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Jeffrey Schlesinger brings Warner films and TV to global viewers

April 15, 2012|By Joe Flint, Los Angeles Times
  • "I’ve been through five mergers and worked for six companies, and I’m still sitting here today," says Jeffrey R. Schlesinger, president of Warner Bros. International Television since 1994.
"I’ve been through five mergers and worked for six companies,… (Barbara Davidson, Los Angeles…)

The gig: As president of Warner Bros. International Television, Jeffrey Schlesinger, 56, oversees sales of Warner television and movie products abroad and oversees a dozen WB-owned production companies in Britain and the Netherlands. International sales of Warner content generates billions of dollars a year in revenue for parent company Time Warner Inc.

Tuning in. As a child growing up in suburban Philadelphia, Schlesinger was obsessed with TV. Frustrated with having only a couple of channels, his family took matters into their own hands. Recalled Schlesinger: "They used to make these big aerial antennas on the top of your house and you could pick up the New York stations." After his family installed one, he could watch Jackie Gleason and "Gilligan's Island" all the time.

So you wanna be a rock 'n' roll star. As a teen, Schlesinger was bitten by the music bug. "I started going to rock concerts when I was 14." His first show was Iron Butterfly, followed by Jimi Hendrix and the Who. He had his own band and spent his high school years covering songs by Steppenwolf, the Rolling Stones and Ten Years After.

Colorful characters. After high school, Schlesinger put down the guitar and picked up a camera and ended up studying film at New York University. However, he soon realized he "was not very good at writing scripts" and switched to documentaries. He was hired by Stewart Mott, the somewhat eccentric activist son of General Motors investor and longtime director Charles Mott, to document his 40th birthday bash. "It was a medieval fest. Everyone from Harry Reems to Bella Abzug was there."

Selling Bert and Ernie. After a brief stint at CBS News and working as an independent film editor, Schlesinger got the first taste of his future at Children's Television Workshop, the home of children's TV staples "Sesame Street" and "The Electric Company." His title was international production and distribution manager, but it wasn't as glamorous as it sounded. "Mainly I was shipping tapes around to country to country." His boss gave him a key piece of advice that would last a lifetime. Noticing that a German TV station's contract for "Sesame Street" was up for renewal, Schlesinger asked his boss what to do. "Just ask them for more than we got last time," he was told. A salesman was born.

Moving up. Although Schlesinger liked hawking "Sesame Street," he liked money more — and CTW suffered from, in his words, "nonprofit-itis." He landed a job at MCA/Universal TV and soon was selling reruns of "The Rockford Files" and "Columbo" all over Canada. Although he had no formal business training, he thrived, thanks to lessons he learned from his father, who worked in the furniture business. "He would come home and talk about the deals he made and how he would structure things. It was my first and only class in business."

Finding a home. In 1983, Schlesinger ended up at a small production company called Telepictures, which was acquired by Lorimar, which was bought by Warner Bros. Through each merger, he got a bigger title. In 1994, he was named president of international television and is now the longest-serving president at the studio. "I've been through five mergers and worked for six companies, and I'm still sitting here today."

Traveling man. Although he has a staff of 250 people, Schlesinger still spends at least 20 weeks abroad and gets excited about 12-hour plane flights. "You need to be in the market. You need to feel it, smell it and taste it to really have a sense of where it is going and what the opportunities are."

Different times. With artsy roots and no advance degree, Schlesinger knows he took a path that probably doesn't exist anymore. "I would never be hired today. I'm a mediocre student with no business training and no language ability running a big, complex, financially intensive, international business."

Personal: Schlesinger lives in West Hollywood with his wife, Isis. When he's not on a plane, he likes to ski and play tennis.

joe.flint@latimes.com

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