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Mel's Diner: Amblin TV’s Falvey and Frank Dish on Hollywood ‘Marriage’

The Dish: Minutes into meeting Justin Falvey and Darryl Frank at the hot (literally and figuratively) Studio City sushi spot Kiwami, the agility and popularity that has helped lead the longtime duo to a record number of ordered projects this year is apparent.

Kiwami is loud and packed with people, all of whom the copresidents of Amblin Television (née Dream-Works TV) seem to know. But despite our reservation, the only available seats are outside. The temperature has soared past 90 degrees. Their decision to switch locations happens in a flash of hand gestures and half-sentences: One of them points and says, “Should we—?” “Asanebo?” And we’re on our way by foot.

Before we make it out of the parking lot, CBS Entertainment chairman Nina Tassler pulls up to Kiwami. She offers hugs and glowing words about teaming up with them on Under the Dome (which wraps its three-season run Sept. 10) and Extant.

While just as conveniently located as Kiwami, Asanebo is far quieter. That’s mainly due to the fact that it’s considerably more expensive. The servers remind you “no soy sauce” as they deliver each plate of high-end Japanese fare. It’s a place the duo, who started working together 20 years ago this fall, says they reserve for special meetings and occasions. They offer several times (in vain) to pay. They know everyone here, too.

In addition to the CBS summer series, Amblin TV—cofounded by Steven Spielberg, who made the move a few years ago to self-finance the unit—has Minority Report debuting Sept. 21 on Fox; Public Morals, which premiered the night before our lunch on TNT; The Whispers on ABC; Falling Skies on TNT and The Americans on FX.

While Falvey and Frank say the company is now self-sustaining and has more in the works than ever, it’s still just a staff of 11. As far as they’re concerned, that’s an advantage.

“If you get too big, you can’t be agile,” Frank says. “Because we’re so small, as the market changes—and it feels like it’s changing every year—we’re able to sort of zig and zag and deal with it.” Kind of like their approach to where to eat lunch.

Highlights of our discussion about working together, Spielberg and the future follow.

Let’s talk about your 20-year partnership.

Frank: I’ll be married 18 years this November. And I’ve known Justin longer than I’ve known my wife. So it is a work marriage. Just like any relationship, you have to work at it, not be selfish, go out of your way.

Falvey: Because of our business, which is television production—90% of which is not in Los Angeles—we travel. We both have families, so we try to manage that. We’re never gone on weekends, but it really allows somebody to be on the ground in Atlanta or Vancouver or New York, representing us and the company and the principals of the company—Steven and Darryl and myself—and knowing that we could finish each other’s sentences. We certainly share a creative sensibility.

You talk about your partnership as being a 1+1=3. But there is of course a third person in the dynamic in Steven Spielberg. What’s your working relationship like with him?

Frank: Our barometer [for picking shows] is something we’d want to watch. We include him in that as well.…The No. 1 thing for us is what’s right for the Spielberg brand and the Amblin brand. But then there are also things that we’re super-passionate about that we go to him about that may not be good for that exact brand, and he’s very supportive with passion. If somebody can get up on the desk and say, ‘Hey, I love this show!,’ that’s what he wants.

He’s just the best boss. It sounds gushy to say it. But he is a father figure to us. He’s a friend. He’s a partner. He’s a mentor, he’s a guiding force. We look to him—even though we know his taste so well after all these years—to sort of poke holes. We say, ‘OK, here’s what we think,’ but he looks at things in a different way, because he’s Steven. So he sees things that we don’t see.

Falvey: There is a lot of trust because we’ve all been working together for so long. As Darryl said, [Spielberg’s] barometer for ideas on shows we should be pursuing–it’s things that we would watch, that could be any one of us individually. And the rest will take notice and recognize there’s something in that. Because there is an intrinsic trust over some decades of working together. He works as hard today as he did when he first started.…He will often say to us, ‘I do all my TV work before my day starts,’ which is [between] 5 and 9 in the morning or whatever it might be. He loves television. So a lot of emails. And he’s unbelievably accessible.

Frank: If we need an immediate response, we can always get it from him. We try and respect what’s going on in his life, too, and not deluge him with material and sort of do our homework before we get it to him. But there are lots of times when you do need an immediate response on a piece of casting or a new crew hire, something that’s happening. And you don’t have time to wait because TV is this moving train—he gets that because he started in TV.

Falvey: He understands the complexities and the difficulties and the challenges, creatively and financially. It’s a privilege for us to work with him and help manage what he’s built and hopefully expand upon that. He’s been an incredible partner, or boss.

Frank: He’s just working on another level. So we try and use that, but not abuse it.

What does the next chapter look like for you?

Frank: The market forces change so much, with international being so strong. The digital networks being sort of the secondary window, the secondary revenue stream. Your risks for cofinancing shows have gone down a lot, and that’s something that we’ve been exploring. Opportunities to maybe take some bets on certain shows where we’re not just fee-based producers for hire. Maybe we put some money in on our own. It’s something we’re talking about. No decisions have been made, but we’ve had a lot of different companies that have reached out to us.

Falvey: Kind of expanding beyond just the producer business. Because we are already situated to do that, and in an ever-changing environment, because we’re an independent company and the world is changing. You can’t control the distribution system…but you can control the content that you’re putting out. That’s first and foremost.

Then it’s our job to understand how all of those things work so that we could be as smart and strategic and allow that content to thrive in the best possible way, place or form but never lose sight of what’s sitting in front of you. Just pure production, which starts with an idea and coming back to the basics. I think that’s what we love most.

It’s still exciting to have a seed of an idea and see that, over the course of what’s a very short time, become a show and then see that on air. That is still something that I think we both jump out of bed at the prospect. That never gets old to me.

Falvey and Frank elaborated on why their longstanding partnership works, working with Spielberg and how the proliferation of programming is changing the business. Here are highlights:

On their longstanding partnership---

Falvey and Frank say their friendship and similar taste are keys to their successful partnership.

Falvey: When we started, we were in this temporary space. We didn’t have all of our offices. And I was in this massive office the size of this restaurant. And there was no space for him. He started two weeks after I did – and they were putting him in a cubicle.

We went out to dinner and I said, ‘Just move your desk in.’ We were meeting writers. We literally put our desks kitty-corner to each other.

Frank: It was partner desks from day one.

Falvey: Yeah, that was kind of the beginning of it.

Frank: And then when we built out an office …. We built out a floor for the television company and we had offices next to each other and we built a sliding glass door between our offices, which we always kept open. A French door. I don’t think we ever had it closed, because we always did our meetings together.

Falvey: And it’s a great system of checks and balances. Somebody may be more passionate about something or believe in something more. Or somebody could say, ‘Am I crazy to be thinking this way? What’s your sense of that?’ We work off each other in that respect, which is great in a creative business that can be so subjective to have just another opinion, somebody who knows you and saying, ‘This is worth fighting for. You may want to think about approaching it this way.’

Frank: Somebody to have your back. You know, there are a lot of times where there will be creative conversations and there are a lot of people talking. To have somebody to be able to sell your point of view as well, so it’s not just you doing it, it’s always good to have that sort of backup.

Falvey: I think that’s why it works. We complement each other well. Because he could say, ‘No, this is an issue,’ or, ‘It’s not an issue.’ It’s literally kind of looking at – despite the similarities we have, we can approach things in a different respect.

Frank: There’s always people who go, ‘Who’s good cop and who’s bad cop?’ Because it’s constantly changing depending on who has a real strong point of view about something and if one person has a really strong point of view, the other person sort of backs up and goes, ‘Go with it! I'm there for you!’

But it’s not something you can always predict, who is going to be good cop or bad cop in certain situations. … You know who is better at what stuff and who likes to do what stuff better. You have to be self-aware of what you're good at and what your partner is better at.

There are relatively few longtime partnerships like yours in the business, Dana Walden and Gary Newman at Fox, a number of writing teams. Why do you think there aren’t more partnerships like yours in the business?

Falvey: I think they’re hard to come by. In order for them to work, I think the one thing you see consistently with any partnership that does work is that, not surprisingly, it has been a long-standing partnership.

And often, I think the partnerships that work the best are when people complement each other and when they’ve kind of grown up and risen through the ranks together as opposed to a forced marriage.

This was something we took on ourselves and decided to work together. Our philosophy was, literally from the beginning 20 years ago, saying, ‘We’re going to get a lot further working together than competing and backstabbing.’ And it was a genuine friendship and it’s respecting that person.

Frank: Even when we were junior executives, when we started making our first deals, we hired the same lawyer and we basically told them, ‘We’re going to make our deal together. Whatever you pay him you're going to pay me and vice versa.’

We’re doing the same job anyway, we didn’t want to have anything that could put a wedge in between us. So every time we would negotiate our deal, we would negotiate together. We had our own individual deal, but the terms mirrored each other. … The other thing that I think is key to us is we’re friends. We like the same things, so we have the same taste. … We like the same restaurants. We like the same music. We grew up around the same time, so we have the same interests and stuff like that.

So that while we complement each other, we have the same taste so I think that’s one of the keys to a long partnership, too, is like if you like different things then eventually one partner is going to want to go do something else.

Why Steven Spielberg is “the best boss”--

Spielberg’s responsiveness, passion for TV and “humanity” are among the facets that Falvey and Frank say they appreciate and admire about their boss.

Frank: We use (Spielberg) as a sounding board. … a lot of times he’s our objective opinion. He has a great objective opinion. There are times where we’ve got shows already picked up or they’re already going and then we call it ‘sprinkling his pixie dust on it.’

We’ll bring the writers in or we’ll bring the director in or the production designer or the DP and we’ll do a presentation for him. And he’s probably adding three or four things in that meeting that are the things that the writers are like, ‘We have to write that into the show!’ or the director’s like, ‘I have to do that shot!’

Falvey: It’s always amazing to watch how accessible he is. And he’s remained obviously at the top of the game and is relevant as he is because he watches and reads everything. I mean you could talk to him about any TV show, the odds are he’s probably seen it and he doesn’t forget anything. You can talk about it and reference shows from the past and different influences. He's mostly – he’s a big fan of TV and it shows in his approach.

Frank: The other thing is being a great family man. He carves out time for his family so while he works really hard and we work really hard and we email back and forth on weekends and at nights. If you were to ever say to him, ‘Oh, I'm at my son’s baseball game,’ or ‘I need to do this.’ He’s totally respectful of that. … He’s a great person with great morals and ethics. Always does the right thing, which is really important to us too and how we run our business. Even if something could be a better deal but it’s not doing the right thing, we don’t do that because we’re a representation of him and that’s how we live our lives too. So it’s great to work with somebody – he always does the right thing. He really does.

Falvey: It’s a high bar to live up to, but it’s something we’re really fortunate to have in our lives. We don’t take it lightly. We truly don’t.

The impact of the proliferation of original programming on Amblin TV’s business --

Taking stock 20 years into their partnership and as a new TV season begins, Falvey and Frank say the biggest factor changing the game right now is the huge amount of programming being made.

Frank: I think (one of the biggest challenges is) getting a show to stay, because there are so many different shows.

It’s what (FX Networks chief John) Landgraf said. You can’t just have a good show anymore; you have to have a great show. Or even what Roy Price has been saying at Amazon: You have to be somebody’s favorite show. I agree with both of those things totally, because all of us at this table have a DVR filled with stuff that we love that we can’t even get to. ‘Oh, I'm on episode seven of this and I've got to try this other new show because I heard it was great!’ We like to sample everything.

Finding a way to be somebody’s favorite show and then having the network get it out there and let it grow to be somebody’s favorite show.

Falvey: And the target is changing in terms of analyzing the overnights and the L3s and the L7s. It takes months now to aggregate all that information and have an understanding of the economic impact, the impact it means to a brand as a network and producers. ... It’s a long-term game now that you have to play and really take a step back.

For us as a company specifically what we talk about in terms of managing our business is making sure we’re … not spreading ourselves too thin, because we don’t have the resource for it nor do we want to. And to maintain our reputation, which is quality over quantity. We have a specific brand and taste and people expect a certain product to come through the door and a guarantee of the delivery of that and the quality.

Frank: And that’s the other thing, is the talent. And not just actors, but it’s showrunners, it’s writers, it’s directors, it’s DPs, it’s production.

There is so much production going on right now. We’re shooting Minority Report in Vancouver. There are 55 other shows shooting up there. Even getting a driver is difficult to get. When we were shooting in Atlanta there were 35 shows shooting at the same time. To build our set, we couldn’t even get carpenters.

On entertainment, the family business

Frank’s father, Rich Frank, was an executive at Paramount and Disney. Falvey is married to Samie Kim Falvey, executive VP, Comedy Development and International Scripted Development, ABC Entertainment Group, so they both literally work in the family business.

Frank: I kind of learned through osmosis watching him [Frank’s dad]. He was at Paramount from ’74 to ’84, which is like, Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Mork and Mindy, Cheers, Family Ties, Entertainment Tonight. ... I would watch the rough cuts with my dad and stuff like that and I do that with my daughter now too.

Falvey: And your Halloween costumes. Want to mention that?

Frank: Oh yeah, when he was at Paramount, that movie The Warriors came out.

To be like the Warriors or the Baseball Furies was like the coolest thing to do.

Scott Marshal is a friend of mine. Garry Marshall, his father, wrote Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley, all that kind of stuff. So we used to hang out. We went to school together. We used to play the Warriors, a group of us would be the Baseball Furies and the other group would be the Warriors.

So one day he shows up with the actual vest from Swan. The leather vest. I said, ‘Where’d you get that?’ He goes, ‘Oh, my dad got it from the wardrobe department at Paramount.’ All of us said, ‘That’s the real vest! Oh my god!’

But I just learned that it’s a privilege to work in this business and we all could be doing other things but we make television. We make entertainment for a living. I learned from him, really, work ethic. Work hard. Even though you’re privileged to be doing it, you have to work your butt off in this business to succeed because there are a lot of really talented people, and people that can out-work you.

Falvey: To his credit, he has accomplished that and carved out his own niche in that respect– he’s truly become his own man. We always joke (to Rich Frank) – ‘Oh, you’re Darryl Frank’s dad!’

Frank: As opposed to Rich Frank’s kid. He loves telling that story. He’s so proud of everything.

And then of course this is a family business for you as well with your wife, Samie. Do you work together much and how do you handle that?

Falvey: We have. What’s how we met. We met working on Undeclared when we had the deal with Judd Apatow, had Freaks and Geeks. And we produced Undeclared at Fox. She was the current exec on that show. But we’ve had, over the years, shows we’ve developed, series produced there [ABC]. There have been moments where I’ve said, ‘You need to make this call. You need to be this call. I can’t.’ For both Samie and I, you just step away.

There are obviously real advantages to that in that you have an understanding of what these jobs require and time wise, so we can balance. We have two little children– that’s the most important thing for us. And it’s prioritizing and making sure somebody is home every night at dinner and we’ll look at your week and say, ‘All right if you’ve got a dinner on Thursday, I'm free that night.’

And then also, when you have to go to a work function, it’s not as painful for the other spouse because you know everybody there.

I'm sure there are times, like upfronts, every year where you are both gone, right?

Falvey: Well, we bring our family, our kids to New York. That’s actually been fun. They are little enough that we bring them there. My in-laws are there.

Frank: It’s always over Mother’s Day, too. I remember that from growing up. My dad was always away for Mother’s Day, and I am too. The same with my wife and kids – they always come to New York. The Sunday before that week is Mother’s Day. So usually, they are there on that Sunday, but you want to be there for the Monday announcement. So that’s great for them.

Falvey: My in-laws have an apartment in Midtown right next to Carnegie Hall, and my kids will stay there. My mother in law could not be happier, and she’ll say, ‘See you later!’ and Samie and I will get a hotel. We stay at the Parker Meridien so we’re next door. We can run in and run out and that becomes a really fun week. We can see our kids and they’re having the time of their life and getting spoiled by their grandmother and they both love New York.