20th Century Fox TV Studio Execs Talk Tim Allen's Return to TV, Seth MacFarlane's 'Flintstones' Reboot (Q&A)

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Gary Newman, left, and Dana Walden

Studio chairmen Gary Newman and Dana Walden also share lessons learned from the short-lived "Lone Star" and the ripple effect of "Modern Family."

As the curtain comes down on another upfront week, studios and networks saw reasons for some optimism – and not just because the upfront market is expected to finally make a post-recession recovery this year. 

20th Century Fox Television will have 10 news shows on the broadcast schedule next season including the big-budget time-travel epic Terra Nova and the Zooey Deschanel comedy The New Girl, both on Fox, and dramas The Playboy Club and Awake for NBC. The Hollywood Reporter caught up with 20th Century Fox Television chairmen Gary Newman and Dana Walden last week to talk about Tim Allen’s return to TV, sharing Seth MacFarlane with another studio and some of their disappointments.
THR: Both ABC and NBC will expand comedy blocks to new nights next season and Fox entertainment president Kevin Reilly said the network is likely to air four comedies on Tuesdays when Glee takes a six-week break in March. What is inspiring this surge in comedy?
Newman: Since [Modern Family] premiered all the networks have been talking about wanting their version of it. And last year no one really stepped up and got aggressive about programming it. The truth is we’ve never steered way from comedy, even when comedies weren’t very popular. How I Met Your Mother has been a very important show to the studio and it’s going into its seventh season. It was good to see the networks shift because a successful comedy is still a really powerful show in terms of deriving long-term economic benefits [for studios]. And when the networks can get them to work, they actually have something that is repeatable.
THR: How did you lure Tim Allen back to television for ABC’s Last Man Standing?
Newman: Writer Jack [Burditt] came to us with this idea and it had been exposed to Tim but Tim wasn’t signing on to anything without seeing a script. There were a number of scripts around town for him. Tim was not dying to get back to television. But he was intrigued by the character and decided to jump in. The multi-cam form has been challenging for the networks other than CBS. But it’s a perfect form for him. He has remarkable comedic timing and knows his way around a joke better than anyone we’ve ever seen.
THR: Family Album, your single-camera comedy starring Glee’s Mike O’Malley, did not receive a series order from Fox, but Reilly said it’s a contender for a midseason order. How do you feel about the show’s chances?
Dana Walden: I feel like Family Album is legitimately on track right now for a real midseason order.
THR: Exit Strategy is also technically still in development for Fox. Can you characterize that show’s chances?
Walden: I think Exit Strategy is probably a little bit of a longer shot. But it’s not dead. Obviously we have a lot of faith in [executive producers] Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci as does the network. Ethan Hawke is a big star. Unfortunately with X Factor and [the Kiefer Sutherland drama] Touch for midseason, they just don’t have that many time periods. So it made the bull’s eye even smaller. [Exit Strategy] is a very timely idea. It’s [about] a team that is very similar to Seal Team 6 [that took out Osama bin Laden]. So you have an area that’s going to be highly developed this coming year. It’s definitely in the zeitgeist and we already have a piece of film and an incredible cast assembled.
THR: Fox did pass on Locke & Key, another high-profile drama from Kurtzman and Orci.
Walden: When a project is pitched and a network has enthusiasm for it and the creators deliver an incredible world, particularly the way [writer] Josh Friedman did on Locke & Key, you hope that it ends up finding its rightful place on the schedule. When you are unable to achieve the vision of the creators, you sort of have to say that was a noble effort but we didn’t make it. That’s not the case with Locke & Key. It’s a beautiful pilot. It’s got an incredible tone. The cast is fantastic. [Director] Mark Romanek delivered a beautiful piece of film. Unfortunately it didn’t fit into what [Fox’s] needs are right now. But we’re talking to various cable [networks] about that project.
THR: Awake, Lone Star creator Kyle Killen’s Inception-esque drama starring Jason Isaacs, is getting a lot of buzz. But it has some challenging plot turns – in one world Isaacs’ wife is dead and in the other his son is dead. Was there any concern that, like Lone Star, Awake would be too dark to find a broad audience?
Walden: With Lone Star we knew there would be conceptual obstacles. This guy was doing a fundamentally unlikeable thing. He’s with two women. He’s cheating on both of them. But we don’t have those obstacles [with Awake]. This guy is a pure hero. He’s a cop. The stories are procedural cop stories. So I don’t think it has the conceptual shortcomings of Lone Star. I also don’t think it has the same marketing challenge. I commend [Fox], they spent a lot of money on [the Lone Star] campaign. But it is what it is; it’s about a guy who was cheating on his wife with his other wife.
THR: Fox made a little news at the upfront by announcing that Seth MacFarlane would reboot The Flintstones with production starting this fall for debut sometime in 2013. That’s a co-production with Warner Bros. Television (which owns rights to original Hanna-Barbera cartoon) and your studio. Sounds complicated.
Newman: It was probably the most complicated negotiation that I’ve been involved with here. It’s understandable. It is an iconic brand. And although it hasn’t been exploited recently, it’s part of their history and legacy and so they’re very careful with it. Sharing it with another studio was a hard decision and one I respect because I think they realized they could continue to simply hold it, but they weren’t really going anywhere with it. But we have the single most prolific animation creator in television [in MacFarlane]. On the other hand, Seth is very important to us. And we’re not going to share [him] with another company very often. So it was really two big, successful studios coming together with two incredible properties. And that was complicated.
THR: Are you taking a chance by remaking something that is so iconic?
Newman: It’s going to be put under a microscope because people are so nostalgic about the brand. But Seth is going to be very respectful of the original. It’s a show that is perfect for recreating because it was a comment on the 1960’s through the prism of a Stone Age family. And now we have the ability to comment on the 21st century. It’s the type of property that’s perfect for someone like Seth MacFarlane who just loves social commentary.
Email: Marisa.Guthrie@thr.com
Twitter: @MarisaGuthrie