How Sister’s Jane Featherstone, Elisabeth Murdoch and Stacey Snider Are Building Their Media Empire
When former HBO executive Kary Antholis convinced veteran British producer Jane Featherstone to board a project about the Chernobyl disaster, the prospect of such an undertaking was far from a “slam dunk.”
“It had to be pushed over the line,” says Featherstone, “and that was with everybody supporting it.” But in the end, the historical drama from “The Last of Us” showrunner Craig Mazin was, as the producer puts it, a “lucky, lucky call” — and one that richly paid off.
The 2019 HBO and Sky miniseries about the 1986 nuclear catastrophe in Ukraine starring Jared Harris and Emily Watson won multiple Emmy and Golden Globe Awards, and put Featherstone’s new venture, Sister Pictures, on the map.
Few in Britain were surprised when, later that year, the production company expanded into a global studio simply titled Sister. Featherstone, who spent the previous 16 years with the Kudos production banner, partnered with Shine Group founder Elisabeth Murdoch and Stacey Snider, former chairman and CEO of Twentieth Century Fox. The company is Variety’s 2023 International Achievement in Television Award winner, and will be honored at MipTV, with Featherstone accepting the award on behalf of Sister in Cannes.
Almost four years into its operation as an international studio, Sister remains independent: a world removed from Featherstone’s experience at Kudos, where she spent the bulk of her career producing global-facing shows like the long-running “Spooks,” period drama “The Hour” and detective series “Broadchurch.” Featherstone joined the company in 1999 and stayed through its sale to Shine in 2006 and eventual amalgamation into Endemol Shine Group in 2015, when she stepped down to form Sister Pictures. (Kudos is now part of the Banijay Group portfolio, following its $2.2 billion acquisition of Endemol Shine in 2020.)
“Independence was the key to my learnings at Kudos, and it’s still critical,” says Featherstone. “We’ve expanded, we’ve grown and we have investments, but [Sister] can still partner with anybody and work with any talent and create our own deal structures.”
Indeed, Sister is fast becoming a super-indie in its own right. The company has deals in place with “Pamela: A Love Story” producer Dorothy Street Pictures; British animation film studio Locksmith Animation; podcast company Campside; publishing venture Zando; comic book and digital media publisher AWA Studios; and — in a partnership no one was expecting — the iconic London music venue KOKO.
“We are guided by our desire to find and support amazing storytellers, creatives and entrepreneurs — more so than by the exact expression or size of the company,” explains Murdoch, who’s also the founder and chair of Locksmith Animation, in an email.
“I believe our mission now remains what it always has been: to create a home for storytellers and entrepreneurs with something important to say, no matter where their location was or by which medium they used to tell their stories,” she adds. “Our desire was always to provoke and support them to do their best work, through patient capital and a global network.”
Earlier this month, Sister bought “a significant stake” in British broadcaster Richard Bacon’s unscripted TV and tech entertainment company Yes Yes Media, which is trying to develop device-agnostic content. In announcing the deal, Bacon explained his vision as such: “We’re writing talent and game shows, collaborating with a video gaming company and creating formats that we’ll live stream directly to viewers ourselves, with everyone watching changing the story.”
Such forward-looking investments underline the company’s original mission of “[building] upon the excellence” of Sister Pictures, explains Snider, a studio veteran who leads on Sister’s film business.
“Our focus now is that we’re executing upon the thesis and making shows and films in L.A. and London, while expanding our portfolio of adjacent creators,” says Snider, who also served as CEO of DreamWorks and led Universal Pictures. “When we originally got together, we knew that independence, an international focus and experience would be a competitive differentiator — and that’s proving true in real time.”
As “quixotic” as the market is currently, says Snider, “we’ve always talked about being a port in a storm and putting our many years of experience to use in service of navigating choppy waters for — and with — our creative partners.”
And choppy they most certainly have been. Sister targets a “mixed economy” of broadcasters as well as global streamers. The company’s new drama series “The Power,” about a world in which teenage girls develop the power to electrocute people, launched on Prime Video to positive reviews in April, and there are three projects — the series “Kaos” and “Eric” and Dan Levy-directed feature “Good Grief” — set up at Netflix. Like most producers, however, the approach does mean the business can find itself at the sharp end of tense market conditions.
“The challenge as an independent studio,” says Featherstone, “is do we partner with a streamer and potentially sell your rights and success, and just get your premium, or do we try and do it with a U.K. broadcaster and apply terms of trade, and then sell it internationally like we used to? But then, getting the budget together to do [the latter] is difficult.”
In 2017, Featherstone made waves when, during her BAFTA Television lecture, she boldly proclaimed what everyone in the U.K. industry was already thinking: that the flow of co-production money from the streamers would soon run dry.
“Co-production has been a buzz word for the last five years,” Featherstone declared at the time, adding that both the BBC and ITV had projects part-funded by the streamers. “That honeymoon period? Consider it over.” The co-production tap is going to be turned off, or at least reduced to a trickle, warned Featherstone.
Was her ominous prediction correct? Well, she wasn’t wrong. Like most things in the media landscape, the reality is nuanced. The streamers do still strike the occasional co-production with British broadcasters — “Queenie” author Candice Carty-Williams’ highly anticipated “Champion” this year, for example, is a co-production between the BBC and Netflix — but these are far reduced as the SVODs look to hang on to the coveted domestic rights in countries like the U.K., where they’re still building out subscribers.
What Featherstone couldn’t have predicted, however, was the COVID pandemic and its impact on the industry, alongside extensive upheaval in the U.S. market, paired with rising inflation and a cost of living crisis in countries like the U.K. Such factors have only strengthened the reliance on co-productions to save on costs. Nonetheless, certain U.S. players such as AMC Networks and HBO — which used to be an important port of call for British producers like Sister — aren’t as active in international co-productions anymore due to belt-tightening at their parent companies.
“There aren’t that many happening, so how are we going to make up the budget from a European point of view?” asks Featherstone. “Nobody’s really cracked that.”
Yet with all the dramatic headwinds impacting the industry, Featherstone dares to be optimistic that business is going to bounce back. Sister, at least, is doing it for themselves.
“The commissioning agenda has changed in the last few months, and it feels like there’s much less being made, but I think that will evolve again, I really do,” says Featherstone. “Once things right themselves, and people find the right partners at the right level of budgets, things will start to pick up again.”