ABC Studios Boss on the Pace of 'Scandal,' Advice for Anne Sweeney and Why He Sent Paul Feig a Tie (Q&A)
This story first appeared in the April 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
A campaign poster catches your eye as you enter Patrick Moran's corner office on the Disney lot in Burbank. The ABC Studios chief is not stumping for a real-life politician but rather for Tony Goldwyn's fictional President Fitzgerald Grant of Scandal, the crown jewel of both his studio and the sister broadcast network on which it airs.
The Beltway soap from Shonda Rhimes is precisely the kind of character-driven buzz generator with which Moran, 42, is looking to populate his portfolio as he rounds out his fourth year at the Disney-owned studio. His other goal since making the leap from 20th Century Fox Television, where he spent seven years working on such shows as Glee, Bones and Prison Break: to broaden ABC Studios' reach by selling series to networks outside of ABC, something the previous regime didn't prioritize. Though series orders won't come until May, the Richmond, Va., native has projects in development at each of the Big Four networks.
The affable University of Virginia grad, who spent a year at a New York art gallery before getting his big break at New Line Television in the mid-1990s, was elevated to executive vp in July, reporting to ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee. In that capacity, he oversees more than 70 employees and shows ranging from 10th-season hospital drama Grey's Anatomy to freshman breakout Resurrection. (Other recent attempts, including Lucky 7 and Killer Women, haven't fared as well.) He's been making a push into cable, too, with a lower-budget boutique division, ABC Signature, that soon will roll out the courtroom comedy Benched on USA.
Moran, who with his partner, Mistresses writer Jordan Budde, spends his spare time collecting art and renovating homes, sat down in mid-March to field questions about a challenging season at ABC, the surprise imminent departure of Disney/ABC TV Group president Anne Sweeney and the showrunner who got away.
How has the explosion of TV outlets impacted the way you make deals?
It's fiercely competitive and yet we have to manage our productions because the ratings don't support a show at a particular [price point]. You have to be very thoughtful about what goes where, and our business affairs people are very vocal reminders of that. (Laughs.) The other thing is, not every deal needs to be the old-fashioned overall, not every deal needs to [incorporate] your series services and your development. We've made more development‑only deals if that's what a writer wants to pursue. We try to customize a lot more, which allows for more flexibility.
What's the biggest difference between the 20th TV culture and the Disney one?
The perception when I came in was that we were completely landlocked to the network. That had been part of the culture in years past, but it felt obvious to me that that wasn't the best way to recruit talent. It also made the studio voice in the conversation slightly diminished. 20th was already doing it so successfully. I'll say you are aware being at ABC that you're part of the Disney Co. and how big it is, too. We do these management retreats every year, and it's a great reminder that the breadth of this company is remarkable. You didn't really feel that way at News Corp.
What's been the best and worst day on this job?
I remember reading the Scandal pilot and calling Shonda and saying, "You've written this so confidently, it feels like it's already on the air." And that's always the most exciting thing when you read a great script or you see a great cut. The worst? This was a challenging year because we launched so many shows, and I had some favorites in there that I thought would have gotten more traction than they did. Looking at the overnights the morning after can sometimes be a tough thing: "Oh really? That's what we have to show for it?"
What's the best pitch you've sat through?
One of my favorite pitches this year that's still in development at ABC was DINKS, with June Diane Raphael and Casey Wilson. It's based on their experiences as double-income [couples] with no kids, and so they had this really funny personal anecdotal stuff like the sort of things that people who have no kids spend their money on. And they actually asked a few questions of me. My partner and I, who don't have kids, had inexplicably had our dogs' portraits done, which is so embarrassing to think about now. It actually worked its way into the pitch.
What's the biggest mistake people make when they're pitching you?
Too much detail. There's no hard and fast rule to how someone pitches, but less is more.
What's the wildest thing you've done to land an actor or showrunner?
We're not afraid to send gifts to writers who we're pursuing. This might have been the corniest thing we did: We sent Paul Feig a tie. We sent a poor assistant back to the store three times to buy a tie that was worthy of sending to Paul Feig. He hasn't made a deal yet.
What genres have you not tapped in to that you'd really like to going forward?
I still have an appetite for genre, though we've tried a couple things in the past that haven't stuck. I was very proud of [2011 horror drama] The River. We only made eight episodes, and it was so clearly not on the right network. It may have worked on Fox, and we had a conversation with Netflix about it. It was on after the Dancing With the Stars results show, too, which was not a match. We're doing a pilot called The Whispers [formerly The Visitors] that has a touch of genre to it; maybe that'll … connect with an ABC audience. It's been tricky for us.
How will you approach overall deals going forward?
They're a critical piece of our business and we definitely want to continue to make deals, and make them aggressively and be very targeted. We have a great drama roster here, and we've spent a lot of energy building a comedy roster. A lot of energy. But it's fiercely competitive because everybody's looking for the next comedy hit.
The broadcast comedy genre has failed to produce new hits. What's happening?
It's funny. We went into this year with so many big splashy shows, Michael J. Fox Show and Sean Hayes' [Sean Saves the World on NBC]. That alchemy between a great script, cast and director is just really tricky. And then the other thing is the programming of it, and flow is tough. How many shows has ABC tried to launch off the back of Modern Family?
With Anne Sweeney departing, what do you hope your new boss' boss is willing to commit to you?
I work in a company that's very driven by the ABC network and a number of cable networks, so we're a little bit of an anomaly. So long as my new boss' boss has an eye to the studio business, I'll be [happy]. There are more and more places to make shows, and if we can figure out a way to make deals at all of these networks, there's enormous potential to grow.
What's the best advice you can give Anne about being a TV director?
Shadow the best person that you can find. It's such a specific pursuit that I feel like the more on‑the‑job training that you can have, the better your chances are of success.
What's the note you give most often?
"Don't be so tame." Writers come in and there's an expectation because it's on a particular network, it should conform to a certain set of expectations. So I frequently say, "Don't be afraid to push the envelope, and let us pull you back." It happened with our Shondaland pilot, where the writer Pete Nowalk came in with a character and we kept pushing him, "Don't be afraid to make your character bolder, louder and unlikeable." For so long the note you'd get from the networks was, "Your character's not likeable enough," but we're not saying that.
What kind of notes do you give to Shonda Rhimes?
I do not give notes to Shonda. (Laughs.)
Scandal, your breakout success, blows through a tremendous amount of story in every episode. Do you ever have concerns about the pace of the storylines?
But that is sort of the hallmark of the show, right? It does accelerate through a lot of story, but it's also what people like about the show.
What's the project or talent that got away?
We had a long history with Damon Lindelof. [Seeing him] go to Warner Brothers stung.
What was your biggest series disappointment this past season?
I really had hoped that Once Upon a Time in Wonderland would work. It was designed to be what they call "gap programming," to go in between the regular season, and it probably would have fared better as that.
Marvel's Agents of SHIELD was your most ambitious push this season. How does it compare to internal expectations?
I think they've taken a creative turn in the show. We started out doing kind of this very mission-oriented show and it's become way more character‑driven, and I think that is better for it.
If you weren't in the entertainment industry, what would you be doing?
Working on my houses. We move every two years, and [we start looking for the next place] as soon as we move in. Every home is very different. We're renovating a Tudor in Hancock Park now. For me, it's just a nice break. No one's asking me about notes on a script or a budget or a director assignment or anything.