Robert Rodriguez on Quentin Tarantino's TV Aspirations and Plans for El Rey Network
This story first appeared in the Aug. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Robert Rodriguez has made a career out of firsts. In 1992, the then-23-year-old director helped kick-start the indie film boom with El Mariachi, made for just $7,000. Eleven years later, he foreshadowed the 3D revival with Spy-Kids 3-D: Game Over. Now 46, he's making history again as founder and chairman of El Rey, the 8-month-old cable network aimed at men 18-49 and inclusive of second- and third-generation English-speaking Latinos.
Spanish for "the king," El Rey is a joint venture with former WME agents John Fogelman and Cristina Patwa’s FactoryMade Ventures and Univision, which has reportedly loaned the network $72 million. Rodriguez and co-chair Scott Sassa oversee about 70 employees in Los Angeles, New York, Miami and Austin, Texas — where Rodriguez lives with his wife and five kids. There, he curates original El Rey series such as From Dusk Till Dawn (based on his vampire film), the spy thriller Matador and The Director's Chair, in which he grills helmer friends such as Quentin Tarantino. Aiming to be in 40 million homes by year's end (but not yet rated by Nielsen), El Rey competes for Rodriguez's time as a busy film director — his latest, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, opens Aug. 22.
"I didn't know what busy was until this job," says Rodriguez, photographed Aug. 8 in his Troublemaker Studios office in Austin, Texas, housed in the same space (formerly an airport) where his series From Dusk Till Dawn is filmed.
How does a guy like you end up starting a TV network?
John Fogelman and Cristina Patwa at FactoryMade told me, "There's an opportunity for a TV network. Comcast is giving them away." So I came up with the concept for El Rey. People have always asked me, "How do we get to Latinos' wallets?" Well, you've got to get them here (touches his heart). You have to give them characters to fall in love with. It was never just about "putting Latinos in more shows." There were no Latin actors in Hollywood when I started. I discovered Salma Hayek in Mexico, brought Antonio Banderas from Spain and found Danny Trejo. I had to get Cheech [Marin] out of retirement! But television is the next frontier. My kids speak English, but they don't see themselves represented on TV. I told this to President Obama about attracting more Latino voters: What disenfranchises people is not having a sense of belonging. We are 18 percent Hispanic in the U.S., but on TV, we represent only 5 percent of major roles. Behind the camera, it's like 2 percent — and I'm one of those percentages!
A painting of Salma Hayek from 2003's Once Upon a Time in Mexico graces his office.
Why has TV been so slow to target and reflect the Latino audience?
We have to create storytelling that has universal appeal. That's how I had to sell Miramax on Spy Kids. They asked me, "Why are you making them Hispanic? Why don't you just make them American?" I said, "They are American! It's based on my family." I told them, "You don't have to be British to enjoy James Bond." The more specific you can make them, the more universal. Spy Kids, Machete, Desperado — they are Hispanic films, but they're for anyone. You can't beat people with the Latin stick. Even Hispanics don't want that. It's so much easier to start your own network than to try to get the 8 p.m. time slot on ABC. If there are more than 10 people trying to get through the same door, you have to find a new door. There was very little competition for this network. Only around 100 people applied for the slot. And how many of those had a solid business plan like ours? Probably only five.
Univision reportedly bought 5 percent of El Rey and loaned you $72 million. How did this come about?
Univision got wind of what we were doing. They knew the future of Hispanic TV was in English programming. Univision is a great partner; they are a market-leading broadcaster with extensive multimedia brands and have a lot of money to invest in these shows. As they renegotiate their [carriage] contracts, they can add us into their pile of networks. It's a great umbrella to be under. It reminds me a lot of when Miramax started but didn't have money, so Disney said, "We need an indie arm. Let them run it; we'll invest."
What are your budgets on Dusk and Matador?
Very comparable to big cable shows like The Walking Dead — about $3.5 million per episode. For a new network, we're definitely competing. I needed El Rey to not be rinky-dink.
The hand puppet used for the dog in the fourth Spy Kids and a Mickey Rourke “Marv” figurine from Sin City.
It is! This all started six years ago when I burned my favorite DVDs, Blu-rays, short films, Twilight Zone episodes onto my hard drive, and I'd just let it play all day on my TV at home. People would come over and ask, "What is that?" It was my own personal TV station. Maybe it was a premonition.
Oprah Winfrey had a tough first few years with OWN and admitted that some fans "couldn't find" the network. How much do you worry about access and competition?
After Oprah got more involved with OWN, it took off. There are around 112 networks. Around 10 or 11 are aimed at the black audience, but none have English-language content aimed at Hispanics. What we're doing is very unique; even so, I'm all for any network attempting to engage a culturally diverse audience. The more of us out there, the better. It's much bigger than just, "Are we competing with Univision, Telemundo and Fusion?" We are mostly in competition with ourselves. Also, there was no Hispanic material to license, so we needed original series right off the bat. I can't do what Magic Johnson did with his network, Aspire. He has reruns of Good Times, The Jeffersons, The Cosby Show.
You adapted your own work with Dawn. Will you do this again? And have you talked to Tarantino about doing something on El Rey?
He definitely would. We haven't talked specifics, but he has always wanted to get into TV. I'd love to adapt Spy Kids. Kids consume those movies so much on Disney.
Rodriguez, who plays guitar, composes music for many of his films, including the Sin City sequel. “I painted the one with scorpions and actually threw it out to a kid at one of our shows,” he says of gigs with his band, Chingon. “He showed up after the show and gave it back!”
Machete's Danny Trejo, your second cousin, has appeared in nearly all your films. Will you ever create a series for him?
Would love to. Or maybe we can do an Avengers-type show featuring characters from Machete, Desperado and Spy Kids. Maybe a Christmas special. (Laughs.) I've always had an eye for casting. I gave George Clooney his first film role [in Dawn].
El Rey has a 10-year deal with Comcast. What are your goals in the short- and long-term?
We won't get rated until the fourth quarter, so we have more time for people to find us. We are also rolling out our El Rey People's Network website, where people can submit short films and features. If I like your work, you get it on El Rey and cash. I remember sending my films into contests — if I won 100 bucks, it felt like the biggest money in the world. When I made El Mariachi, I didn't make it to sell to Columbia Pictures. I made it for the Spanish home video market. Today, people can send their films to us. I'm also going out to as many TV writers and directors as I can to start mentoring more diverse voices. More than 60 percent who work at El Rey are Hispanic, in front of and behind the camera.
El Rey is male-targeted. Would you do a female-oriented network, La Reina?
We've actually talked about that. Advertisers want female viewers. That's kind of why we made El Rey so dramatically male, because we knew there'd be a separate niche for women.
Robert De Niro’s gun from Machete, Demian Bichir’s severed head from Machete Kills and a knife used in Platoon. “[The knife] was a gift from Charlie Sheen,” he says of the actor, who starred in Machete Kills.
Sin City came out in 2005. Why did a sequel take so long?
We wanted to do it in 2007 and met with actors, but couldn't cast anyone because the Weinsteins were no longer at Miramax. After the Weinsteins got going on other stuff, it was really hard for me and [co-director] Frank Miller to sink our teeth into Sin City. So we thought we'd wait until the stars aligned. Three years ago, Frank and I kicked into high gear. We shot in 32 days. We didn't have all the actors when we started filming. We shot Jessica [Alba] and Mickey [Rourke] together, but everyone else came on during production. Josh Brolin gets to set and he's like, "Where's Mickey? I thought all my scenes were with him." We said, "He is, but we shot him already. That's how we do it around here!"
Can you continue to direct movies while running El Rey? You had once signed on to direct a reboot of Red Sonja. Is that still possible?
Someone else owns the rights to Red Sonja, so probably not. I follow the George Lucas way of doing things. He wanted to do Flash Gordon but couldn't get the rights, so he wrote Star Wars. I'm definitely continuing to direct movies. I'm doing a sci-fi flick later this year. I sign on for everything. Some won't happen. But then sometimes everything happens and you're like, "Oh shit — I thought a couple of these would drop out."