Fox carves niche

Studio's tube unit makes boutique chic

In a bid to make sense of primetime television’s increasingly outdated financial model, News Corp.’s 20th Century Fox TV is launching a boutique mini-studio charged with developing lower-cost programming for both broadcast and cable outlets.

Division — dubbed Fox 21 — will be headed by former 20th drama development VP Jane Leisner. She’ll be senior VP of the unit, which will report to 20th toppers Gary Newman and Dana Walden.

Inspired in part by corporate cousin Fox Searchlight — with a push from News Corp. chief operating officer Peter Chernin, who’s been leading a crusade to reduce production costs — Leisner’s division will seek to balance two goals:

  • Getting a handle on the runaway costs of TV production by creating shows that, by design, are less expensive than standard sitcoms and dramas.

  • Creating a lablike environment designed to encourage scribes — whether established or untested — to focus on passion projects or ideas that might not grab attention if developed by a major studio.

A sort of JetBlue for TV, studio would seek to keep costs down while maintaining an aura of quality. Howard Kurtzman, exec VP of business and legal affairs, was instrumental in the formation of the unit and will serve as a consultant.

“We are thoroughly committed to the idea that greatness in this medium is not connected to the size of a show’s budget,” Walden said. “There’s a crisis in this business. Dramatic actions are necessary.”

News Corp.-owned Fox Broadcasting and FX have already given Fox 21 three-for-one put pilot commitments. First project set up by the new studio is “The Gentleman,” a Sheldon Turner-penned drama for FX being eyed by Scott Foley to star (Daily Variety, April 28).

Leisner will develop about 20 projects a year, both scripted and unscripted. She’ll have a staff of about eight, including two or three creative execs, a head of business affairs, a casting chief and assistants.

While 20th Century Fox TV has largely produced for broadcast webs, Fox 21 will likely divide its output between cable and broadcast. Sony Pictures TV, on a smaller scale, has already proved its success in developing for both cable and broadcast.

Starting in June, studio will also operate off the 20th lot, taking up space in a building near Olympic Boulevard, about 10 minutes away from 20th. Space will feature an open design for execs while also giving Fox 21 scribes room to drop in and work on projects whenever they feel like it — “a fun space to hang out,” Leisner said.

As if to underscore the unconventional spirit of the studio, execs are using a lowercase “f” in its moniker. Logo will be revealed shortly.

Searchlight inspiration

“What was inspiring to us about Fox Searchlight was that its success shows you can create a unit like this, where one of your goals is to drive down costs and still create an environment … where the message is one of creative empowerment and freedom,” Walden said.

Creation of Fox 21 won’t impact the continuing efforts of 20th Century Fox TV to reduce deficits and overall production costs, Walden said. Studio has spent the last few years limiting its shots in reaction to changes in the TV landscape.

It’s become harder than ever to turn a profit on a primetime skein, with even successful comedies failing to generate the sort of healthy backend profits once common for any show that lasted 100 episodes.

Studios like 20th have pared down their rosters in reaction, eliminating many overall deals — but competition has still led to bidding wars for blind scripts. And the creation of pod systems has added $100,000 or more to the per-episode costs of many shows, further diminishing profits.

“It’s a very fluid process which lacks discipline,” Walden said of the current studio model. “This unit is all about imposing discipline while giving writers a chance to get projects developed they couldn’t do elsewhere.”

Strict construction

Indeed, execs expect Fox 21 will have fairly firm rules to guide production, keeping limits on spending for scripts, talent and below-the-line costs.

Those limits will likely not be as hard-and-fast as those used by Fox Searchlight. However, once a budget is set for a project, Fox 21 execs will be unforgiving in making sure the project doesn’t start expanding.

“Once budgets are locked, there will not be flexibility within those categories,” Walden said. “That’s the only way to control costs in this business.”

In exchange for generally lower upfront fees, Fox 21 will often be willing to give writers a bigger share of any backend pie. And because the studio plans to be aggressive at controlling deficits, it’s likely that, in success, the backend will come sooner and be bigger than with many traditional projects.

“You might get a little less upfront, you might not,” Leisner said. “We’re going to be fair. But you’re betting on success.”

Picking projects

Leisner will also be careful in the kinds of projects she develops, hoping to produce shows that, by their very subject matter, lend themselves to cost savings.

“We’ll be more idea-driven,” she said, noting that on many projects, “alternative means of shooting make it less expensive without sacrificing quality.”

A skein such as 20th/Imagine’s “Arrested Development” might very well spring from the Fox 21 banner, albeit with a smaller cast. And a couple years ago, Leisner worked on “An American Town,” a low-cost Fox pilot that generated considerable buzz around town (though not a greenlight).

On the other hand, “I’m not going to do ‘The OC,’ ” Leisner said. Despite the show’s quality and ratings success, its large cast makes it an unlikely model for Fox 21, she explained.

Blind script deals are unlikely for Fox 21, though small overall deals aren’t out of the question. Walden said the new studio “won’t get into bidding wars” for projects.

Some industry insiders are already skeptical that Fox 21 can produce low-budget shows for broadcast nets, noting that studios have been trying to squeeze down costs. “That’s what cable is for,” one agent said.

And yet others are pulling for Fox 21 to succeed.

“This new initiative’s success is vital to our mutual future success,” Fox Entertainment prexy Gail Berman said.

Walden and Newman began speaking to Leisner about heading up Fox 21 a few months ago, and Leisner has already been quietly meeting with agents and scribes in advance of the formal announcement of the studio’s launch.

“She’s innovative and smart and always a step ahead of her competitors,” Newman said of Leisner. “If there’s anyone who can inspire (writers) to help re-energize this business, both creatively and economically, it’s Jane.”

Leisner has been at 20th since 1997, working to develop skeins such as “Judging Amy,” “Roswell” and “Wonderfalls.” She was the studio’s current exec on the final season of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”