Not all jobs are as easy to land as coming in for an interview and then starting a few weeks later—sometimes it takes 25 years of knowing the right people and building the right kind of experience to get that big gig. That was definitely the case for Stephanie Sperber, president of Imagine Entertainment’s freshly minted kids and family division.
She has known Imagine’s founders Ron Howard (Frost/Nixon, Apollo 13) and Brian Grazer (A Beautiful Mind) for more than 25 years, through her previous role as president of global consumer products, gaming, partnerships and product placement for Universal Pictures. But that’s not to say that Sperber was waiting in the wings for this to come about. She spent 18 years working at NBCUniversal and was instrumental in growing the Despicable Me/Minions franchise into a multi-billion-dollar global retail program. Then she branched out on her own to launch White Space Entertainment and has helped develop STX Entertainment’s Uglydolls brand through consumer products and digital gaming.
The position came about in rather a natural way, actually, because Sperber was already working in the same office as Howard and Grazer.
“My White Space business literally has been housed at Imagine for a couple of years; they’ve been a client of mine and continue to be a client of White Space, so it made sense to say that if we’re doing this for other clients, why not leverage the amazing brand that Imagine has in entertainment,” says Sperber.
So after a bit of prodding from her, Imagine decided to launch a new kids and family division, and it was only natural that Sperber would be at the helm. When she started her own business in 2016, it was all about helping clients find ways to best capitalize on their own IPs and it just so happens that Imagine recently shifted its whole business model to be more about owning its own brands. Previously, the prodco had been acting as an output studio for Universal on the features side and Fox on the TV side, putting out projects like How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) and Emmy-winning TV series Curious George (2006 to 2015).
“To launch a kids business, it’s so important to own those underlying rights so you can build out a franchise and own it,” says Sperber. “Coming to them with that mentality and that business experience already, I think is what was appealing.”
Although Sperber is only a month into her new role, she says she is going to be leading development and production on premium animated and live-action feature films, original TV series and short-form content. On the feature side, things are already up and running because Imagine struck a five-year deal with Australian digital production studio Animal Logic and Toby Emmerich’s Warner Bros. film division to co-produce and co-finance a slate of animated and hybrid family films just last year. Sperber notes that she wasn’t around for that deal-making process, so it’s not quite the same as starting from scratch.
However, Sperber is now able to turn her attention almost entirely to kickstarting the TV sector. She started things off by teaming up with Four M Studios to create premium children’s TV programming based on LIFE Magazine‘s archive of more than 10 million photos. The first project coming out of the partnership will be LIFE for Kids using images from LIFE Magazine as a jumping-off point.
Other than that, Imagine’s TV slate is pretty wide open right now. Sperber says that day to day she is focusing on internal IP development by finding new creators that she wants to do shopping or first-look agreements with, and then developing those ideas into pitches and full-fledged TV series for both preschoolers and kids six to eight.
“The idea is really to get a lot of volume out to buyers as quickly as possible because we’re producers, we are looking to place the IPs that we’re developing internally or from incoming pitches,” says Sperber.
Sperber is up to her eyeballs in development work right now, and to help with that volume, Imagine is looking for a development executive with TV experience to come on board. She makes it clear that Imagine has the funding to fill positions, and that both Howard and Grazer have offered her any support that she needs, but she has a startup mentality and isn’t looking to bring on too many people all at once. For the most part, Sperber just needs someone on the TV side to lighten her load but doesn’t want to bring too many writers or creators in-house, otherwise things can start to feel stale.
“I believe that every project has a different tone and feel and look,” says Sperber. “I think there’s such a great wealth of talent in the world, and I wouldn’t want to be dedicated to one look or one tone. I think it’s best to be able to pick the right person for the project based on the creative match.”
Working with Howard and Grazer has also been an incredibly easy transition, because they happen to work so close together physically that if Sperber threw a paperclip out her door she’d come close to hitting one of their offices. But more than that, they are able to talk ideas through with her and give her enthusiastic support so that she isn’t alone in the venture. The two are also especially supportive of her White Space business, which is important since Sperber is staying on as CEO of the company.
“It’s hugely important to me [to still be the CEO of White Space] because I built it from scratch, and the UglyDolls business is so important to me because it was something that I had identified at Universal and brought to STX,” says Sperber.
UglyDolls is created by toyco Pretty Ugly, which teamed up with STX back in 2015 to turn the plush toy brand into TV and film content. That kicks off with a movie premiering on May 3, and will be followed by TV content on Hulu, not to mention more screen content created through a partnership between STX and Alibaba Pictures in China to co-produce and co-finance content inspired by the brand. And of course, tons and tons of products.
“I still own and control White Space, so the structure is clear. But [Howard and Grazer] are so interested and supportive of that franchise being built and succeeding, because they see it as a model for the next one; they want me to do it again,” says Sperber.
And she knows something about building franchises. Sperber started her career in kids TV as director of marketing for Hanna-Barbera Cartoons before jumping to Universal and eventually running global consumer products there and launching the massive juggernaut that is Minions from the Despicable Me.
She sees her next steps as part of the overall growth happening in the kids industry right now, and plans to leverage that while being incredibly busy running Imagine Kids & Family and White Space.
“The whole audience globally has expanded, and the platforms have been expanded. Imagine can own its own IPs now and all of the pieces came together in terms of their business structure, the IP ownership opportunities, the audience,” says Sperber. “Could they have done it a couple years ago? Yeah probably, but all of the stars aligned now.”