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Michael Thorn calls himself a “bit of an optimist.” It’s a quality that will probably serve him well in the coming year.
Thorn is president of Fox Entertainment, which is in the process of separating from its sister studio as Disney takes over most of the non-network assets of 21st Century Fox. It has created a unique situation in an era of vertical integration, whereby FBC won’t have a companion studio after the 2018-19 season and plans on being a big buyer from other studios like Warner Bros., Sony and Lionsgate.
“I think it goes without saying that whenever there’s a company in transition, there’s a kind of anxiety among the employees, but I’m a bit of an optimist, and I feel that same optimism from my teams,” Thorn told The Hollywood Reporter. “Usually when there’s change, there’s opportunity. So our attitude is, we’re the only independent network, we can use this to our advantage.”
Thorn discussed the approach “New Fox” is taking toward development, the network’s bifurcated schedule and the importance of football to the network.
What’s the pitch you’re giving to creators and agents? Your volume is going down, you have a little less real estate now and less next year with the WWE coming in.
The truth is that there’s tremendous opportunity on our schedule, and while adding a night of football takes away the opportunity for more scripted programming for 10 or 11 weeks, it also allows for greater circulation on our network, which means we’re better able to promote our shows. I think it’s going to be really meaningful this season for our Friday night comedies and just the general awareness of our shows.
We’ve spent time meeting with all the agencies as well as the studios. It’s no secret that many people in this business can be a little frustrated with the process of network television. So when we’re coming out saying we’re buying less because we’re going to give more focus on the ones we buy and those projects will have a greater shot to get one of the pilots we’re going to make, which is a number we’re not changing. Most people we’ve talked to, whether it’s agents or writers, are really excited about that because the process will be more meaningful, as opposed to one of many. The response has been pretty good so far.
So you’re doing more curation at the start of the process?
Yes, and it allows us to have more time to support those projects, both the new projects and the series we have on the air. We’re excited about that.
You ordered about a dozen pilots last year, correct?
Yes. We have three comedy pilots [Bless This Mess, Dan the Weatherman and the Rob McElhenney/Rob Rosell multicamera effort] we’re focused on this summer, in addition to the new development that will come this season. All the networks have said we want to break the cycle of traditional development, and on the comedy side right now we really are doing it. We have three really different pilots we’re excited about, with great pieces of talent. As we go forward, we hope to do that with all of our development and be a little more fluid and all-year-round. It’s just so much easier to cast.
Do you see yourselves leaning in to the mix you have now, where it’s multicams and what you hope are broader appealing single-cams and procedurals or easily accessible dramas?
That will certainly be a part of it. On the comedy side, what The Cool Kids has in common with Rel that has in common with Bless This Mess and Dan the Weatherman is all those creators have strong points of view and something to say in the series they’re making, whether it’s single-camera or multicamera. They’re really funny, and as you said, they’re broadly appealing. Our comedies going forward won’t have serialized stories, and they’ll be multi-generational and a little bit aspirational. We’re going to do broadcast-type series, but true to Fox, they’re going to have bold characters and they’ll be complicated people.
On the drama side, we’ll absolutely continue to do more character-driven procedurals. 911 is a great example of what we hope to continue doing — signature voices behind that show, visceral cases and really complicated characters where those character stories are serialized in a close-ended franchise. We’re not limited to only procedurals. We’ll continue to look for soaps, and we’ll continue to strive for really smart, character-driven events like The Passage and 24 and Prison Break in the past.
You’re going to be buying about half of your pilots from 20th and half from other studios this year. Obviously the on-air lineup won’t reflect that balance immediately, but have you projected out when it might?
It’s going to be season by season as we start to add new shows to our network. We’re certainly not going to get rid of any shows that are working, but as we move forward and put new series on the air, I expect we’ll have an ownership stake in those, and over time our schedule will reflect that.
Have you had discussions with studios and internally about how that ownership structure might work? Will you create your own production arm?
Right now, it’s definitely kind of case by case in terms of deal templates. We’ve started some discussions with studios, but it’s nothing formalized yet. We’ve certainly engaged with them on it, but I think it will be case by case and we’ll have some ownership stake in each of the series we go forward with.
Do you see that as a sharing of backend, or is that too far away to say just yet?
I think how distribution and things like that are formalized, we’ll find out. A lot of it, honestly, I think will be on a case-by-case basis as we move forward. It is an important goal of ours to have that stake.
With the schedule you have for this season, Thursday Night Football creates kind of a clean break between the dramas you have the first half of the week and the sports- and comedy-heavy backend. What was the thinking with that design?
We had to move some series around, having football on Thursday night. Wednesday, with Empire and Star, we’ve been winning [the night], and we wanted to have some stability. So we kept that night as is. We thought The Resident and 911 would be really compatible together and have a night of really strong night of character-driven procedurals, anchored with 911 at 9 o’clock. In looking at the competitive landscape, we thought we had a great opportunity on Monday night. Our Tuesday night shows felt like an opportunity for us, with two shows that have passionate audiences, do to some counterprogramming against the other networks.
As far as Friday night goes, Tim Allen was at 8 o’clock on Friday [on ABC] and it was working, so that was a no-brainer, and we’ll be able to capitalize on football to relaunch it on our network. And Cool Kids felt like it would be a great fit [with Allen’s Last Man Standing].
Are there shows out there now, beyond what you already have, that you would hold up as a template for what you want on Fox?
This is an obvious one — Modern Family. We’d love to have a signature live-action family comedy to complement our animated family comedies. That’s part of our mandate is to do something incredibly original, promotable, original, accessible, multi-generation. I’m sure everybody would want that show. The Big Bang Theory would be great — Sheldon is a great, bold character.
On the drama side, I’m biased because I developed it, but it’s tough to compete against This is Us.
Sports audiences are in some sense rented audiences. What are you doing to convert some Thursday Night Football viewers into all-week Fox viewers?
I think the additional night of football will just organically increase the circulation of our network, which will give all of our shows in terms of promos and marketing more exposure. I think our marketing team has used football in an incredible way as part of their strategy to help launch our shows — 911 being a great example, and The Orville having a special premiere out of a football doubleheader last season. It allows you to have greater exposure and awareness, and so people who are excited about these shows will hopefully come check them out.
We’re going to do the same thing [this season] with a special launch of Rel and the second season premiere of 911. I think we’ve kind of proven we can capitalize on it, but then the shows have to be great. It helped for The Resident, as well.
When Thursday Night Football ends, are you inclined to put shows there that might appeal to the football audience?
We’ll certainly use football to help launch our midseason shows, as we have the past couple years. We’ll use that night as an opportunity to launch shows that feel like Fox … we love to attract a broad audience, so hopefully they’ll have a male [viewership], but it’s not a requirement.
We know now that “New Fox will be 80 percent live” was meant to apply to the company as a whole and not the network specifically. But with the WWE coming in fall 2019, you’re still looking to have 10 to 12 hours of entertainment programming each week?
Absolutely. We have a new season of returning shows, we’re making off-season pilots, we’re planning on making the same number of pilots we have in the past. We’ve met with Lachlan [Murdoch] a handful of times already, and scripted entertainment is a big priority for the company.
Do you ever have conversations with The Simpsons guys about when they want to wrap up, or is it just when they decide they’re done?
We’re in productions on a couple more seasons. We’re about to do the 650th episode of The Simpsons, which is incredible. … The Simpsons is such a part of our DNA and our brand that expensive or not, it’s still who we are. We look forward to having it for a while.
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