FXX Execs on Launching a Network and How to Pitch: 'Don't Use the Word 'Edgy'' (Q&A)
This story first appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
On Sept. 2, Nick Grad and Eric Schrier will add another television network to their portfolio. The pair, both presidents of programming at FX, will oversee original series at the younger-skewing FXX. The addition is part of a corporate strategy to expand the network group's output, with flagship FX and older-skewing FXM joined by FXX (aimed at the 18-to-34 demographic).
To line each of the schedules, Schrier and Grad, along with their boss, FX Networks CEO John Landgraf, have ambitious plans to feature 25 original scripted series on the air during the next few years, with six comedy pilots, two drama pilots and one limited series (the Billy Bob Thornton starrer Fargo) already in production. The company veterans -- Schrier, 37, joined FX in 1999 (as then-entertainment president Kevin Reilly's assistant); Grad, 44, in 2002 -- say they're continuing to seek bravura fare, in keeping with a current crop of FX shows that includes Louie, Sons of Anarchy and Justified. They will figure out which network it belongs on later in the development process.
The Los Angeles natives are realistic about the challenges that come with launching a new network, acknowledging it is a long-term play requiring time, patience and lowered ratings expectations. The two men, both married fathers of young children with strong family ties to the entertainment industry (Schrier's father was an agent at ICM; Grad's was a development executive at 20th Century Fox TV, his uncle is director James Burrows and his wife, Carolyn Bernstein, is executive vp scripted programming at Shine America), sat down with THR in their offices in early August.
The Hollywood Reporter: What's the biggest mistake people make when they come in to pitch?
Eric Schrier: They try to manufacture what they think we'd want, and you can smell it right away. They're like, "OK, we're going to do an edgy male show because they're the edgy male network."
Nick Grad: Good one. Don't use the word "edgy"!
THR: What's the note you give most often?
Grad: If you think of a three-act movie, we usually try to guide people toward starting at the beginning of Act 2. One thing people do a lot is try to stuff a lot of backstory into a pilot. It's a bit of a feature mentality: In a movie, if you don't lay those things in, the audience will never know it. But we're making 90-hour movies. There's plenty of time, and to me, it's delicious to drop into a world and get your bearings. People overestimate the amount people need to know in order to enjoy a pilot.
THR: What are some of the best pitches you've heard?
Schrier: The Wilfred pitch was actually really interesting because they sent over this sizzle reel of the Australian version. It's literally a guy in a dog suit, and you're like, "How are they going to do that as a show?" But David Zuckerman came in and pitched it out as Fight Club, basically, as a comedy. Nick was out the day we bought it, so the next time David came in to pitch it, I told him, "You've got to do it all over because they thought we were crazy for buying this."
THR: With the influx of competition in the originals space, there are more bidding wars for projects. How has that changed your business?
Grad: It's annoying. There was a time when the brands of HBO, Showtime, FX and AMC had less overlap. Now you've got other players in the marketplace who are very aggressive, and there's more overlap with our brands, too. You could see a show going to this place or to that place, so it's created a bit more of a feeding frenzy for certain projects.
Schrier: We're a very deliberate place. We talk and think about our decisions really thoroughly, and that stems from John. The feeding frenzy that's going on makes you have to act much more quickly with less information, and you can get caught up. Every call now is, "HBO already likes it," or, "Someone's already put a bid on it." We're like, "OK, let me read the script first!"
THR: You're about to launch FXX. Walk us through the decision to differentiate the networks by demo, rather than genre or something else.
Grad: In the last couple of years there's been a mandate to do more original content, and we were at maximum capacity at FX. We didn't want to split the brand and say, "This is comedy, and this is drama," the way some other places do. We really believe there's value in our brand, and we've curated it for a long time. So the question became, how do we expand without diluting that brand? Trying to move things around demographically seemed like the best way -- there's a lot of overlap, and it still all falls under this umbrella of trying to do things that are smart, have a point of view and that are populist.
THR: What show on a rival network would be an ideal fit for FX and FXX?
Schrier: For FX, Breaking Bad. For us, that's the one that got away.
Grad: We'd love to have Game of Thrones on FX, too. For FXX, my answer would be The Daily Show. I love Totally Biased [With W. Kamau Bell], but I still think Daily Show is the gold standard of where funny meets smart.
THR: You're asking people to find a new channel on an already crowded dial. I imagine you'll have to adjust your ratings expectations. How will you assess success and failure?
Schrier: I don't think we know yet. There are a lot of things that go into how we evaluate our shows, outside of just ratings, and we're very clear that they're not going to perform how they perform on FX. It's a long-term play.
THR: Like many other networks, you're pushing into the limited-series business, beginning with Fargo. Why?
Schrier: There are a number of reasons why we got into it, but from a creative standpoint, we hear pitches for 90-hour movies -- long character journeys. There were a lot of pitches that came in that were really good but didn't make sense for that format; they were much better as six-, eight-, 10-part stories. We also found that there were a lot of people who were really talented who didn't want to sign on to do seven years of a television show but had stories that they couldn't tell in the independent-film world or the feature-film world, where there was a lack of quality adult movies.
Grad: I think some shows probably stay on the air too long because they think they are fitting into a business model. We're trying to find out what the right format is for the idea.
THR: You've said you're interested in building out your late-night programming. Who would be the dream addition to your late-night lineup?
Grad: I'll tell you, I think the two best interviewers in the business right now are Howard Stern and Marc Maron. I spend a lot of my time in my car listening either to Howard or to Maron's WTF podcast. Who knows if it would translate because I think part of what allows them to have such great interviews is the length. [In late-night], there's not enough time [for guests] to let their guard down.
THR: You've pushed hard to own programming. How has that affected your relationships with other studios, and have you lost projects as a result?
Schrier: We don't make decisions about what's the right show to put on the air based on our ownership stake. But I do think having ownership helps us make the shows more successful. It makes us much more involved, not only creatively but from a business standpoint. Because there are multiple revenue streams coming in, we're able to keep a show like It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia on the air longer than we would if we were just a network. It took three years for Sunny to really take off. Sons of Anarchy is another one: It's grown every year it's been on, and it still sells tremendously well on DVD. We run spots for the DVD every week on the show. We started a licensing and merchandising business on that show; we're talking to [creator] Kurt Sutter about doing a video game.
THR: As the landscape becomes more competitive, will you look to secure more talent through overall or first-look deals?
Grad: We're still mostly a network. The studio is really important, but we don't have the desire to compete with major studios that can service all these deals.
Schrier: We don't have the aspirations to be a studio that sells to other networks. We're focused on putting on great shows on the FX networks, and if [Fox] has a limited series that they want us to help them with, we will. But we're not looking to go pitch something to CBS or NBC.
THR: What was your big break?
Grad: When I was in high school, I was a P.A. on Cheers [which Burrows co-created], then I had an internship on the first season of L.A. Law. But my first real job was at Fox Broadcasting; my unofficial title was tape bitch.
Schrier: My grandfather was the secretary of MCA and my father was an agent, so I grew up around it. My dad used to take me to tapings, and when the fall season came out he'd want me to watch all the shows with him and tell him what I thought. My first job out of college [at USC] was at CAA. I was a floater in the mornings, which is basically a temp, and then I was a second assistant to Josh Lieberman in the afternoons. I remember he had signed Colin Farrell, who was an unknown at the time, and he was like: "Eric, Colin's coming out here. Call the casting directors and set up meetings." And then he's like, "He doesn't know how to get around, so find one of your friends and have one of them drive him around." I found one of my friends from high school to drive him around. He ended up having a lot of fun with Colin Farrell for a number of weeks. It was a great experience, and now all of these agents whose phones I answered at one point come in and pitch me shows.
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