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'Blacklist' Producer on Making NBC's Highest-Testing Show in a Decade and Why He Shifted Away From Film (Q&A)

John Davis Executive Suite - H 2013
Peter Bohler
“The average episode of a television series costs $3.5 million to make, [whereas] in the feature business, we spend years and we can invest $200 million,” says TV newcomer Davis, photographed Sept. 3 in his L.A. office.

John Davis talks to THR about television's "steep" learning curve, why Fox didn't buy ESPN and why the "Man From U.N.C.L.E." movie is finally on track: "We had every major star, George Clooney and Channing Tatum, but it was going to get made on its own schedule."

This story first appeared in the Oct. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. 

John Davis always has had a keen eye for business. As a young cable executive he counseled his father, Marvin Davis (the oilman who owned 20th Century Fox from 1981 to 1984), to go after ESPN in the 1980s. When his father sold Fox, the Harvard Business School grad struck out on his own.

Now, after three decades as a film producer (The Firm, Predator, Dr. Dolittle), Davis, 59, is moving into TV with two new NBC series: The Blacklist (which debuted Sept. 23) and Ironside (Oct. 2). His 10-employee Davis Entertainment has a deal at Sony TV in addition to his film pact at Fox, where he's developing a new version of Frankenstein with Daniel Radcliffe. The married father of three sat down with THR in his Brentwood offices.

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NBC has a lot resting on your shows. How did that affect you?

Blacklist was the highest-testing show NBC had in 10 years -- Bob Greenblatt said that at the upfronts. So they were unbelievably supportive. When you're a film producer, it's difficult to go to TV because it's a different culture; for me the learning curve has been very, very steep. When I make a movie, I am just dealing with the [studio] executives. But in television we are dealing with both the Sony executives and the NBC executives, then the showrunner, then the show creator. And all the research standards are completely different. Typically when you open a film the awareness level is from 70 to 85 percent; in TV, a good number is 23 percent to 27 percent. Because in television, there are so many shows.

You're moving into TV after three decades. Have you given up on film?

A lot of people are professing the end of the film business, and that will never happen. I think the movie business has gone through a contraction over the past five or six years, precipitated by DVD revenue streaming off and the studios deciding that if there were 20 percent fewer movies, the economics for the industry would be better. But the film business is coming back strongly.

Why did Fox's bid to buy ESPN fail?

The deal fell apart. It was owned by Getty Oil [before ABC bought it], and they felt it was the only exciting thing they had. I negotiated the deal. We were going to pay $100 million. It was 1981, and I had done my senior marketing thesis at Harvard B-School on cable sports. We got very close, and they decided at the last minute they didn't want to sell.

What's the key to a successful negotiation?

Having a relationship with the person you're negotiating with, so that you can have a rational conversation. Irrationality will pull a deal apart; hurt feelings or egos.

TV REVIEW: The Blacklist

Seeing what Rupert Murdoch has done with Fox, what's most impressed you?

That he continues to build a company that is fully diversified in the television and network and sports and entertainment and news business. He's done a really good job of not migrating out of the media business. A lot of people over time have the tendency to build conglomerates that combine diverse businesses, [but] there's never a synergy.

It's taken 22 years for you to develop a film version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which now has Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer. What happened?

I loved that franchise as a kid. Years later, I met Norman Felton, who created it, and I persuaded him to trust me with the rights. Over the years, we had various directors attached -- Steven Soderbergh and Guy Ritchie now and others. We had every major star -- George Clooney and Channing Tatum and Tom Cruise. But it was going to get made on its own schedule. In TV, you have a due date. With Blacklist, James Spader wanted to do it. We wanted him -- and boom! -- it happened over a couple of days. In the film business, it happens over years.