FX's John Landgraf on Louis C.K.'s Surprise Web Series, Why He's Done Fighting With Ted Sarandos
The network's CEO also opens up about the Hurricane Katrina season of 'American Horror Story' and his not-so-secret desire to get back into late night.
This story first appeared in the March 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Intentional or not, FX Networks CEO John Landgraf has become the unofficial spokesperson for "peak TV." He first made the claim that there was simply "too much TV" in August 2015, when he also predicted the number of original scripted series would cross the 400 threshold by the year's end. (It did, with 412.) His competitors may not be easing up on their series output, but neither is the 12-year FX veteran, who's readying a robust slate that includes the forthcoming Donald Glover vehicle Atlanta, the Noah Hawley-run Legion and Brian K. Vaughan's Y: The Last Man.
On Feb. 26, Landgraf, 53, will be honored as Television Showman of the Year by the Publicists of the International Cinematographers Guild, alongside Open Road Films' Tom Ortenberg as Motion Picture Showman of the Year. Landgraf, whose networks have earned 16 Emmys (and 83 noms) in the past two years alone, opens up about Louis C.K.'s surprise web series Horace and Pete, the Hurricane Katrina season of American Crime Story and why he's done fighting (for now) with Netflix's Ted Sarandos.
You're being crowned Television Showman of the Year. How important is being a showman today?
Was there ever anyone more ill-suited for being the showman of the year than me?I think of myself as a shy, modest, relatively unassuming person. But if you care about stories and storytellers, you have to care about publicizing and marketing them. That's just the reality of the TV business.
How has your job changed the most since you began at FX 12 years ago?
It just gets harder. There's more competition than there has ever been and that raises the bar on every level. How good does a show have to be? How compelling is the narrative? How original? How marketable? How topical or of the moment in terms of popular culture?
What’s been the single biggest impact of the changing landscape on how you approach original content?
There was a moment in time where I really believed that everything good would find an audience. Television shows used to succeed or fail out the gate. One of the wonderful things about the last decade is that there are plenty of examples now of shows that grew over time. Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy fall into that category. So for a time, I thought, “Well, if a show is good enough, it’s going to succeed no matter what.” Now, I think there’s not enough room for every show. Even good shows can fail to find an audience because they’re drowned out by the noise and the sheer volume of everything that is being made. It’s one of the downsides of there being, as I’ve argued, too many shows.
Louis C.K. did something unprecedented with Horace and Pete. Were you surprised like the rest of us?
I knew it was coming. He called me before we closed our overall deal in July 2015, and he said, "Just so you know, I'm going to do this other thing." And I said, "You don't want to do that with us?" He said, "No, I don't want to market it, I don't want to publicize it, I don't want to have any investors in it or people whose needs I have to satisfy other than my own. I specifically want to self-finance this and I want to drop it on the Internet through my site with no prior notice." Honestly, what do you say to someone who is that audaciously ambitious? Someone who says basically, "I want to do everything. I want to be head of marketing, head of publicity, I want to do your job, I want to be the investor, I want to write it, direct it, produce it, star in it, I'm going to go raise the money, get the cast." You stand back in awe and say, "Go for it, my brother."
Have you discussed potentially giving the show a second window on FX?
Not at the moment. I watch it and I like it and I email him about it as a friend. The nature of the way things work now is that if Horace and Pete gets Emmy nominations for any of the fantastic cast or for the writers or the directors or the show itself, the nominated network will be LouisCK.net. It goes to the entity that aired it first, so ultimately a lot of the brand value of the show has accrued to Louis, as it should, because he made it and distributed it himself.
Competing with streamers and other new platforms is one thing, but now you're also up against a writer-actor-producer who went off and created and distributed his own content. Is that where we're headed?
No. Louis got the capital to be able to do this not only by being one of the most successful standup comedians in America but also through us, basically, by making Louie and a series of deals here. He’s a guy who worked in the system and benefited from our marketing and our publicity to develop his own relationships and build up his infrastructure. So it’s not as if he’s a guy who started in his mom’s basement and got from there to here. The step in between there and here was a lot of work within the Hollywood system.
The second thing is that there just aren’t people like Louis. I mean, who do you know who can write, produce, direct, star in, edit, finance and distribute? So, he’s put forth a model for the future that others may pursue, but by it’s very nature it can’t become a ubiquitous model because there just aren’t many people who are capable of doing it.
The next season of American Crime Story will focus on Hurricane Katrina. What did those conversations entail, and did you have any concerns since about not having a traditional crime?
It’s not a singular crime in the way that there was a murder or two murders in O.J., but there were a series of pretty serious crimes that took place in and around Katrina. Part of what Ryan [Murphy], Nina [Jacobson] and Brad [Simpson] want do with this franchise is use these extraordinarily compelling and entertaining stories to delve into what lies beneath the surface of crime and of our society. To me, Katrina is really an interesting decision in that regard. It’s a big, epic story. On one level, it’s a disaster story with all the sort of human scale and tragedy and interest that any story might have, but then inside it there are all these other fascinating sub-stories. Why were the levees flawed? How did they get that way? Why were there hospitals where life support systems were being turned off? How did a bunch of people end up inside the Superdome, essentially living here in squalid conditions?
Since you dipped your toe in late night with short-lived entries, Russell Brand’s Brand X and Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell in 2013, the landscape has exploded. Will you revisit late night?
I’ve never made a secret of the fact that we’d love to have a late-night show, a daily show, and that has not changed. But at the moment, I can’t figure out how to get us in that business. It’s an incredibly crowded field, and if you’re in a really crowded field, you have to get in business with a really high-end existing person. I just think that’s really tough to do when you have these established powerhouses applying their trade at various places already.
A day after you stood on the TCA stage in January to give an update on your “too much TV” claim, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos took the same podium and criticized the idea. What is he missing?
He’s entitled to his own opinion. I feel the way I feel, he feels the way he feels and I don’t especially want to debate it with him.