FX's John Landgraf Cautions Against Silicon Valley Monopolies, Noah Hawley Talks 'Legion'

John Landgraf Produced By - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of Producers Guild of America

Nearly a year ago, FX chief John Landgraf made the claim that there was "too much TV." Now, he's offering an update on the ever-crowded landscape, cautioning against the models of Netflix and other streaming platforms.

"There's a whole thing going on right now with Netflix and others in Silicon Valley saying algorithms are going to rule all and make decisions and I say, 'Posh.' You can't," said the FX Networks and FX Productions CEO during a Produced By conference panel with Fargo creator Noah Hawley. "It's not like making a computer program that can work in the fixed and formal rules of chess," he said, adding that there are too many variables involved in deciding what television shows to make.

Landgraf, who believes we're 100 years away from artificial intelligence being able to do what humans can do, offered up a more traditional way to go about making shows: having conversations with creators. "You listen really, really carefully on a human level to what somebody tells you, and you sit and you dialogue and you think about stories and you watch film and television — and you pick the best stories and the best people you possibly can," he said, emphasizing that the best chance of solving business problems in entertainment is to simply make the best possible content.

The head of the cabler went on to predict that there will be "a big transformation" in the business structure underlying content creation, distribution and sales in the next few years. "I've spent a lot of time thinking about it. I think our society is best when storytellers are in the most empowered positions — and the thing that worries me a great deal is that if I look at Silicon Valley's fundamental business model, I look at it like Monopoly," he said, rattling off examples — Google, Airbnb, Uber, Amazon. "Monopolies mean you only have one place to sell, and the thing that I think keeps these studios honest on some level is … a competitive market for talent. I don't like this winner-take-all model, this Google model. I think that's a terrible model for the future of creative."

Hawley, for his part, discussed Fargo's anthology format and why he was accustomed to making shorter seasons of television beforehand. "Ten years or so into a career as a creator, I'd started over again a lot of times," he said, taking a dig at network television. "In fact, broadcast TV trained me that this is how you make television because I made 10 episodes of the Unusuals and I made 10 episodes of My Generation and then I moved on to something else. That seemed like the length of the television show to me because that's as far as I ever got."

If one thing was made clear, it was that the prolific author is in favor of telling a "complete story" — one where the end is known from the start and can be worked toward. "That is the best way to tell a story bar none," he insisted, acknowledging that there are rare exceptions like Breaking Bad. Hawley also touched on his upcoming third season of Fargo, which will star Ewan McGregor. "He's basically signing on to make a movie," he said of the star's schedule. Production for the third installment will take place from November to April.

And as for Hawley's upcoming comic book adaptation Legion on FX, he isn't looking at the structure too differently from Fargo — even though it's not an anthology series. "Legion is not designed to be a case-of-the-week show — it's a serialized story," he said. "Even though you may come back next year and do chapter two, you're still pretty much going about it the same way, which is, 'Where are we going with this? And what's the best way to get there?'" He went on to add that it's helpful that now the length of the story is oftentimes the length of the show, a luxury for creators that Landgraf ardently supports.

As he did with Fargo, Landgraf plans to let Legion stay on the air for as many seasons as the story needs (he made the same decision recently when he renewed the network's critical darling The Americans for a final two seasons per showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields' request). "We don't know going in how many seasons that may last. Even in success, Legion might end after three seasons because that might be all the story there is to tell," he said. "The bottom line is we're going to make the series as long as he wants to tell the story and believes it's the best version."

Hawley revealed that had he gone to Landgraf at the conclusion of Fargo's first season and said, "I think that's all I got," FX would have still been happy — not exactly the typical reaction a creator who just made a hit show would expect from a network. "Normally a major corporation doesn't do a mic drop at the end of a big drop. It's not like Avengers, we're out," he joked to laughs from the audience. He added that he does, however, wonder about the zeitgeist of an idea and how long it will stay fresh and interesting to people. "I have the luxury to say that I only want to do this as long as it's great and then I want to move on to something else because I have other stories to tell as well."

Landgraf also took time onstage to criticize the overall lack of originality in television programming today. "Since television and film are a business, I think it's a very tempting trap for executives to try to back solve from other peoples' successes and say, 'Well, let's look at the range of things that have been successful and let's try to find something else that’s related to or reminiscent of those successes,'" he said, a reference to the reboot craze in broadcast right now. "Oftentimes telling a great story is not about imitating something that somebody has done before — it's about doing something original."

And while Fargo isn't original in the sense that it's predicated on a film written by the Coen brothers, Landgraf argues it's "unbelievably original" in the way that Hawley chose to approach the material. "It's unlike any way anyone has ever adapted a film and a television series before," he said. "Noah came in with an idea that was so singular and so original and so different in tone and intent and story from anything I've ever seen or done with these characters in this world."