Variety Showmen of the Year: 20th Century Fox Television toppers turn arranged marriage into unparalleled success
After 14 years together at the top, their first names have fused into a five-syllable sobriquet pronounced “Gary’nDana,” or just as often,“Dana’nGary.”
Television bizzers usually speak of the 20th TV chairman-CEOs in the same breath because that’s how they operate in running the powerhouse TV studio that is rivaled only by Warner Bros. in size, scope and profitability.
Since 1999, Walden and Newman have turned a shotgun professional marriage arranged by Peter Chernin into one of the most prosperous executive partnerships in showbiz history. The two have presided over exponential growth in the studio’s production activity for network, cable and digital outlets. And in recent years, they’ve taken on more turf within the broader studio by gaining oversight of the 20th Century Fox studio’s licensing and merchandising and syndication sales operations.
In reflecting on how far 20th TV has come on their watch, Newman and Walden are quick to emphasize that neither could have done it alone.
“Our business is very dynamic. It’s very hard to predict with any certainty what the television business is going to look like three to five years into the future,” Walden says. “The prospect of running this studio would be immeasurably more difficult if I didn’t have someone to talk to about these issues. Gary and I have an incredibly beneficial, meaningful relationship that has (helped) every step we’ve taken in growing this organization to where it is now.”
There is no doubt, Newman says, that in a business changing as fast as TV, two heads are better than one.
“One of the secrets to the success we’ve had is that out of the process of two people having to come to a point of view on something, you get better decisions,” Newman says. “Dana will say something that I don’t agree with, but it forces me to think about it from a different perspective. More often than not, I’ll say, ‘You’re right.’ ”
The hallmark of 20th TV as a studio is its enviable reputation for shepherding risky creative bets into commercial successes. The tale of “24” is a case study in bucking TV traditions — and being far ahead of the curve on the boom in serialized drama series.
“Modern Family” was a cutting-edge spin on a domestic comedy that bowed at a time when family laffers were few and far between on network TV. “Glee,” with its musical focus and high school setting, was a primetime Hail Mary pass that spurred the studio to become proactive in generating ancillary revenue opportunities through music and merchandising deals.
With “Homeland,” 20th TV not only tackled combustible subject matter (the gray areas of America’s war on terrorism), but also cracked the code in developing a feasible economic production model for a pay TV channel. It picked up an Emmy last year for best drama series in the process. And in their spare time, Walden and Newman found the way to quench the thirst of the rabid Bluth family fanbase by reviving “Arrested Development” on Netflix.
The studio is also known for its track record in nurturing and investing in creative talent through its formidable roster of showrunners, directors and producers. Carter Bays and Craig Thomas were young scribes fresh off “The Late Show With David Letterman” when they landed at the studio with a quirky idea that became “How I Met Your Mother.” Steven Levitan and Ryan Murphy had been through their share of
misfires before they connected with “Modern Family” and “Glee,” respectively.
“Our calling card to the creative community is, ‘Bring us your biggest ideas. We can support your vision,’ ” Walden says. “We always want to be in business with the best creators.”
Says Chase Carey, prexy and chief operating officer of 21st Century Fox, 20th TV’s parent company: “Gary and Dana are simply the best in the business. By any measure, our television studios outshine the competition, and that’s clearly a testament to the vision, creative leadership and long-standing partnership of the team at the top.”
The growth of 20th TV as a business overall is gratifying to Chernin, the former News Corp. prexy-COO who took a gamble on pairing Newman and Walden. They took the operating reins in December 1999 from Sandy Grushow, after Chernin dispatched him to oversee the Fox network as well as the studio.
Chernin’s decision came as a surprise to both Walden and Newman, as well as the broader industry. Neither executive had experience juggling management and operational responsibilities at a high level.
Newman was the studio’s business affairs chief, having joined in 1990 from NBC. Walden started at 20th as a PR exec in 1992, and moved up the ranks as a creative executive who was overseeing drama programming. The studio was in the midst of a growth spurt that saw it sparring with Warner Bros. for bragging rights as the largest supplier of primetime series, with a roster of about 20-24 shows in any given year. Today, 20th TV and its Fox Television Studios and Fox 21 cable production units are delivering 40-plus series at any given time.
Chernin, whose Chernin Entertainment now has a TV production deal through 20th, credits the duo for doing the hard work of learning how to work together.
“Those kinds of partnerships are fundamentally a referendum on character,” Chernin says. “You’ve got to subsume your short-term ego for betting that together you can grow the company better than you can alone. In addition to being the two smartest executives I had, I had great confidence that they were the kind of people who could work together rather than compete with each other.”
The comfort level Walden and Newman now enjoy as partners didn’t happen overnight, of course. There was a moment about seven months into their tenure when the two were called to Chernin’s office for a gentle reminder about the benefits of dividing up the workload.
“We definitely had our fair share of growing pains in forming a partnership,” Walden says. “Initially, Gary and I felt it necessary to be in every single meeting together. I think there was a certain level of insecurity in both of us about who was going to make which decision. Chernin sat us down after about seven months and said, ‘One and one was supposed to equal three, not one and a half.’ ”
Both execs took Chernin’s message to heart. These days, the two are not only business partners but close friends, and they’re so often on the same wavelength that they don’t even need to finish each other’s sentences. The communication extends well beyond office hours, with phone conversations that don’t require the niceties of “hello” and “goodbye.”
“Sometimes I’ll call Gary at night and just launch into an issue we need to discuss, and then we just hang up when we’re done,” Walden says with a laugh.
Despite the differences in their work experience, there’s also little distinction any more in the types of questions tackled by one or the other.
“There are so many immediate decisions required throughout the day and so many demands on our time. You don’t stop to think, Is this a creative decision or a business decision? It’s just a studio decision,” Newman says. “Either one of us can say with 99% accuracy whether the other one is going to agree with this decision or not. The whole secret, just like in a marriage, is communication.”
As the studio’s volume has grown, Newman and Walden have worked with their teams to become ever more strategic about devising a business strategy for each show they produce. It’s a must in a world of expanding options for windowing, syndication and international sales. And it comes from learning the hard way the importance of being selective.
“We found ourselves at some point with 29 shows. We beat Warner Bros.’ record for the most shows produced in a year,” Walden says. “But it was not a celebratory moment, because there were a lot of shows that represented pretty bad pieces of business for us. That was us being hungry for network orders vs. being strategic developers of shows that are timeless, have global appeal and can move easily (among) platforms. It was at that moment when we shifted our focus to a far more strategic process.”
Another imperative for the duo these days is to empower executives and push some of the day-to-day decision-making down the ranks, as Newman describes it. Not only do 20th’s toppers need some breathing room during their day, but also it’s the only way to groom the next generation of leaders.
“There’s no greater gift to a young executive than to give them the authority and the responsibility to affect the challenges and problems they confronted,” Newman says. “Mistakes are going to be made. Things may not always be done the way you’d do them, but as long as they’re learning in the process, it’s good for everyone down the line.”
In this and other ways, Newman and Walden have fostered a culture of collaboration among executives and creatives that sets up the best possible conditions for success. Chernin has seen this first-hand, first as the big boss of the studio and now as a producer on the 20th TV/Fox comedy “New Girl” and other shows.
“What you want in dealing with a studio is somebody who gets it. Not someone who is coddling you, but someone who is smart and successful and can help you be successful,” Chernin says. Walden and Newman “deserve tremendous credit for the success of their shows. I’m happy to have them be my boss.”
“Don’t Trust the B—-” exec producer Nahnatchka Khan, on her mentoring by Gary Newman and Dana Walden
I remember nervously walking into Dana’s office for our first meeting in my jeans and sneakers, and suddenly feeling like I was underdressed for a formal brunch at the Four Seasons. But she and Gary could not have been more welcoming, laughing and joking, and just making me feel incredibly comfortable.
Gary and Dana were so supportive of my show, which is huge for a first-time creator. They’re both smart and savvy businesspeople, and have produced countless series, but they always bring tremendous energy and excitement. They care so much about the writer’s vision. I couldn’t have been in safer (and in Dana’s case, better manicured) hands. And they’re also incredibly sensitive to the emotional roller-coaster that is television. Like when I ran into Gary at a restaurant the day after I found out “Apt. 23” was canceled, and he sweetly pretended not to notice how drunk I was.
I always felt like they were watching out for me, protecting me … kind of like how I imagine it would feel to have Carmela and Tony Soprano backing you up at all times. Someone is maybe thinking of messing with you, or maybe standing in the way of you being accepted into Georgetown, but then they see Carmela and Tony just over your shoulder and they’re like … “It’s cool, it’s cool — we got no problems here.”
Gary and Dana are super cool, and I got no problems here.