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Edinburgh TV Fest: Kevin Spacey Tells Industry 'It's the Creatives, Stupid'

House of Cards - Kevin Spacey

In the event's big keynote speech, he criticizes "network people," Hollywood's ratings obsession and the traditional TV pilot system, lauding Netflix's approach to content and saying that the industry should take more creative risks.

EDINBURGH – Kevin Spacey on Thursday criticized "network people," Hollywood's TV ratings obsession and the traditional U.S. TV pilot system, saying that the TV industry was at risk of losing its recent momentum unless it adjusts to new consumer habits in the digital age, takes more creative risks and puts creatives and content first.

Speaking at the annual Edinburgh International Television Festival, he said if he was running for political office, the slogan for his speech would be "It's the creatives, stupid."

He also lauded the Netflix content creation and distribution model and the creative bravery and decisions of HBO. He argued they should inspire the entertainment industry's creative process, with the Netflix model possibly keeping a lid on piracy.

Spacey acknowledged though that studios and networks "want to make money, and we need them to be profitable so they can continue to fund high-quality production," but he urged them to "put talent at the heart of everything we do" since creatives understand audiences best. Said the star: "The challenge is; Can we create an environment where executives -- those who live in data and numbers -- are emboldened and empowered to support our mission, to have an environment with leadership that is willing to take risks, experiment, be prepared to fail by aiming higher rather than playing it safe?"

Spacey suggested that while some argue that "nobody knows anything" about how to make good content, "that's just BS" as it is all about empowering creatives with total abandon. "So we know what works, and the only thing we don’t know is why it’s so difficult to find executives with the fortitude, the wisdom and the balls to do it," he concluded.

Trusting new models and setups could end up boosting the TV industry creatively and financially, Spacey argued. "We might just be able to have greater highs across a broader spectrum of the industry," he said. "That's what I believe."

Netflix and other similar services "have succeeded because they have married good content with a forward-thinking approach to viewing habits and appetites," he also said Thursday. And he warned: "Studios and networks that ignore either shift -- whether the increasing sophistication of storytelling or the constantly shifting sands of technological advancement -- will be left behind."

Discussing his Netflix experience, Spacey said Thursday: "Clearly, the success of the Netflix model -- releasing the entire season of House of Cards at once has proved one thing -- the audience wants the control. They want freedom. If they want to binge -- as they've been doing on House of Cards -- then we should let them binge."

Urged the star: "Give people what they want, when they want it, in the form they want it in, at a reasonable price, and they'll more likely pay for it rather than steal it. Well, some will still steal it, but I believe this new model can take a bite out of piracy."

He also lauded the success of AMC hit show Breaking Bad, which thanks to catch-up viewing on Netflix, has also managed to grow its TV ratings over time. "This example also teaches us, I believe, another important lesson for the networks, and it's about patience, a much overlooked quality needed in creative development and a virtue not found as a rule in network executives hidebound for decades by pressure to find sure-fire hits -- quickly," Spacey said.

In the festival's James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture Thursday evening, one of the annual highlights of the Edinburgh industry gathering in the Scottish capital, the actor-producer, who has been living in London for the past decade, started off by highlighting that he was the first actor in the lecture's nearly 40-year history. And he explained he was in town to share some of his TV industry experiences "that profoundly changed my view of this medium and are perhaps some of the influences that led me to doing House of Cards with Netflix." The annual festival lecture is in memory of Scotland-born TV producer, director and writer James MacTaggart.

In his 45-minute speech, Spacey also cited his mentor Jack Lemmon and Lawrence of Arabia director David Lean who had in 1990 warned Hollywood film studios that "television is going to take over" if they didn't focus on finding and developing new creative talents. He argued that TV has indeed reached the top of the mountain, but complacency and a lack of adjustments to new dynamics would put its outlook at risk.

He said that television is currently in its third golden age before listing some of the high-quality hits of recent years, arguing that too much studio or network interference in them would have been detrimental. Spacey specifically mentioned concerns that NBC executives originally had about Stephen Bochco's Hill Street Blues in 1980, citing focus group tests that revealed people found the pilot confusing and depressing. "If those executives had had their way, the road would have never been paved for The Sopranos, Rescue Me, Weeds, Homeland, Dexter, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Damages, Sons of Anarchy, Oz, The Wire, True Blood, Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and House of Cards," the star said.

Concluded Spacey: "If the list of programs I just read isn't the most powerful and inescapable evidence that the king of television is the creatives -- then I don't know what would convince you. And our challenge now is to keep the flame of this revolutionary programming alive by continuing to seek out new talent, nurture it, encourage it, challenge it, give it a home and the kind of autonomy that the past and present -- of our three golden ages of television -- has proved it deserves."

Spacey said that he was "disappointed this industry doesn't do more to support new talent." And he said: "And just because I have achieved success in my career doesn't mean I'm not disappointed in myself -- disappointed that I haven't done better. I want to do better. I want to produce better stories." His suggestion was to take a page from Lemmon's approach. "I believe 'sending the elevator back down' -- Jack Lemmon's philosophy he handed down to me -- is a great way we can all use success to benefit others."

The key thing is that the entertainment industry must actively look for storytellers with a voice these days, Spacey argued. "If we don't, they may never find their way over the walls we've built so effectively around our theaters, networks and studios, and we may lose their stories forever," he said. After all, "kids aren't growing up with a sense of television as the aspirational place for their ideas."

The star spent parts of his speech on criticizing the process of TV production, ratings and the pilot system.

Recalling his first TV experiences in the 1980s, Spacey said "I wondered who all these guys were standing around the camera in suits, asking why my hair was that way or why I was wearing that tie or why I was acting that way. These weren't the directors or writers. They were network people … sticking their fingers in creative decisions and having opinions about everything."

Recalled Spacey: "Even though I was just starting out, I already knew that I didn't want to have that kind of experience as a steady diet."

Instead of executives planning every detail, he suggested that the industry take the approach Lemmon told him it took in the early days of TV in the 1950s: total abandon.

He argued that House of Cards followed the model more common in the U.K. "The television industry in this country has never really embraced the pilot season so looked to by the networks in the United States as a worthwhile effort," Spacey said. "Now, of course, we went to all the major networks with House of Cards, and every single one was very interested in the idea, but every one of them wanted us to do a pilot first."

He went on to list the number of pilots done in the U.S. in the past couple of years. "The cost of these pilots was somewhere between $300 million and $400 million each year. It makes our House of Cards deal for two seasons look really cost-effective," he concluded.

In today's world, Spacey also said that the entertainment industry is actually free "from that hoary old shadow cast over TV since its inception: the shadow of ratings. Not one of us will ever see a 30 share in our lifetimes. And that’s a wonderful, freeing thing." Added Spacey: "Netflix did it right and focused on all the things that have replaced the dumb, raw numbers of the Nielsen world -- they embraced targeted marketing and 'brand' as a virtue higher than ratings."

Spacey on Thursday also called on the industry to stop putting artificial labels on content. "I've come here today with no ideology, and I'm not viewing today's event as a television event," he said. "It seems to me since audiences are no longer making those kinds of distinctions, why should we? So let's throw the labels out -- and if we call ourselves anything, then aren't we all just storytellers?"

Last year, Elisabeth Murdoch, the daughter of News Corp and 21st Century Fox chairman Rupert Murdoch and chairman of TV producer Shine, gave the lecture. Google chairman Eric Schmidt, former BBC director general Mark Thompson, as well as Rupert and James Murdoch have been among the other people who have delivered MacTaggart lectures. 


E-mail: Georg.Szalai@THR.com
Twitter: @georgszalai