Low-budget comedy prod'n model yields big returns for net, talent

There’s increasing chatter about FX being poised to undergo the network version of cell division, as News Corp. is said to be taking steps toward the long-discussed launch of a spinoff channel.

The plan that is taking shape calls for transforming sometime this fall the existing Fox Soccer cabler into an outlet dubbed FXX, which would largely focus on comedy programming — original and acquired series as well as movies. Fox Soccer at present has a subscriber base of about 50 million homes.

Although extreme channel makeovers can open the door to the loss of carriage deals — witness Time Warner Cable’s swift dumping of Current after the Al Jazeera purchase — cable, satellite and telco operators aren’t likely to squawk too much about losing a marginal sports channel in favor of a general entertainment channel. Especially one that will be fortified by established hits.

One of the major reasons why FX has the goods to launch a comedy spinoff channel is the success the cabler has had in developing its unique brand of laffers through its FX Prods. division. They’re low budget, and proud of it, according to Eric Schrier, the FX vet who is exec veep of FX Prods. and head of series development for the cabler overall.

“At the end of the day, comedies first and foremost have to be funny,” Schrier says. “If they’re not funny, it doesn’t matter how good they look.”

The FX Prods. model for comedies is pretty simple. Top creative talent on a show take less compensation upfront in exchange for a significantly larger profit participation stake than they would at most other major TV shops. That less-now/more-later compact has a way of aligning the interests of creators, exec producers and key stars with the network. In success, everybody makes more money. And producers have every incentive to watch their budgets and economize where they can, because those savings will only increase the money that flows into the profit participation pool down the line.

FX Prods. was born in 2005, shortly after John Landgraf took the reins as FX Networks chief. Landgraf knew that FX needed to incubate its own offbeat comedy programming, and he picked Schrier, then a current programming exec, to spearhead the initiative.

Seven years later, even as FX Prods.’ roster has grown significantly, and now encompassing latenight entries “Brand X with Russell Brand” and “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell,” the unit still has minimal overhead and is run by Schrier and a handful of execs. (FX Prods. is also a co-producer on numerous FX dramas but not on the low-budget model.)

“We take a really focused, brand-management approach to all of our shows. It’s a partnership with talent,” Schrier says, noting that Fox’s home entertainment and international divisions have also been key to making the comedy biz thrive.

The first show produced through FX Prods. was “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” which has proven to be its biggest home run to date.

The budget for “Sunny’s” first season was $500,000 an episode — nearly one-third less than a comparable network sitcom. Now that the show has been sold into syndication, to Comedy Central and WGN America, and has sold well in foreign territories, on DVD/Blu-ray releases and even licensing and merchandising sales (think Paddy’s Pub T-shirts), “Sunny” is a powerhouse for FX while the profit participation stakes for creator-stars Rob McIlhenney, Glenn Howerton and Charlie Day are yielding meaningful returns.

“Sunny’s” budget has climbed since the beginning — above-the-line costs can’t help but grow on a successful series — but they still produce it with a watchful eye on spending, Schrier says. The biggest savings comes from shooting episodes in three and a half days, compared to the norm of five days on network sitcoms.

For “Sunny,” Louis C.K.’s “Louie” and other FX Prods. shows, the focus is on “taking out the bloat” that inevitably creeps into TV budgets, Schrier says.

“There’s bloated costs that come in only from financial perspective but also creative. If talent embraces (the low-budget approach), it can be freeing. There’s a lot of stuff you don’t need to do with a 100-person crew,” Schrier says. A good example is the skeleton crew that Louis C.K. took to Beijing to shoot last year’s third-season finale of “Louie.”

Schrier credits his experience as a current programming exec during the early days of FX’s forays into distinctive original programming such as “The Shield” and “Nip/Tuck” with giving him the foundation to run the production unit. The late “Shield” exec producer Scott Brazill gave him a master class on “how TV shows get made,” Schrier says.

Even with the growth spurt in activity during the past few years, there’s no plan for FX Prods. to expand its horizons beyond FX (barring the occasional project for Fox). “We don’t have ambition to produce for other networks,” Schrier says. “We’re in the business of making this a talent-friendly environment for FX.”

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