2:00pm PT by Bryn Elise Sandberg
Seth Gordon Re-Ups Deal at Sony TV, Talks Studio Turnover, Apple and 'Baywatch' (Exclusive)
Few television producers have had the track record Seth Gordon has. Every pilot the director has helmed — seven of them total — has been ordered to series. And of those, a whopping four are currently on the air, including Netflix's Atypical, Amazon's Sneaky Pete, ABC's The Goldbergs and soon-to-debut The Good Doctor.
All of his shows have hailed from Sony Pictures Television, which has been home to his production shingle, Exhibit A, for the past seven years. At the studio, he has an overall deal, which The Hollywood Reporter can exclusively reveal Gordon is re-upping for two more years.
In addition to his prolific TV roster, Gordon has directed several big-budget films (among them: Baywatch, Identity Thief, Horrible Bosses and Four Christmases) and also has a documentary film production company. Under the latter, he directed The King of Kong, as well a produced Gleason, Freakonomics, Print the Legend and Undefeated, for which he won an Academy Award.
With the news of Gordon extending his deal at Sony, he talked to THR about how the recent leadership changes at the studio will impact him, his hopes for making TV shows for Apple as they push into original programming and the possibility of a Baywatch sequel ("Financially, a case could be made," he says.)
Congratulations on renewing your overall deal with Sony TV.
Thanks, it's been a good relationship with them, and I think it’s the third time we’re renewing with them. We’ve got seven pilots now that have gone to series with them, a seven-for-seven thing. You don’t want to jinx yourself, but it’s still cool to recognize that that happened. The support Sony has given to all of those is definitely a considerable part. That’s part of wanting to stick around there.
So, what's the secret to developing shows that actually get made?
Part of it is that Sony has been so tenacious about finding the right home for those things that were made initially for one network, but then ended up on another. Breaking In was Fox for Fox, but then Goldbergs started at Fox and then ended up at ABC. Sneaky Pete was for CBS, but then it ended up at Amazon. That was a crazy journey. The Gaffigan Show was for CBS and ended up at TV Land. Even with Atypical, everybody passed, including Netflix — and then another group at Netflix wanted to do it a couple years later. It’s a testament to Sony’s never giving up on stuff and really fighting for things to see the light of day.
There's been a lot of turnover at the studio lately, with presidents Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht leaving to run Apple's push into original programming and taking some of their team with them. How will that impact your relationship with Sony?
The department heads are all the same, so I feel like the people who’ve been fighting for those shows year in and year out, like Glenn Adilman, and Jason [Clodfelter] and Chris [Parnell] on the drama side, who are now running the whole place. I’m really glad they’re still around. Hopefully, it’ll be an opportunity to bring stuff toward Apple now.
Is your plan to start pitching projects to Apple?
I’d certainly love to, and I know that they’re setting up a whole system over there now. I know they’re in the middle of a lot, but I’d certainly hope to get the chance to make something for them. I love that there’s a new type of distributor. I think they have a chance to advance the definition of the business in the similar way that Netflix did. They’re not just another streaming outlet — it’s actually a new category.
Have you had those conversations with them?
I have. There’s a general expression on both sides of trying to find something to do together soon. I think that they’re getting the ground ready over there and figuring everything out, but I really hope to find something with them.
Do you know what type of content they're looking for?
All I’ve heard is premium. (Laughs.) Just that they want to do really quality stuff, but that’s as vague as it is hopeful. There’s a number of networks that use that term, but it’s all about what they ultimately buy and put on. My hopes are high for the kind of stuff they’re going to choose. I think that [Zack and Jamie] were such relentless fighters for good material when I worked with them at Sony that I’ve got high hopes.
You currently have four shows on the air. How exactly are you involved with each one?
Well, The Goldbergs has been on the longest. At this point, I read the scripts and I watch the final cuts. The Good Doctor, I’m more involved in that. There’s a very important part of the show, which is the graphics that show you what’s going on in the lead character's mind. I started originally in graphics and after-effects, so I like very much to be involved in that particular aspect of every episode. And then Atypical, I’m going to be in close touch as we break the second season, supporting [creator] Robia [Rashid] in every way we can and surrounding her with a great team. Sneaky Pete is really based in New York because that’s where it’s shot, so I’m less in touch with that than I’d like to be, especially for the second season. I’m hoping to do some episodes of it this year, if possible. It’s hard. There’s four shows on the air and I just don’t have all the time in the world. I wish I could do a little more of each of them.
What was your involvement in The Goldbergs spin-off that never went to air?
I had to pick between that and The Good Doctor. They were both at ABC, and at the moment where I had to choose, the Goldbergs spin-off didn’t have the green light, but The Good Doctor did. So I went with The Good Doctor, and then the Goldbergs spin-off got picked up the next week and I just couldn’t do both. We ran a calendar to try to get it so I could do both, but I would’ve ended up in the hospital, honestly.
Netflix doesn't release ratings, but have you have conversations with execs there about how Atypical is faring?
Nope, but obviously, there are other means of assessing some of that. Certain smart TVs track people’s usage and there’s other ways of at least estimating how it’s doing. Anecdotally, we hear such positive stuff from Twitter and the various ways of getting a sense of how we’re doing with it. Netflix is not telling us anything concrete yet, but that’s what happens with them, right? That’s a huge advantage they have, that they don’t have to say.
So, no word on whether or not it will be renewed for a second season?
I would say the indications are positive, but we haven’t officially heard. Sometimes they take months before they renew for a second season on stuff. To their credit, I think they like to make sure that there’s a good plan for the second season. I know Stranger Things took a while before they got the official pick-up, and I don’t know if they’ve officially picked up Ozark yet. It’s certainly not a given, but we’re hoping because that show has a bit of a message and is really approaching a topic that is underrepresented. Hopefully, that’ll be a factor in a good way for us.
With Sneaky Pete at Amazon, do you get any more viewership data than you do at Netflix?
No, but just the way Amazon is set up, it’s a bit more transparent. You can see what user feedback is. The way that we ultimately got our initial first season was through a very public pilot process and all the voting that happens. It just was a bit more open, and I think they ordered the second season immediately for Sneaky Pete. We were thrilled with how they supported that show once the first season came out, as we have been on Atypical, by the way — putting everyone on talk shows. The publicity and stuff has been terrific. There’s no guarantee any of that will happen when you’re making and finishing the season. You just don’t know. We’ve been lucky that it’s fallen the way it has on both of those things.
What's kept you at Sony?
Sony has allowed me to try different types of work. I started with comedy in film, but they’ve also been very supportive of letting me work on the drama side with Sneaky Pete and The Good Doctor. Atypical’s a bit of a blended tone and a family dramedy. I love that Sony supports the artists the way they do and lets you try new things and redefine a little bit. That's allowed me some flexibility on the film side, to develop some other stuff as well. It’s been a really great balance between the two moats for me.
You moved fluidly between broadcast TV and streaming. Do you prefer one over the other?
They’re really antidotes to each other because the traditional pilot system is really designed for a certain kind of show. I think shows like Atypical probably wouldn’t fare well in the traditional pilot system because they’re subtle. They’re too subtle. For me, I love doing a little bit of both. The Good Doctor was a tremendous opportunity and a great engine, and I think it’s actually a good comparison to Atypical because they’re both about a lead character that’s on the spectrum — but beyond that I think the shows couldn’t be more different. I’m really proud of the Good Doctor pilot. I think it breaks the mold a little bit. I like very much what that thing aims to be, but it is definitely still operating inside of a network paradigm. As such, it’s a completely different animal than something like Atypical, where the stories can move slowly and it’s not a heightened world. It’s a very relatable world, but yet, it keeps the stakes high for what’s happening to our characters. In a way, I’ve been getting to get back in touch with some of what I started in. I started in documentary and continued in documentary as a producer, but this allows me to get at some of those more nuanced story points in the TV world than you really can in traditional broadcast.
Would you like to do more TV or film?
I love TV pilots. To me, that’s the best of both worlds because you have all of the world-creating and casting responsibilities, but you’re moving on a really fast timeline. I love that mix of speed and creating stuff from scratch. To me, that’s the perfect blend. If I was only allowed to do one thing, I’d probably do that. Episodic TV directing, you know its reputation — it’s a bit of a grind, and you’re a guest in someone else’s house all the time. That’s why I like the pilot world because you have accountability and responsibility that you don’t get as simply as an episodic TV director.
With the dominance of streamers and other digital entrants, what do you think the definition of success is in such an evolving TV landscape?
I love not having success reducible to a Nielsen rating because that’s not really the way entertainment is experienced by the viewer. It’s not really the way the decisions about a show’s future should be determined. I think it’s more nuanced than that, so even though it presents the creator with a little bit of an existential crisis, like, “Did I do a good job or not?” I think it’s ultimately much better for the people creating the show and the industry to have it be this more complex, nuanced kind of feedback. Critics play a role, but they aren’t as loud of a voice as the people on Twitter or social media that are touched by the show and to whom it meant a lot, like in the case of Atypical, which has a main character who’s on the spectrum. That [discussion] is allowed to have a bigger voice and more exposure because there isn’t a Nielsen rating or a single number that turns into a 1 or 0 in terms of a show’s impact on the world and the culture. So, I think it’s great and I hope that it’s possible to move more in that direction for other networks because I think the world is different than when Nielsen ratings were the only way to know what was happening with their shows.
After directing the recent Baywatch movie, do you think there could be another one?
It's interesting, it had such a crazy trajectory. It got killed by critics in the States, and it was extremely successful around the world. The ratio of how it did was really unlike other precedents, where it did more than double what it did in the States in other places. That’s pretty wild. I think financially a case could be made for a sequel. I feel like it’s probably unlikely and that’s a bit too bad, but I think it served its purpose and it was a time and a place. I think it’s probably not going to happen, even though there were some pretty great ideas for what the next one could be. That’s a really fascinating case study, because the meaning of that brand as a TV show was so distinct in each of the countries where the TV show played, while here it was cheesy. In other countries it wasn’t, and that yielded a totally unexpected result when it came to the release of the movie.
Isn't Dwayne Johnson a huge international star?
Absolutely. But even the nature of how he’s known internationally varies country to country as well. No one would’ve expected that we would be number one in France for many, many weeks. The show was big, but not that big there. The French audience is about as snobby as film audiences get but they frickin’ loved the movie. How do you reconcile that with the vitriol we got from the critics in the States? It’s hard to know how to summarize that.
What else do you have in the works?
There’s a handful of things that are in development. There’s nothing I can talk about openly just yet, and I’m not trying to be coy. I tried to spend a little bit of the summer with some time off because doing the last film and Atypical and The Good Doctor made for a very exhausting year.