As a buyer, Sharon Levy listened to hundreds of pitches. That was the best possible experience to bring to her present position, on the other side of the desk.
They say that from small things, big things one day come.
In the case of Sharon Levy, though, something big has come from next to nothing. Sure, as president of scripted and unscripted programming at Endemol Shine North America, she's one of Hollywood's most prominent TV production executives. However, her success came only after her first attempt to break into show biz turned out to be an abject failure.
"There's a really horrible screenplay I wrote when I was 22," Levy says with a laugh. "It was like an Australian soap opera, like The Thorn Birds. I was in a writing class and also had a real job, coming home every night it to crank it out on my word processor. It was so bad, it really did change my life. It showed me what I shouldn't be doing."
She may never hear her name called on Oscar night, but cinema's loss was definitely television's gain. Not long after she opted to let others do the writing, Levy began working in public relations at Comedy Central, where she handled such series as South Park, The Man Show and Win Ben Stein's Money. That experience laid the groundwork for her path to production.
Publicity became "the greatest training for how to engage meaningfully with talent," Levy says, and her bonds with those in front of the camera inspired her interest to work with them behind the camera on the creative side. She eventually segued to Spike TV in 2005, where she was senior vice-president of original series before working her way up to executive vice-president, overseeing all unscripted and scripted series.
During her tenure, Spike (later the Paramount Network) added everything from reality shows like Ink Master and Bar Rescue to miniseries like Tut and Waco. Expanding the lineup meant Levy spent her days listening to other people pitch her on why she should buy their ideas. So when she left to join Endemol Shine North America in 2017, she had to flip her role in the TV business: instead of being a buyer, she had to become a seller.
That's a shift she's learned to love, since it gives her the chance to apply all the lessons she learned sitting on the other side of the desk.
"I sat through so many horrible pitches over the years," she recalls. "There are some brilliant producers who are just not good pitchers. So you learn to see through that, and if you're an empathetic person, which I am, you can coax a good idea out of someone who may not like public speaking. I get it: pitching is hard.
"But then you also get the super-hopped-up, high-energy pitchers whose ideas make no sense. You realize you've heard variations of it 400 times over. So observing all of this has taught me to never, ever go into a pitch ill-prepared. The people I pitch to may not like the idea, but it'll definitely be a real idea that's fully formed and that I know I can execute."
It didn't take Levy much time to adjust to her new role. Jessica Rhoades, an executive producer on Utopia (a new series Endemol Shine is making for Amazon Prime), has seen her in action, and she's impressed.
"Sharon has spent so much of her career on the buyer side of the table that having her pitching with you is like having someone running an undercover op," Rhoades says.
Her show is based on a British thriller that follows a group of young adults who must save the world while being hunted by a shadowy government organization. "She knows the question behind the question… how the executive hearing and hopefully loving your show is thinking about how they're going to sell internally."
Levy says she approaches pitching "like a performance," whether it's a scripted or unscripted show. All shows have beginnings, middles and ends that need to be explained in the room. As a former network exec, she also has a keen understanding of how every show she pitches must be a perfect fit for the network to which she's selling.
"Fox's brand might require something very different than the Disney+ brand," she explains. "It's up to me to figure out what suits each of them. If they say, 'Hey, this is what I'm looking for,' and you bring them something that doesn't fit that, it's a waste of time for everyone involved, and you can't have that.
"That's why I like being a seller in today's climate. It's a bit like being an anthropologist. You get so into all these different cultures, and they're all fascinating. I get to visit with people who have different styles, different tastes… it's really fun!"
That pitching prowess seems to have paid off. Levy has sold more than a dozen series to outlets including Fox, Showtime, Disney+, AppleTV+ and Quibi in the past year alone.
The list includes reboots of reality series like The Biggest Loser, for USA Network, and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, for HGTV. Then there's Family Food Fight, which premiered on ABC last summer, as well as the upcoming Will Arnett–hosted LEGO Masters for Fox, Showtime's reimagined take on The Talented Mr. Ripley and the aforementioned Utopia for Amazon.
"Sharon is a wonderful collaborator, partner and creative visionary," says Loren Ruch, HGTV's group senior vice-president, programming and development. "She is incredibly fun to work with and leads her team with so much enthusiasm that it naturally fosters creativity and ingenuity." With all this success, it certainly seems like Levy has easily slipped into her new role. Well, with one exception.
"One of the interesting things about being a seller now is that after having been the buyer for so long, you know, it's been tough getting over the shock that I have to actually drive wherever anyone sends me. That was a big pill to swallow," Levy says, laughing again.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, issue No. 1, 2020
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