El Plan for El Rey: Hook Next-Gen Viewers

Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, known for vivid genre romps featuring desperados and aliens, will throw his trademark cowboy hat into the increasingly crowded cable ring this month with the launch of the El Rey Network.

The network is far from a vanity deal, however. The multihyphenate Rodriguez, who serves as the network’s CEO, is involved in every phase of its launch. As El Rey gets set for its rollout to begin on Dec. 15, Rodriguez is spending the holiday season at his compound in Austin, Texas, directing the initial episodes of a series adaptation of his 1996 film From Dusk Till Dawn, El Rey’s first original series. Among the many hats he is wearing is the film’s composer and guitar hero.

Fortunately, when Rodriguez is in the woodshed, he has backup in El Rey partners FactoryMade Ventures, a Hollywood incubator founded in 2011 by CEO John Fogelman and co-CEO Cristina Patwa. The pair connected while working at William Morris Endeavor; Fogelman’s longtime client, J.J. Abrams, was FactoryMade’s first investor.

Given the overwhelming choice for viewers, “you want to find something that is a clear, definable brand,” says Scott Sassa, a well-traveled TV exec who became El Rey’s vice chairman in May. One aspect of that definable brand: Most Hispanics who will join the U.S. population down the road “are going to be second-, thirdand fourth-generation Hispanics that speak mostly English. That’s the big opportunity,” says Sassa. El Rey is one of the new minorityowned networks selected for broad distribution by Comcast as it was acquiring NBCUniversal.

Sassa notes, however, that even though El Rey has the backing of Univision (a 5% stake), its programming is entirely English-language. He doesn’t want it to be seen as aiming solely at a minority audience. “That market is not just Hispanics—it’s young people,” Sassa says.

The surge in Hispanic buying power and share of the U.S. population is on the lips of every network exec, however. So, how will El Rey work both angles? A big clue can be found in the unique blend of genres and cultures in Rodriguez’s own work, which ranges from El Mariachi and Once Upon a Time in Mexico to Sin City and the Spy Kids franchise.

“Most cable networks are started by guys with PowerPoints,” Sassa points out. “You now have a guy who’s an actual creator of this kind of product.”

Riding With Rodriguez

“We thought about Robert and stories he tells, they’re incredibly inclusive,” says Fogelman, noting Rodriguez is known for diverse casts.

Fogelman, Patwa and Sassa point to the Fast & Furious movie franchise as an example of their strategy; the films’ footprint and revenue potential have been expanded by casts featuring many ethnic groups.

Patwa and Fogelman see an opportunity to capitalize on that inclusiveness on the small screen. Fogelman said instead of looking for specific genres, they’re considering three factors: a cast to provide an “accurate” representation of the country; a youthful feel; and strong potential in international markets. “That’s the type of vibe we want viewers to expect from El Rey,” says Patwa. The net’s mix will include reality, scripted and animated series, movies, documentaries, news, music, comedy and sports.

Fogelman and Patwa are leaning on Rodriguez’s cachet in the creative community to fill out their roster of content producers. The foundation at launch will be From Dusk Till Dawn and a spy thriller from Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, the duo behind Sleepy Hollow and films including Star Trek and Transformers. “It’s clear that in the creative community the process is very different at El Rey, because it’s being run with a creative at the core,” says Patwa.

“Whenever you have something new and shiny, a lot of people want to be a part of it,” Fogelman adds.

At launch, El Rey will be carried by Comcast and Time Warner Cable. Sassa expects that list to grow, describing conversations with additional distributors as “going really well.” He adds that having the backing of Univision has certainly helped. “We will be substantially greater than any other network that’s launched from scratch,” Sassa predicts.