Mel's Diner: FX's John Landgraf Wants To Bring the Noise...Again
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WHO: John Landgraf, President-General Manager, FX Networks
WHERE: Versailles, Culver City, Calif.
WHEN: June 2009
THE DISH: When FX launched edgy Emmy-winning drama The Shield in 2002, it proved what was then thought impossible: A basic cable network could be home to one of the best original shows on TV. And as the network pumped out more hits, FX became known for its gritty, high-quality fare, a reputation it carries to this day.
Earning that status is heavy lifting, to say the least, but keeping it consistently over the course of several years is borderline Herculean (just ask HBO). And that’s one of FX chief John Landgraf’s biggest challenges.
The Shield wrapped up in November, and the network’s other two signature series are in their twilight years. Nip/Tuck is slated to end by early 2011, and Rescue Me is expected to last, as Landgraf says, only “a little longer” (season six is slated to debut in June 2010). So FX is, frankly, very much due for some fresh fireworks.
Meantime, Landgraf has a new boss, who is proving to be hands-on in stoking the network’s strategy. Longtime Fox executive Rich Battista rejoined News Corp. in September 2008 as president of Fox National Cable Networks, gaining oversight of FX. Battista now reports to Landgraf’s former boss, Fox Networks Chairman Tony Vinciquerra.
Despite all of this, Landgraf has a plan. While his network is known for loud and brash voices, he comes off as more understated, contemplative and savvy. But he is now ready to introduce “new kinds of noise” at the network.
“It’s not as if we’ve been resting on our laurels and doing nothing,” Landgraf says. “But we are now at the point where we’re ready to launch a wave of programming.”
As we meet for lunch in late June at Cuban restaurant Versailles, Landgraf is getting ready to announce the network’s schedule of original programming for the rest of the year-and tending to the biggest development slate of series the network has ever mounted (see related story, “FX Sets Fall Schedule of Originals Theatrical Acquisitions”). He is also forecasting imminent payoff from his years-in-the-making programming strategy of shifting away from acquired drama series and toward investment in big theatrical movies. One off-net series Landgraf did buy is the cable exclusive rights to comedy hit Two and a Half Men, which premieres on FX in fall 2010.
In the next few months, he expects to pick up at least two series from FX’s three drama pilots. He is also looking to add up to three comedies to the network, which currently has one, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. His goal: Maintain a mix of six original drama series on the air during any given year (four established players, two more experimental) and ultimately ramp up to four comedies.
“We obviously are a network that generates a fair amount of press attention because our shows are very-high-profile shows; they get a lot of critical acclaim and awards consideration,” Landgraf says. “We’ve been relatively low profile for a period of time because, quite frankly, we knew we were going to go through this period that was mostly status quo. I think what we wanted more than anything was for the network to rightly be perceived as stable and maintaining its ground and executing very well on its strategy.”
Now is the first time in several years that the group at FX is confident that the network is “going to start to actually make new kinds of noise,” he says, “that we’re going to see some sustained growth in the ratings side over a period of several years.”
This is not to take away from Sunny, Damages or Sons of Anarchy, three of the newer entries to FX’s stable of originals. Sunny and Sons proved to be ratings winners. Damages has not been as strong in the ratings but, along with its star Glenn Close, has followed in The Shield’s footsteps with landmark awards recognition.
Landgraf compares FX’s position largely to that of HBO. Like HBO, which made historic inroads into quality programming on cable and has struggled to follow its white-hot Sopranos/Sex and the City/Six Feet Under years with programs that achieve the same level of grandeur, FX went through a soul-searching process after getting The Shield, Nip/Tuck and Rescue Me on-air.
“FX has had what is a very important historic role in the TV landscape, after HBO climbed Mount Olympus and stole fire from the gods,” he says. “That was a big tectonic shift; the notion that a premium cable network could have what would be viewed as the best show on television was radical.”
Similarly, before The Shield, no one thought basic cable had the right economics to sustain quality scripted programming, he says. “The Shield was really the first show of its kind, nominated for a major Emmy award or major Golden Globe award,” he says. “But we had to pioneer a very different economic model.”
Landgraf joined the network as president of entertainment in January 2004 and was upped to president-general manager in May 2005. One of his priorities as head of the channel has been to maintain the volume and quality of original programming, what he says “HBO has had trouble doing, to replace shows as they age out, and maintain continuity.”
With one eye on the competition, which was launching what he calls a “tsunami” of basic cable originals when he came in, he tried to capture FX’s voice. He asked: “What do these three shows add up to in terms of a brand?”
He admits he didn’t know the answer right away, and spent years and several series experiments (such as Over There, Dirt and The Riches) figuring that out. “It was unclear to me for a while where that niche would be, or whether we would have our own niche with all of these talented programmers ferociously attacking original programming simultaneously,” he says. “So it’s been a real challenge.”
To Be or Not to Be an FX Show
Now, apparently, Landgraf has no doubt what FX’s programming brand is-and isn’t. “‘Audacity’ is a word we use a lot to describe our brand,” he says. “When you see an FX show, you say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe they had the guts to go there to do that.’”
He adds that FX also has a propensity for “alpha” characters, and the network aims to ride the balance between high-quality, broad entertainment and literary fare. Landgraf argues that The Shield was a Shakespearean tragedy with Macbeth in its DNA, and Sons of Anarchy is an update ofHamlet.
“I don’t think you’ll ever see an FX show on the air that’s not about something,” he says, “about a question worth examining on a literary level over a sustained number of years.”
Take one of the drama pilots in the works, based on Elmore Leonard’s short story Fire in the Hole. It’s vaguely a procedural about a U.S. marshal, set in a dark, Leonardian crime world.
“What the show examines in the long arc is the question of why did this guy go into law enforcement?” Landgraf says. “He kills a couple of guys in the pilot, which is absolutely justified because they’re bad guys and pull guns on him. But as we discover, he has a very complicated emotional background; his father was a criminal, and he’s a pretty angry guy inside.”
Contrast that with USA’s much lighter U.S. marshal show, In Plain Sight, which has probably more in common with Moonlighting than an Elmore Leonard novel.
Landgraf can name reasons why just about every quality show on basic cable that is not on FX is, well, not on FX. He calls AMC’s Mad Men a terrific show, but says it is much more literary than an FX show, and “it’s not a show that has any adrenaline coursing through its veins. It’s very deliberate.”
Landgraf is likewise clear on what he’s looking for in comedy. He says FX was not a bidder for HBO’s new entry Hung, from the creative team behindThe Riches. “Hung is a very expensive half-hour,” Landgraf says. “We’re just not in that $2 million-an-episode half-hour business.”
“Also, when we make comedies, we are making shows that are comedies,” he adds. “Not funny dramas that are a half-hour long.”
Given the grown-up themes that have become the hallmark of FX originals, Landgraf is likely to stick to airing them in the 10 p.m. hour. That means the network can’t take the tack USA has had blockbuster success with this summer by launching a new show at 10 (Royal Pains) after a returning hit (Burn Notice) at 9.
“We don’t do that,” Landgraf says. “Our shows are TV-MA.”
The content of some FX shows, such as 30 Days or Damages, would not have to be changed too drastically to be suitable at 9, but Landgraf says he’s pretty staunch about sticking to 10. “If we had a show that was borderline TV-MA or TV-14 and a massive ratings success, I wouldn’t say we wouldn’t put it at 9,” he says. “[But] I don’t see us going in that direction.”
RELATED: What one thing doesn’t FX have that could afford it a shot at challenging USA, TNT and TBS for the top of the basic cable ratings race?
Grenade-Tossing in the Third Act
Landgraf is now on his second contract at FX, and he considers the network to be at the end of the second act in a three-act play. “We’ve been retooling our business in ways people didn’t really know or didn’t even see because it’s happening quietly under the surface,” he says. “Now you’re going to see the way that pays dividends. It’s been frankly kind of a thankless task. The big news is always generated by companies making big, visible moves. We’ve been tending to our knitting, but I think that was smart in the long run.”
All told, building a war chest of theatrical movies is at minimum a decade-long process. Viewers are now developing “muscle memory” for the fact that FX is a place to go for movies, he says: “It’s taken years and hundreds of millions of dollars and steadfast buying. You buy Law & Order, put it on the air and-boom!-you’re a genius. But this is a slow, incremental process.”
And as Landgraf’s strategy is bearing fruit, he’s taking another close review of it, courtesy of new boss Battista. Landgraf describes Battista and Vinciquerra as having considerably different-but complementary-styles.
Landgraf says Battista, “who comes out of an M.B.A. and business development background,” is “super-ambitious and aggressive and demanding. He’s extra hard-charging; he asks a ton of questions.”
In fact, Landgraf says, Battista is “going to challenge every single assumption that I’ve ever made about the business. He’s not going to accept anything as a given. He’s also going to look continuously for not how do we get 5% growth, but how does 5 turn into 10 and 10 turn into 20?”
Vinciquerra never gets too excited about anything, according to Landgraf. “I’ve never seen him ebullient at good news, and he never gets depressed at bad news,” he says. “Nothing is ever going to be as great as you imagine or as bad as you fear. That’s a terrific thing when an industry is going through a radical and transformative change.”
As for other changes at News Corp., he says he has shaken hands with Chase Carey, who was recently named to replace COO Peter Chernin, but that the exec is otherwise an unknown to him.
Landgraf is looking forward to the best of both worlds-the familiar strength of Vinciquerra and Battista’s fresh eye. “It’s not, by the way, that Tony’s not ambitious. Tony is very steadfast, very measured, very long term in his thinking,” Landgraf says. “But it’s nice to maybe have someone who lobs grenades around, too. Once in a while, a grenade explosion shakes things up.”
Cuban restaurant Versailles has come a long way since John Landgraf began frequenting the flagship Venice Boulevard location. He used to go there by foot all the time more than 20 years ago from his first job in TV, as director of development for Sarabande Productions. Efficiently priced Versailles also is close to the Fox lot, where FX is now based.
“In general, I’m someone who prefers dives over upscale restaurants; this is my favorite dive,” Landgraf says, just as we both notice the fresh-looking paint and handful of other aesthetic upgrades.
Actually, Versailles has done some remodeling in recent years, according to Landgraf. And there are now five locations, including the original, where we’re meeting. “I don’t know if this is a dive anymore,” he says. “A borderline dive, maybe?”
I’ve always gone to Versailles for its generous helpings of the house specialty, the roast garlic half chicken, which will turn any girl into Buffy the Vampire Slayer for at least three days. So I order that.
Portions here are large by any standard, and Landgraf likes it that way. Note to those looking to set meetings with him: He does not eat breakfast. “I know it’s supposed to be the most important meal of the day,” he says. “Even when I was a kid, I was not interested in breakfast. So I eat a really big lunch; it’s my first meal of the day.”
Landgraf orders rice with shrimp, and a side of the signature black beans and plantains. He also orders sparkling water.
As the drinks arrive, Landgraf makes a final call on Versailles’ dive status. The waiter brings him a big bottle of a luxury-brand water. “It used to be when you ordered a sparkling water in this restaurant, you would get a club soda,” he says. “Voss bottled sparkling water? This is officially not a dive anymore.”
But still his favorite.
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