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Brian Grazer on the ‘Empire’ Phenomenon: ‘We’re All Just Shocked By It’

Brian Grazer is about to release a book called “A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life” featuring highlights of his weekly “curiosity conversations” with people from all walks of life on all manner of topics.

As “Empire,” the Fox drama that hails from Grazer’s Imagine Television and 20th Century Fox TV, notched its eighth straight week of ratings gains — a feat unprecedented in the modern era — Variety asked Grazer to turn his curious mind to two key questions: Why the hip-hop soap is connecting so strongly with audiences and what a hit of this magnitude does for a creative enterprise.

What explains the “Empire” phenomenon?

We’re all just shocked by it. “24” was pretty phenomenal but it didn’t have this explosive quality about it. It started to really work in year three and then just built. This is just a gift. It just seems as though there’s a huge part of our population that was kind of ignored and our show ignites their interest.

But what is it about the show itself?

It’s sexy and it’s soapy and it’s masculine. I think that’s why it connects. As real as the characters are, and while they came from the hardass dirty streets, they are now living in a really glamorous environment so in that way there is a fantasy or wish fulfillment premise for everybody. It has all these internal dynamics for people. “Dyansty” did that — we’re just doing it in a completely different world. I think it’s like the timeline of hip-hop itself. When I worked on (2002 Eminem biopic) “8 Mile” I met Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Chuck D. and Slick Rick. That music gave life to broader, more accessible music, and I think “Empire” lives in that same trajectory. That’s why it’s going up each week. It’s a cool insight into a different world.

Do you feel more pressure as a producer because it’s been such an out of the box hit?

Every single episode is a bigger twist on a bigger twist. There are so many surprises and we are so fortunate to have really great actors who can actually sing. So there’s the music that bridges you into the characters that were created by Danny (Strong) and Lee (Daniels). And now (showrunner) Ilene (Chaiken) is exhaustive in asking the question on every script: “Do we have our three moments in the show that are going to make people gasp?” The best things I’ve worked on in television were shocking. “Arrested Development” was shocking. “24” was shocking. Not every one of them is a hit. When Aaron Sorkin did “Sports Night” it was really shocking. It didn’t take off in the way that this show has but in order to breakthrough and to have people care you have to be shocking, in the best way, not just for shock value. But you have to have something original.

“Empire” has been the answer to Fox’s prayers as it rebuilds its primetime lineup. What does this kind of success do for your company?

When you have a success like this it’s a validator. When you feel validated you have a chance at being more prolific. It makes you want to take more creative risk and not play it safe. (Imagine TV president) Francie Calfo works tirelessly with Ilene and all the writers and the actors on the show. That’s not always the easiest job but the like and respect her.

Did you get that encouragement from Fox before you knew “Empire” was a smash?

(Fox TV Group chairs) Dana Walden and Gary Newman have enabled all of this to happen for us. They are truly so generous. They made it possible for us to create the staff to make this happen. A guy like (Fox TV COO) Joe Earley is constantly inventing new ideas every day to broaden the audience and create the bridge between this show and the audience. Most guys who run that department do it for the first couple of weeks and move on to something else. He’s constantly thinking about us.

Next up for you in TV is Kurt Sutter’s “Bastard Executioner” pilot for FX. How’s that looking?

(Sutter) is such a artist. He’s so committed, it’s wild. Long before he even got the greenlight he had created the first year of the show at the same time he created the pitch. When he commits to a subject, he has so much belief in the show he works 18-hour days. It’s awesome.

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