Exclusive Q&A: Hot Producer Mark Gordon Reveals What TV Projects the Networks Are Buying
Becoming a successful film producer is hard enough. But Mark Gordon has achieved the extremely rare feat of conquering television as well as movies. As of Sept. 20, the prolific producer had sold at least 11 new TV projects (eight dramas, three comedies). If they make it to air, they'll join Gordon's other small-screen offerings: ABC's Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice, CBS' Criminal Minds and Lifetime's Army Wives. On the film side, the Producers Guild of America co-president has been behind movies big (2012, Speed) and small (The Messenger, The Details), with several more (including Angelina Jolie's Kay Scarpetta project, based on Patricia Cornwell's novel) in development. The ABC Studios-based Gordon, 54, a soon-to-be-remarried father of two girls who got his start in off-Broadway productions, sat down in his artsy West Los Angeles office to discuss network buying habits, studio missteps and the genre he'd love to tackle.
The Hollywood Reporter: What are the networks looking to buy this development season?
Gordon: It's gotten much narrower in terms of what each network wants. People are still interested in procedurals, but they want more character. ABC and NBC want more character, but they don't necessarily want the same kinds of characters in their procedurals. The pilots that were picked up this year at ABC say "fun;" the pilots that NBC picked up say "smart, a little more sophisticated, a little more intellectually challenging." CBS continues to do what it does, but even the three procedurals it picked up are more character-driven than they used to be. Fox didn't pick up much, and the CW is still the CW.
THR Are you comparing NBC to what it previously had been or to the other networks?
Gordon: I don't know what NBC has been over the past couple of years. It had been more of a hodgepodge before [entertainment chairman] Bob Greenblatt arrived. If you look at the pilots he picked up, there's more thought-provoking; they're not as easy to watch as the ABC shows, which are more candy. It's interesting to see what NBC and ABC chose because they're both under the stewardship of a new leader. People have said that Bob and [ABC's] Paul [Lee] picked up similar things [period pieces, faily tale shows], but I don't think that's true. They're similar arenas, but the ways they've chosen to tell their stories are very different.
THR: Are there genres you haven't tried but would like to?
Gordon: I'd love to do a musical. I've done music-oriented films, but I've never done music in television. I really love Glee and [NBC's upcoming] Smash. It's hard to do, but both of those shows in very different ways have created opportunities for themselves to do singing in a way that's grounded but still somewhat fantasy. We'll see if Smash works, but I'm rooting for it.
THR: More films are being adapted for TV, including your movie Source Code by CBS. Are you looking at mining your film library?
Gordon: I probably should, but I haven't. What's interesting is most of the films that have translated to television have been big hits on the film side and have failed on TV. Source Code was a moderate success, but it wasn't a blockbuster. What we chose to do in the TV show is to keep only the concept of "source code" from the movie. It's a completely new set of characters, with three people who go into the source code instead of one. We're going to take away expectations, and there's value in the fact that it didn't do $150 million at the box office. There's a saying that the best movies to remake are the ones that didn't work the first time. I think this is something in between.
THR: Why do most fail?
Gordon: It's very hard to develop any show that sticks. But when the audience has such expectations about what it could or should be because it was such a hit, you have a harder time pleasing them.
THR: There are many film producers trying to do TV. What's the key to a successful transition?
Gordon: The movie business is really tough right now, but I'm surprised it took so long [for film producers to leap to TV]. The quick answers you get on your TV work are a nice thing to have while you're playing the long game on movies. The hardest thing for me as I moved into TV was to remember to keep asking myself the question: Will this work for 100 hours?
THR: You also have to adjust to different budgets on TV.
Gordon: I remember working on my first pilot. We were about to go over budget by about $40,000, and people freaked out. I really couldn't relate to it because I had just finished making The Day After Tomorrow, where they would kiss our ass if we were $40,000 over budget. But it's great discipline, and it has allowed me to be able to make movies like The Messenger and 2012 -- which premiered on the same day, by the way. They couldn't have been on more opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of cost and in terms of what I got paid.
THR: Desperate Housewives has set a finale date. Is there a plan or desire to do the same for Grey's Anatomy?
Gordon: I would like Grey's Anatomy to run until I drop dead. Remember, I'm not in the trenches day to day doing that show, so I'm not working like they are. I suspect if you ask Shonda [Rhimes] and Betsy [Beers] how much more they can handle, you might get a different answer.
THR: Are you talking to or being approached by Netflix or other streaming sites?
Gordon: I haven't. I presume at some point we'll engage with them. I was talking to a studio chairman about Netflix, and he said, "These are not your friends." I'll say that I watch Netflix all the time; as a viewer, it's one of my favorite inventions of the 21st century. But as a profit participant in the movies that I make, I long for the days of DVD [sales] because it was better for the business in every way. The amount of money that accrued from DVDs was substantially greater than what you're getting from Netflix. It wasn't like you went from apples to apples -- you went from apples to raisins. But here's the thing: It was inevitable. What I find particularly interesting is that studios have never stopped kicking themselves for giving their movies to HBO. The revenue that each studio lost by building this movie channel for Time Warner is gigantic -- it's billions of dollars. When I saw what was happening at Netflix, I thought, "Can they do this again?" Now some of the studios are pulling back and not giving their content. The question is how much more they'll pull back.
THR: The PGA Awards are usually a bellwether for the Oscars. Why didn't the PGA mirror the Academy's decision to change the best picture noms process this year, in which five to 10 films can be nominated?
Gordon: I don't believe that what happens at the PGA is going to affect the way the viewing public looks at what's been nominated, nor do I think necessarily that it's going to dramatically affect what happens in the voting. We did change for the Academy [going from five to 10 nominees in 2009] and then it made another change for good reasons [allowing for fewer than 10 nominees]. And we stayed the same for good reasons for us.
THR: What's the status of the Kay Scarpetta project?
Gordon: We're close to a script that we're going to talk to Ms. Jolie about and hope that she'll be as enthusiastic about it as we are. Her manager is our producing partner on it, and this is a wonderful example of a manager who is actually doing the job. He's very involved in the script and development process. Fingers crossed.