Fox's Dana Walden, Gary Newman Talk Two Jobs, Pilot Season Plans and 'Utopia's' Drop (Q&A)

Dana Walden & Gary Newman - H 2014
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Dana Walden & Gary Newman - H 2014

The newly elevated chairmen also address agent concerns and Fox TV Studios' future

When Dana Walden and Gary Newman were elevated to chairmen and CEOs of the newly created Fox Television Group earlier this summer, few in the industry were surprised.

Instead, the guessing game focused on how they would juggle duties of both the network and the studio — entities that ran independently and, at times, at odds until now. Would the pair hear pitches with studio hats on or network ones? And how would they feel about the anti-pilot season philosophy that their predecessor Kevin Reilly trumpeted before the press earlier this year?

Now in the job for six weeks, Walden and Newman are hoping to provide clarity to those and other questions. They are said to be highly engaged, and have wasted little time buying (and selling) projects and making key executive moves. In fact, in week three, they announced that they would be bringing Fox TV Studios president David Madden over as their entertainment chief, and moving Joe Earley into a role where he, like them, will have to straddle the network and the studio.

Below, they address the new line of decision-making at the Fox TV Group, agent frustrations and just how much patience they'll have for big reality bet Utopia

Let’s start with the line of decision-making. Are you hearing pitches with a studio hat or a network hat?

Newman: I actually have two hats in my office; one says "network," one says "studio." Paul Lee over at ABC sent those over to us and I find it very useful. [Laughs.] Look, the answer is from case to case, it's one or the other. We have heard projects with some of the writers, who we’ve been in business with for a long time at the studio, that we’ve heard as a studio — often, pitches that are still in their formation stage where we or the writers have wanted our input on developing them. We’ve probably heard more pitches with the network hat on. Certainly all of the outside pitches are that way, and many of the pitches that have been in great shape coming out of the studio we’ve heard from a network perspective.

How do you avoid a project that you pass on at Fox having the smell of damaged goods when you take it elsewhere?

Walden: First and foremost, we try at the studio to take projects out into the marketplace that are desirable and that will sell. It’s very rare that we take something out that just doesn’t sell anywhere. So, we don’t view projects that aren’t right for Fox at this time as damaged goods.

You don’t, no, but how do avoid that being the perception?

Walden: I should say we don’t make a decision at FBC like, "Oh that’s a bad one, let it go out into the community." What we have impressed upon the network executives is the need to be decisive and the need to treat the talent coming from the studio with the utmost respect and a very quick response. It’s not completely different from how these companies used to operate. They always had an informal first-look at Fox — Fox would typically hear the first pitch and then sometimes what would happen is the executives at the network were a little bit uncertain, the project would go out into the marketplace and then the level of passion at the network would be determined by the level of passion in their competitors. We’re not doing that anymore. There are specific pieces, like in the case of [Phil] Lord and [Chris] Miller on the project they did with Dan Sterling that ended up with CBS. We all made the decision that Lord and Miller already had two high-profile pieces of development — actually, one piece of development and one series order — at FBC, and so their next project should go out into the marketplace and bypass FBC. 

Look, we want the experience for 20th writers to be excellent throughout this transition. And when a project at 20th ends up at the network, those creators are going to have an extraordinary experience because right from the beginning their projects are very much priorities of the network and that’s how we’re forcing the network to treat them. Similarly though, when we take something out into the market, we’re forcing the network executives to be decisive and at the point that they say, "I value this at this level," and the studio says, "Well out in the marketplace, that piece is far more valuable," the project is going out into the marketplace and Fox is out of it. So, it’s about putting pressure on executives to work from their gut and to decide what they want. That’s what we want here: to empower people and to declare their passion and then proceed based on that. And then we also have outside studio business at the network — great projects already from Warner Bros., Sony, ABC Studios, so it’s working very well right now.

Have you had to calm the reps who fear they won't drum up the same kind of bidding wars over at Fox now.

Walden: I think they are probably a little frustrated by that. [Laughs.] But it doesn’t mean that there are no bidding wars, it just means we’re being decisive about the process.

Kevin famously stood before the media with a "pilot season" gravestone earlier this year. Still the plan?   

Newman: To some degree, what Kevin was focused on was that pilot season, being defined as four or five networks ordering and having produced 100 projects all in a two- or three-month period, didn't make any sense. We really agree with that. We're going to be making pilots when pilots are ready. We anticipate being able to make pilots throughout the year and not being limited to making them just in the spring. What a lot of people seem to have taken away from what Kevin was saying is that he wasn't going to be making pilots and things were going to go straight to series. That to us is a proclamation we wouldn't make. The truth is, our business isn't a one-size-fits-all business. We're in a creative world where you have to be flexible and you have to be elastic in a way where you think about these projects. Different projects are going to require different development processes.

One of the things I like about what Kevin was talking about was it's really helpful to have more information about your shows. So, having people write bibles and doing back-up scripts? That can be very helpful, particularly on serialized shows. Now and then you're going to come across something where maybe the cost of doing a pilot is so extraordinary because of the content that you decide, "We're going to get lots of information about this. We're going to write scripts, do a bible and amortize the cost of production by committing straight to a series." You're going to see a lot of different things coming out of this network — it isn't going to be just one type of development process.

The selling season is off to a particularly slow start this year. Have you reached the point where you're concerned?

Walden: We're not very nervous right now because we do have several very strong pieces in development already. But it is the slowest season. There are something like 400 shows that are in production right now, so there are many, many writers working on those shows. We understand very well from being at the studio for so long that you want to keep your eye on the prize; you want to focus energy on those shows that have been ordered and valuable first-season shows that you want to get picked up for a second season. You want to keep those young series strong to hopefully be creating long-term assets, and that has definitely impacted the development process.

That said, we already have some very strong pieces. We're not concerned. I do think over the next month the pace is going to pick up a little bit because I think that there were writers working as consultants on those shows whose obligations involved focusing more heavily on the show during the summer and during the ramp-up to production, and now they've shifted their focus to their own development. So I think we'll start seeing a bit of a pickup in terms of the pace at which these projects are coming in. But as Gary said, you have to be flexible. We're in a 52-week development process and there's nothing about our rules that would suggest if a great writer was available to start working on something in January, we wouldn't do that because that's the traditional pilot production period.

As far as Fox TV Studios is concerned, you seem committed to keeping a second cable studio open. What's the line of thinking there? 

Newman: Everything is on the table for us. We've had great success having two labels with two different identities. Both have been successful and have done lots of great programming. Dave Madden assembled a great group of executives, and Nancy Cotton and others over there have been doing a great job over the last couple weeks of keeping things going, keeping us informed of what's going on and that's been great. Our team over at Fox 21 is also excellent. Bert [Salke] is a fantastic leader. We continue to look at our cable production, and we will be figuring out over the ensuing weeks how we're going to move forward there.

On the reality side, Utopia took a dive last night to a 0.9 rating, and reality isn't a genre that tends to benefit much from DVR viewing. How much patience will you have for a show like that?

Walden: We are going to exhibit patience because we like the show a lot. They're doing a very good job — Talpa, Simon Andreae and his team — and producing an excellent show. It is a really interesting twist on a franchise that feels familiar enough to viewers that I think over time it has the great opportunity that scripted shows do not have of introducing new pioneers, bringing in different points of view, activating new viewers to come in and check out the world. We're definitely going to exhibit patience. What exactly that means, it's hard to tell. I'd say that as long as we're feeling creatively satisfied with the show, we're going to do everything in our power to give it an opportunity to thrive and grow.

Years ago, the Fox reality brand was wacky and shocking. What do you foresee the unscripted brand being under your watch?

Walden: Well, I wouldn't call the brand wacky and shocking — that's not our brand. [Laughs.] I think it's a mistake to be too narrow in the branding of any form of programming on the network. What Simon and his team have done is they've assembled a broad roster with different types of storytelling and different subgenres. We're looking at that department holistically and trying to decide how balanced a slate we can have of reality shows so that we don't become the network that does just one thing. That leads to a tired brand and eventually just having to completely restart development. The projects that they brought in have been very exciting. They've had breakthrough concepts: Some are noisier than others; some are more aspirational than others. We want original-feeling shows that are distinctive and that fit within the loose brand of the network, which is to be bold and daring and to take big swings.