John Landgraf on What TV Needs to Do to Improve Diversity Among Directors

John Landgraf
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For an in-depth story on the quest to diversify the ranks of television directors, Variety spoke with dozens of industry professionals and is posting transcripts of a selection of those interviews. Below is an interview with John Landgraf, CEO of FX Networks and FX Productions. (Here are links to the entire series of interviews related to the story on directors and diversity.) 

As a point of reference, the story contains a chart comparing statistics on diversity at various networks. FX and FXX’s statistics are below.

DGA stats covering the 2012-2013 season for FX
Total episodes: 115
Episodes directed by white men: 102 (89 percent)
Episodes directed by white women: 5 (4 percent)
Episodes directed by non-white men: 7 (6 percent)
Episodes directed by non-white women: 1 (1 percent)

DGA stats covering 2014-2015 season for FX and FXX
Total episodes: 168
Episodes directed by white men: 148 (88 percent)
Episodes directed by white women: 8 (5 percent)
Episodes directed by non-white men: 12 (7 percent)
Episodes directed by non-white women: 0

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Of the leading television providers, FX has the lowest numbers on diversity among directors. Why do you think that is?

It’s two things. One, and this is maybe the most important, it has to do with who’s creating and running these shows. I think we have to get more diverse in terms of who is the show about and who created it.

We need to hire more diverse and female directors. That’s a simple statement, when you look at the actual numbers you put forth. But I will also say that I think it’s more complicated. The directors are hired by the executive producers, so it’s the executive producer of the show who makes these decisions. We react with these decisions in the exact same way we interact with any writer, which is to say, we might question a decision or story and we might sometimes try to kill it, but we rarely do if they feel really strongly about it. We don’t tell them what to do. Ultimately the decision of who hires directors for shows on FX is not made by FX. It’s made by people we’ve hired who are executive producers and showrunners. It’s harder than you think.

One of the things the DGA says is that you dont actually need to be a member of the Guild to get a job in TV. If youve done an indie film, your paperwork to join the Guild can start once a showrunner decides to make you one of their directors. Is that not a route you would follow?

I would never say never, but generally speaking, when you’re talking about extremely ambitious and complex episodes of television, you won’t give that many slots to somebody who has no experience directing an episode of television. And I can only tell you that I have had limited success hiring extremely successful feature film directors who have directed massively critically acclaimed or successful feature films to direct television pilots. I’m not saying no, we would never hire somebody who’s never done another episode of television before, because we would. But when you think about laying out a schedule for a year, you don’t want to hire a lot of people that fall into that category, because they may ease into the role and they may find it simple or they may not. They may find it difficult because it may be very different than anything they’ve ever done. Episodic directing is really different than directing your own film. You have a lot less authority, a lot less control. You’re entering a system that’s already up and running.

There are four really key roles in making television. One is a director, one is a writer, one is an executive producer and one is a showrunner. The most important of those four roles is the showrunner. So if you want to improve this situation in the long run, the best thing you could possibly do to improve the situation is have more showrunners that are women and people of color. And I believe that’s really important for the industry and important for FX and I’m trying really hard to do that. That’s one of the reasons we have two shows picked up that are going on the air next year. One is “Atlanta,” which was created and is being co-showrun by Donald Glover, who’s African-American. And the other is “Better Things” that was co-created and is being showrun along with Louis C.K. by Pamela Adlon.

Ultimately they’re really the bosses who makes the decisions. As I said, we influence those decisions and so we can say, “Please don’t hire this person.” By the way, if they say, “We disagree,” we’ll back down. In other words, it’s not “Don’t hire this person.” It’s, “Please don’t hire this person.” And we can say, “Please do hire this person,” and if they say, “We don’t want to,” then we’ll back down. I’m not saying that we can’t and won’t do better. I’m saying that it’s a complicated problem.

The stats are different at other networks. Some networks appear to be making more effort, and theyre able to move the needle.

Which networks?

ABC’s numbers are very different from FX’s, for example. At the broadcast networks, it’s not as if that they will absolutely forbid a list of directors that is not diverse, but they will very strongly push back when that happens. 

I think that there are two different approaches one can have to moving these numbers. One could be pushing the executive producers on shows to hire more women and more African-Americans. Taking responsibility on the part of the network to push people to hire more women and more African Americans, I would say that we do that. We don’t tend to push people really hard to do anything on our shows. That just doesn’t tend to be the way [we work]. I would say there are other networks that are much more aggressive about a top-down management in everything they do. So ABC in my observation is fundamentally more aggressive about top-down management of everything from the story to the music to the tone. And they may well be very aggressive at top-down management of directors. We don’t tend to work that way with our executive producers. It’s not that we don’t have a voice and have influence and it’s not that we don’t care.

From my standpoint, we are going to have to get some women running shows and some African-Americans and some Latino men and Asian women running shows. Because our shows are very much about the voice and the authority of the creator, and within that I don’t abdicate the notion nor does anybody who works for me abdicate the notion that we should be — and we do by the way – we tell people we would like to have a diverse staff.

I know you well enough to know that if a result matters to you, you will make it happen. The things that you prioritize tend to happen. So if you were to say to me, I really want these numbers to be different two years from now, I think John Landgraf would make that happen.

Well, I do want them to be different two years from now. What I don’t intend to do is take the hiring decisions for the episodic directors out of the hands of our executive producers.

I talked to another cable executive the other day, and he was saying that for their shows, someone who came up through the ABC or NBC diversity program isnt appropriate for a cable network. He even used the words “snob appeal.” I wonder, for the cable networks and the Netflixes of the world, do they have an on-ramp that tends to work consistently for people of color and women?

I think that on-ramp should be showrunners of color and women. I am making the decisions about who creates and who runs our shows, but I’m not making the decisions about who gets hired to direct our shows. That the decisions that I have the greatest potential impact [on are] the positions of who creates and who runs our shows. Long before this conversation, I started making a really concerted effort to have more women and more non-whites not just in a directing positions or writing positions or executive producer positions but in creator/showrunner positions, because I think ultimately they’re going to tend to seek out people who can tell the stories that they want to tell.

If you hire someone to make a show for you and that person is a person of color or a woman and that person feels really passionate about bringing on board a director who has not directed episodic television anywhere ever do you think it would be hard for that person to get hired at FX?

No, I don’t. I think ultimately you’d be surprised how genuinely respectful we are of the passionate positions taken by our showrunners and by our executive producers. Whether those positions are, “I want to hire this person,” or “I don’t want to hire this person” or “I want to tell this story” or “I don’t want to tell this story.” We’ll influence them if we can to hire the directors we want but ultimately we will not tell them who to hire and we will not tell them who not to hire. [FX shows also participate in the Fox Global Directors Initiative, a shadowing program.]

Why does it matter to you to have diverse creators?

We program to American society and everyone in it, and one of the best developments that’s happened in American society is the diversity of voices in a whole variety of different areas, including in storytelling. I believe that if your brand is quality, which I think FX’s brand is, quality doesn’t have a gender or an ethnicity attached to it. It’s just good.

Look, I don’t look at these numbers and think they’re good. I don’t think they’re good. I don’t think they’re good enough. You can report that the numbers aren’t good, because I care about this and we’re going to work really hard and they’re going to get better because it is a priority for us. But I also want you to understand that this isn’t something that we’re going to start working on today because you’re writing the story. It’s something that’s been in my consciousness for a long, long time and I’ve been trying to populate not only my organization but the whole of these staffs of these shows with [diverse] people, and I’m pushing harder and harder also just to get to the point where I have [diverse] showrunners.

Is enough being done in enough places with enough force and dedication, and will those efforts be sustained over time? 

I don’t know. I guess I’m the mayor of television so…

Im asking you in your role as mayor.

I really don’t know about what others are doing. I can tell you that if you look at the decisions that I’m making, to make Donald Glover’s show… by the way Donald Glover hired an Asian-American man to direct the show who had no previous experience directing pilots. He had done a music video before Donald. He did a really good job, we picked up the series. “Snowfall” is a pilot we’re making right now and it’s being directed by John Singleton. It was created by him and a Latino man.

I don’t think this notion of experience is unimportant, but I don’t think — at least not in our case — it’s the barrier that you think it is. I mean, we’ve worked with an awful lot of people before who’ve never made television shows or never directed television shows and the guys who made “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” had never made a television show before. Louis C.K. had never directed a television show before. I’m not really afraid to hire somebody who lacks a long resume.

To tell you the truth, a lot of people that have done 50, 60, 80 shows on television — some of them may have done a whole lot of really great Emmy-nominated episodes of television for Showtime and HBO and us and AMC. But they’re more than just have likely to have done a bunch of kind of middling procedurals on broadcast networks. I’m a heck of a lot less interested in that person than the woman who did an independent film. So there’s no fundamental point of view from my standpoint that we sort of have to perpetuate the same usual suspects, if you will. To me it’s much more about talent than experience.

Whether the industry as a whole is making a substantial enough effort to address this, I really don’t know.

People being fed into the system and getting that first credit, getting the second and third, getting established — according to DGA stats, most of them are white and male. Is there enough new blood going into the system that is diverse, whether its at FX or HBO or anywhere else?

I agree with the premise that it’s easier to be white and be male in an environment where there are already a lot of white males in the positions of authority. And therefore I also agree with the statement that it’s a desirable thing to have more non-white males in positions of authority at all levels, and that in essence something active needs to be done to achieve that. I agree with that.