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FX’s upcoming series Legion, which is part of the X-Men universe that the Fox film studio has been continuing, virtual reality and the differences in storytelling for film and TV were in focus Thursday during an Edinburgh Television Festival session with director/writer/producer Bryan Singer (X-Men franchise, The Usual Suspects, House) and Peter Rice, chairman and CEO of 21st Century’s Fox Networks Group.
The longtime collaborators had an onstage conversation during a “Gamechangers” session at the fest about the relationship between entertainment executives and creatives, highlighting their collaboration of more than 20 years.
Singer discussed Legion, which he is executive producing for FX, saying it is designed to be a series that is “part of the X-Men universe, but when you watched it, you wouldn’t have to label it — it could exist completely on its own.” He said it and another planned X-Men series “will relate to future X-Men movies.” And he added it would feature a “really ambitious and fun and very unique storyline.”
Discussing the difficult start of the X-Men film franchise as well as other modern comic book movies, Singer recalled: “X-Men collapsed. We lost our entire crew, we couldn’t get a budget or script or anything. At one point, it was myself, my friend Tom DeSanto and [Rice], the three of us sitting on the floor of the Spanish Broadcasting building … in a little tiny office pasting pieces of paper together, trying to construct a story.” Rice added: “The night before Thanksgiving.” But they said they made it through the difficult period.
Since both have worked in film and TV — Rice used to head up Fox Searchlight — they also discussed the differences between film and TV storytelling on Thursday. “Movies are ultimately narrative stories,” said Rice. “I find TV is ultimately a character journey.
“It’s not a director’s medium, It’s a writer’s medium,” Singer added about TV, comparing it to theater. “A film is mine.”
Rice and Singer also discussed the culture of Fox on a couple of occasions. Singer said that the entertainment side of Fox is “the most progressive” in U.S. network TV, lauding it for having featured all sorts of edgy storylines on the likes of House.
Rice later explained: “All of the studios do have different personalities.” Singer agreed: “They do.” Rice argued that there has been “a big corporatization of storytelling in the last 20 years. I think it has a lot to do with international markets growing and visual effects being more important than character and trying to make everything look kind of the same.” He lauded Fox’s approach in this context. “One of the things I love about Fox is the sense of the filmmakers that we work with,” he said. “We are looking for people who don’t do what we tell them. They come in with a really strong point of view, and they are looking to do something different … it’s sort of the ethos … we want it to be unique.”
Singer echoed: “Fox, perhaps because it is family owned … for a giant studio, it does have an entrepreneurial feel a little bit. You feel you are in an entrepreneurial place where you can say shit in a room.”
Discussing broader industry trends, Rice said he was fascinated with today’s freedom of TV formats, highlighting “this amazing hybrid of a serialized show” that Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story brought to the company, saying that is “really fun for storytellers.” He said when Murphy first pitched the idea and said he wanted to bring along the acting talent from season to season to play different characters, it wasn’t immediately clear to executives if and how such an approach would work.
Rice also said that he was excited about virtual reality storytelling, relating a recent use of it in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and saying he felt like he was part of the group of friends at the center of the show. Singer agreed, saying “this is the future,” adding that “it is a new skill set” that needs a new generation of writers and creatives who can work with it. “It requires exercise.”
The two also discussed the relationship between industry execs and creatives. Rice said he never felt the relationship between executive and creative was as awkward as some people sometimes say. “Ultimately, studios are in the commerce business,” and many creatives understand that too, he said.
“Filmmakers inherently want to be viewed as an artist or an auteur, I guess, to distance themselves from the studio and the finished product,” said Singer. “The reality is it begins with the studio’s faith” and money and “”you both have the same goal.”
He added that working with “suits,” “I put myself in the head of the person giving me the notes” to understand why would he want to change this or that about a movie. “I don’t put on an actual suit, because it’s too uncomfortable,” he quipped. “I always wear my suit,” Rice later said. “It’s my costume.”
Rice also talked about his view of Hollywood as a British outsider, saying, “I don’t really find Hollywood as cynical as it is portrayed in the world.”
Singer on Thursday also explained his fascination with the X-Men. “I identified with the X-Men characters as being outcasts,” he said, because he was a bad student and had various issues, including with sexuality. He also thought it would be a “cool” universe to continue exploring as he always loved big-budget adventure movies.
Singer also entertained the crowd by showing off an X-Men tattoo on his right leg, saying the audience members were among the first people to see it.
The two executives said they have known each other for 25 years. Rice said he saw Singer’s first film Public Access at Sundance when he was an acquisitions executive and left him a message. Singer said he recalls his excitement and thought “Peter had quite an adorable accent.” He said the two discussed the Coen brothers and the two hit it off.
Rice was appointed chairman and CEO of the Fox Networks Group in August 2012. In the role, he supervises all aspects of the Fox Broadcasting Company, FX Networks, including the recently announced FXX, as well as the Fox Sports Media Group, including the company’s 22 owned-and-operated regional sports networks, Fox Soccer Channel and Fox Soccer Plus, Fox College Sports, Fox Deportes, the BTN joint venture with the Big Ten Conference and Fox Sports 1. Rice is also responsible for multiple National Geographic Channel brands and the fast-growing Fox International Channels.
Before that, he served for two years as chairman, entertainment for the Fox Networks Group. Rice also previously served as chairman, entertainment for Fox Broadcasting. Before transitioning to TV, he served as president of Fox Searchlight Pictures and Fox Atomic. Rice also spent time as an executive vp of production at Twentieth Century Fox.
At Fox Searchlight, he oversaw such films as Slumdog Millionaire, Little Miss Sunshine, Sideways and Juno. Born in the U.K., Rice graduated from the University of Nottingham and began working for Fox in the late 1980s. He’s worked his way up at the company, starting as an intern.
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Jamie Lee Curtis