21CF Chats: FOX’s Michael Thorn talks brave new world of scripted development

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FOX’s President of Entertainment on the opportunity in buying more scripted shows from other studios

As the fall television season heats up, the development season for next year’s scripted programming is already off to the races. In an era of vertical integration in the broadcast networks’ scripted space, FOX will be treading new territory during this period of transition, whereby it will no longer have a pipeline of scripted material from its sister studio, 20th Century Fox Television. For the first time, the network will aim to buy 50 percent of its scripted lineup from other studios (compared to 90 percent from 20th Century Fox Television in prior years). FOX’s President of Entertainment Michael Thorn took a few minutes to share his insights on why this changing landscape may, in fact, pave the way for more creatively enriching projects, including the focus on attracting scripted material with four-quadrant appeal and a unique voice that resonates with a timely and relevant message.

FOX’s President of Entertainment Michael Thorn

FOX will soon become the only major broadcaster without a companion studio. In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, you talked about how we will be using this to our advantage. How will that work?
There are several strong, independent studios with great writer/creator deals in place. These are studios that don’t have a network affiliation, like Warner Bros., Sony, Lionsgate and MGM. Vertical integration has limited their access to broadcast, and they’re excited to be working with a major broadcaster again. We’re capitalizing on this tremendous opportunity by being their first-choice home for scripted development, and so far, the response has been incredible.

You’ve also talked about buying fewer scripts this year while still aiming for the same number of pilot orders.
From a development standpoint, our strategy is to be much more targeted about how we approach development. I think we’ve done well on the pilot-to-series success rate, but we have not been as disciplined in the script-to-pilot ratio. For example, in the last few years, we’ve been buying 50-60 drama scripts and the same number for comedy every year. Out of that pool, we would end up with approximately six pilots for each (comedy and drama). Now we’re targeting roughly half the number of actual scripts and, therefore, focusing our resources on the projects that best fit our brand and development goals.

What kind of changes can we expect in terms of the creative direction of scripted projects with these changes?
We’re a true broadcast network – we have animation, drama, comedy, unscripted, live events and live sports. Our goal is to develop a slate of scripted series with four-quadrant appeal that can really seize the attention of the broadest audience possible. When you look at shows like “9-1-1” (Mondays at 9/8c) and “The Resident” (Mondays at 8/7c), they have the FOX signature quality to them but still get over 10 million viewers per episode. “9-1-1” reaches roughly 16 million.

On the drama side, we want to have visceral storytelling with an aspirational quality to it that’s filled by a multi-generational cast to help us reach a well-rounded audience. If you look at “The Orville,” we have close-ended stories that are aspirational because it looks to the future.

On the comedy front, we’ll see at least one difference: I don’t think we’ll do as many serialized comedies. In the past, we’ve had some amazing but heavily serialized comedies, which made it harder for the audience to jump into the middle of them. We’ll still have characters who grow and evolve with continuing experiences in their lives, but our approach will be more episodic. We still want the bold and complex characters that have been and will continue to be the face of FOX, but I think we’ll see less reliance on serialized storytelling, particularly in comedy.

What is the theme that runs through most of the projects that FOX ends up ordering to series?
Regardless of the genre, we’re a writer-driven company: We bet on voices that have a strong point of view and have something to say. That’s the consistent element about all our series and the creative direction we aim for. The shows we choose to develop and order to series are ones that fit well with our target audience. If you look at “The Resident,” [series creator] Amy Holden Jones has given us great characters and a show that’s emotional and funny at times. But she also has something to say about the current state of medical care and hospital management – you see that reverberating through the stories and characters. It’s very specific, different and timely.

In our comedies, we are also betting on voices, whether it’s Tim Allen in “Last Man Standing” (Fridays at 8/7c) or our Sunday night multi-cam comedy “REL” (Sundays at 9:30/8:30c), which is partly based on comedian and actor Lil Rel Howery’s standup routine and real life where he had to figure out how to start over after a messy divorce. He uses his experiences to tell a very funny and accessible comedy.

The majority of FOX’s scripted series used to come from 20th Century Fox Television, but now you’ll be looking much more at what the outside studios have to offer. What does this change mean to your team?
Our goal is to have 50 percent of our business with 20th Century Fox Television and the other half with outside studios. As we move forward, we’ll have co-productions with these studios that will give us an ownership stake in the projects in addition to our creative involvement. I think there’s a real win-win opportunity for us and our creative partners.

Read our conversation with Michael about FOX’s fall TV premieres.