers, producers and directors of color to helm these multicultural-themed projects?
Yes, that is an initiative for us. Justin Simien is the creative quarterback of Dear White People because it is based on his film and we directed multiple episodes, and we had [Moonlight director] Barry Jenkins direct an episode. We want people of color to be writing about their experiences as well as for our other shows — it doesn’t have to be limited to shows about just African-Americans. We are now working with these young filmmakers and these experienced writers, producers and directors on our other shows because when you work with talent, you migrate that talent to all your other projects.
Can you talk about any new projects?
I’m actually in Atlanta right now because we have our first table read for a series that we have coming out on YouTube Red — Step Up — that has as its leads two young African-American dancers who relocate from Cleveland to [Atlanta] to live with their dad as they aspire to get into a dance school. At Starz, we have in the development stages a project from Carlos Portugal, based on the Mexican telenovela Teresa that we’re really hopeful might be moving forward soon.
Do you think the TV industry’s movement toward more multicultural programming is a fleeting trend or can it be sustained?
I think they’ll continue to look at it. The world has become so global, and the U.S. has finally opened up to hearing other people’s stories. I don’t think the programming can go back — it’s just not as exciting. If something feels like it’s a repeat of something of the past, then you feel like something’s missing. So I don’t think we can go back … I think we’ve just been too enriched in a good way.
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R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.