On Feb. 5, the FX logo splashed across 111 million television screens. “In a year with over 450 scripted series, one network has the three most critically acclaimed of all,” a voice could be heard saying, as viewers of the 51st Super Bowl were treated to snippets of The Americans (“the most celebrated drama”), Atlanta (“the most acclaimed comedy”) and The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (“the most acclaimed program”).
It was a bold statement about creative prowess, and one that FX Networks CEO John Landgraf had made at least once before. In fact, three and a half weeks earlier, Landgraf, 55, stood on the Television Critics Association stage — where he once famously coined the term “peak TV” and semiannually earns the unofficial title “the mayor of television” — and rattled off those and other impressive data points, including FX’s 406 inclusions on 152 year-end best lists, the top showing of any television network.
Had the Super Bowl spot run longer, Landgraf could have worked in the basic cable record that his network shattered at September’s Emmy Awards. Thanks in large part to American Crime Story and Fargo, FX took home 18 statuettes, the most in the network’s 23-year history and a sum second only to HBO’s. Viewership followed: FX and younger-skewing sibling FXX rounded out the year with two of cable’s top five scripted dramas (O.J., American Horror Story: Roanoke) and three of its top five comedies (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Archer and Atlanta).
FX’s success becomes all the more impressive when one considers that Landgraf, a married father of three whom GQ recently dubbed “the quiet genius inside your TV,” is working with a $1 billion budget — about one-third of what HBO reportedly spends and just one-fifth of Netflix’s 2016 content budget (the streamer is expected to lay out $6 billion in 2017). “If you look at the difference between what Netflix is doing right now and what we’re doing, we’re spearfishing and they’re drift-net fishing,” he says, pointedly. “They’re scooping every organism off the bottom of the ocean. And they’re keeping them all now, but reason would say, at some point you keep the bluefin tuna and throw the others back.”
For FX’s roster of producers, working with Landgraf is a significant draw. That’s certainly been the case for Noah Hawley, who dabbled unsuccessfully in network TV before making his way to FX. “John understands theme and character and cinema — not because he read about them in a book or took a seminar but because he is a searcher who cares deeply about finding answers to life’s important questions,” says the Fargo and Legion showrunner. “He believes these truths can be discovered through the stories we tell. This, not profit or ratings, is what drives him.”
Landgraf — a 13-year FX veteran with 250 employees under his direction (not including ad sales and affiliate sales) and THR’s TV Executive of the Year — was joined by original programming presidents Nick Grad and Eric Schrier in their offices on the Fox lot for a candid conversation about the frothy market, the future of Louie and the upside of not having pockets as deep as Netflix.
You coined the term “peak TV” to describe the boom in scripted originals. How close are we to that peak?
JOHN LANDGRAF What’s unknown is: Where’s YouTube going to go? Where’s Apple going to go? Silicon Valley has infinite access to capital and can lose money indefinitely. If enough of them decide they want to take over this business and they’re willing to lose money to do it, they can just make as many shows as they want.
So you can’t compete on the amount of money you’re willing to pay talent up front. How do you persuade people to come to FX?
LANDGRAF First of all, we can pay people as much or more in success. So, where we compete is if you have a successful show on FX, you can actually make more money than having a successful show on Netflix, for example.
ERIC SCHRIER We look at everything, and I don’t think it’s actually the production costs that stand in our way because if there is the right property, we can figure it out. It’s the commitment: Jumping into two seasons on the air just doesn’t make sense. It’s not a good way to make television. There will be good shows that come out of that, but we just don’t believe in that model.
How often do you miss out on projects as a result?
LANDGRAF It absolutely happens, but we’ve just never been a bank that’s going out and trying to buy hits and buy Emmys. We’ve been a place that was really about the person and about the idea. So, while I’d love it if we could just have $100 million we could throw down at will, I think that would cause us to lose our focus on some level, too.
LANDGRAF I do — because ultimately that’s being a heat-seeking missile. That’s chasing after what’s hot. We know that we will lose things that we deeply admire — like Master of None — that way. But on the other hand, this gives us an opportunity to really carefully think about who we want to work with, what’s not on television and what’s worth taking a risk on. It’s more organic because it’s responding day in and day out to people and conversations and ideas rather than frantically chasing after a frothy marketplace trying to get information, get in on the meeting, twist people’s arms, make a deal, write a check. I’d say that that leaves the shows as an afterthought.
With his casting in the Han Solo movie, Donald Glover (Atlanta) is the latest FX talent to parlay a success on your network into other, bigger opportunities elsewhere. Frustrating or inevitable?
NICK GRAD In a perfect world, you’d want Atlanta to come back a year later [in 2017 rather than 2018], after its first season, but we have the ability and the portfolio to be able to say, “If we want to let Donald do Star Wars, we can.”
LANDGRAF I’d also argue it’s kind of hollow to say, “We support your creativity, but it better be done by this date.”
Is it fair to say you opened the door to these kinds of delays years ago with Louis C.K., who is currently on an indefinite hiatus?
LANDGRAF Yeah. Louis called me at home on a Saturday and said, “I’m really having trouble saying this out loud, but I think I need to not make Louie for a while.” This was after the last season [in 2015]. It was surprising to me because we had unilaterally rewritten his backend definition and given him very, very lavish financial incentives. But he said, “Look, I’m feeling trapped being this version of myself that I play on this TV show, and I’m feeling trapped by the expectations that I now go out and do this again.” Then he said, “I don’t know that I will never make an episode of Louie again. I just know I can’t do it right now. I have to go do something else.” So, what are you going to do when you have that conversation? Well, you could go the Dave Chappelle way and back up a money truck and say, “Louis, I’m going to pay you $50 million to make two episodes of TV” or whatever it is. [Netflix is paying for Chappelle’s specials.] What I said was, “Gosh, Louis, this is really hard to hear. I’m going to really, really miss making this show. Obviously, we’re going to miss having this show. But you’ve got to do what’s right for you.” And so after that conversation, Louie went on to a really extended hiatus. By the way, I think one of the reasons he called me is because we were about to close an overall deal that was tied to the show, and Louis is an honorable guy. He said, “I don’t want to close this deal and then tell you. So, if you want to pull out of the deal, I understand.” We were really bummed. We talked about it, but we kept the deal. Welcome, Baskets and Better Things and One Mississippi and now The Cops [all from C.K.’s production company] and more to come.
Will we ever see more Louie?
LANDGRAF I don’t know. Look, Louis is a major filmmaker as well as a major TV producer. There could be Broadway plays, too, and he’s still making money hand over fist as a comedian. What I would say is, I don’t think it’ll happen unless Louis has gone through a transformation in his life related to his kids getting older and changing his perspective and growing up. He has a different point of view about how he views life or who and what he is as a protagonist. I could see him coming back and making more episodes, but Louis wouldn’t be the same Louis by that time.
Ryan Murphy recently said the only downside to the limited series model is financial, but you keep greenlighting more. Any concerns?
LANDGRAF Ryan really invented this form with American Horror Story, and we saw the possibilities very quickly. We went through a period of time where we thought the drama business got overheated. They just started to feel derivative. It’s been 15 years since The Shield, 18 since The Sopranos, and there are still great shows, but there are an awful lot of shows that are manufactured to look like great shows that follow the template of great shows like The Sopranos or The Wire or The Shield or Breaking Bad but that aren’t great shows, either because they’re a little familiar or they just feel derivative. So we leaned the other way. As we were getting this mandate to launch a channel [FXX] and increase the number of shows, if we had insisted that those shows be dramas because the prevailing wisdom was that dramas were the ones that are the prestige things and they make the money, we would have put mediocre stuff on the air.
Noah Hawley’s had success with the format, too. How long can Fargo go?
LANDGRAF There may never be another Fargo. Unless Noah has an idea for Fargo that he thinks he can make as good as the prior three. I think once people get to the end of this [season] they will find that it is thematically different. It’s really about the moment we live in now.
There are several genres, including late night and stand-up, that you’re not currently playing in. Will that change?
LANDGRAF You could say the reason that Netflix and HBO are in all those other areas is because there’s excellent work to be done in all those areas. You could also say it’s because Emmy nominations are awarded and top 10 lists are made in all those areas, and if you want to have the maximum chance to be the No. 1 brand in America, you’re going to take your capital and you’re going to spend it everywhere there’s an Emmy. To be blunt, I don’t know that that’s true, but I suspect that it is. So, would we like to be in the documentary business? Yeah. We watch a lot of documentaries. I think it’s a form that’s at a superb place, but right now, Netflix is just shoveling money at it like shoveling coal into a boiler.
Same could be said for stand-up, where Louis recently did a special.
LANDGRAF Yes. If you follow conventional wisdom, what you end up tending to do is competing against the most successful, largest players on the field of battle where they’re going to destroy you because you’re playing to their strengths — whether that’s the breadth and ratings of broadcast networks or the financial muscle of a company that can burn through $2 billion in free cash flow a year. So, why fight with them where we can’t win? We’ve always tried to play the game that we thought we could win. So we’re never going to program in children’s, I don’t think, and that’s an area where both HBO and Netflix program. There are a lot of genres out there — variety shows, comedy specials, late-night programming, doc series. … But if we were getting in it to open up a new front in our battle for critical acclaim and Emmys, we’d probably fail. We’d have to be in it because we thought there was something we could bring to it in terms of process and taste that was missing from the market and because we were going to get in it and stay in it for a long time.
You were in the late-night space briefly with talent like W. Kamau Bell, though that was just before race became so much a part of the Hollywood conversation. He has since found success elsewhere. Would you take the same bet if it were offered today?
LANDGRAF I think if we had put him on the air in concert with the Trump campaign and election, it probably would have worked.
GRAD And if I learned anything from that, it’s that I’m definitely more of a fan of the weekly show than the daily show. There are people who can do it daily, but it’s very hard.
You’ve said you have big ambitions in shortform animation.
LANDGRAF We’re quietly working on it. We just like the idea of a laboratory where we could take even bigger risks on different, weirder things that people might not be doing right now.
What does that look like?
SCHRIER There’s an expression of the FX brand that’s in the shortform business that people can watch on a phone or in smaller bites. It’s a process of experimentation because you never know what’s going to hit. There’s animation, there’s live action, there’s five-minute segments, 10-minute segments, 15-minute segments. We’re not trying to jam it into some structure. We’re trying to go to people we think are talented and have unique ideas that fit in that space and cultivate that.
GRAD And then we’ll curate a program block.
LANDGRAF We miss the time, on some level, when there wasn’t an expectation that every show we put on the air was going to be good and succeed. I don’t mean to say we want to make bad shows, but the standard for what people expect right now out of a comedy or a drama or a limited series is really hard. We miss the time when you could just swing freely.
FX series have had a tendency to run over the hour mark to the frustration of certain critics. How do you assess episode length, and what do the conversations with your creatives entail?
LANDGRAF Initially, we didn’t want to put anything that wasn’t the best possible product on the air. The notion that we would hurt a cut so that it would hit a format made no sense to us. So, there was a point a while ago where we decided, “You know what? We have a format, but we’re going to let [our creatives] put the best version of the show on the air. And if it’s 40 minutes, it’s 40. If it’s 68, it’s 68.” We used to have big fights over it because the ad revenue was really important and we didn’t want to lose commercial space. At a certain point, we just built enough slack to be able to tolerate it. Then, to be honest with you, we probably got a little lax. I think there are episodes of television that have aired that would’ve been better if they were shorter, as opposed to the problem that we had before, which is shows might have been better if they were longer. And so we’ve tried to correct back and say, “Well, look, you can make a show of any length. But just because you can make a show of any length, doesn’t mean you should.”
You’ve had a lot of success in this job, but you, too, have missed on occasion. What do you consider your blind spot?
LANDGRAF There have been three times since I’ve been here that we’ve launched three shows in a row that failed. So, I guess my answer is we have the same weakness everyone else does, which is that it is impossible. It’s hitting a fastball with a fraction of a second; it’s something that just can’t be done perfectly every time. No matter how much we listen to each other, talk to each other, solicit opinions, try to correct for bias, you have to make decisions without enough information. I wouldn’t wish public disappointment or failure on anyone in this business, it’s hard, and if you’re doing any of these picker-programming jobs, you’re going to look like an idiot because hindsight is twenty-twenty and it’s always going to be, “Why didn’t you pick that up?’ or “Why did you pick that up?”
“IT’S NICE TO BE ON THE OTHER SIDE OF A BIDDING WAR”
FX Productions wasn’t built to be a seller, but the studio now places projects everywhere from Amazon to Freeform.
When John Landgraf launched FX Productions in 2005, he had no intention of hawking its projects to networks other than FX. The strategy simply was to own content. Twelve years later, the studio has a growing portfolio of producers — Louis C.K., Donald Glover and Noah Hawley each have deals — and projects at rival networks, including Amazon (One Mississippi), TBS (The Cops) and, soon, Freeform (a project loosely described as “Friday Night Lights in a rodeo”). While the primary goal remains to make series for FX, landing content at outside networks — be it a passion project like Rob McElhenney’s Bare Knuckle Fight Club that has no place on FX’s schedule (it sold to Channel 4 in the U.K.) or a series that feels better tonally elsewhere — is a byproduct of both the FXP roster and the expanding marketplace. “Fox 21 Television studios will make a deal with talent to sell that talent to HBO or Showtime or AMC,” says Landgraf. “We make a deal with talent because we believe they have a show for FX Networks in them, and we hope to put that show on the air. But are you going to have a perfect one-to-one ratio between everything that anybody you have a deal with creates and shows that you put on FX? That’s impossible.” So rather than shut down ideas that don’t feel right for FX, the team has begun selling elsewhere. Occasionally, that results in some confusion, with buyers wondering, “Why aren’t you doing this at FX?” It’s also given the FX execs an education in how to hear a pitch, having moved to the seller side for the first time. Among the perks, says FXP original programming president Eric Schrier with a laugh: “It’s nice to be on the other side of a bidding war.”
This story first appeared in the May 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.