FX Chief John Landgraf Warns Against Copying Netflix, Silicon Valley Giants

FX Chief John Landgraf Warns Against Copying Netflix, Google, Amazon
Richard Shotwell/Invision, Courtesy of Producers Guild of America

FX CEO John Landgraf warned of too much tech-world thinking creeping into the television business when speaking at the Produced By conference in Culver City on Saturday.

“There’s a whole thing going on in Netflix right now and in Silicon Valley saying ‘we’re going to use algorithms to make creative decisions,’” Landgraf said. “I say ‘posh.’”

Landgraf was joined onstage by “Fargo” exec producer Noah Hawley and moderator Vance Van Petten for a conversation at the annual PGA conference held this weekend on the Sony Pictures lot.

Talking about the way that creative decision-making intersects with business decision-making, Landgraf held up Silicon Valley as an example of what the TV business shouldn’t do.

“If I look at Silicon Valley’s business model, its fundamental business model, I look at monopoly,” Landgraf said. “Google is a monopoly. AirBnB is a monopoly. Uber is a monopoly. Amazon is a monopoly. And monopolies mean you don’t have more than one place to sell. The thing that I think keeps these studios honest on some level is that Noah can pick up and take his wares anywhere he wants.”

Several of those companies have emerged in recent years as competitors with FX and other cable networks such as HBO and Showtime in premium scripted programming. Netflix and Amazon are frequently mentioned in the same breath as those networks. Even Google-owned YouTube has ventured into scripted series programming through its YouTube Red initiative.

Landgraf also talked about what he looks for in a producer and showrunner, holding up Hawley as an example.

“You listen to people’s intent and then you judge their ability to carry out that intent,” he said. Hawley’s intent and approach to making “Fargo” lined up with his approach at FX. “I’m listening to your intent, and if your intent is to make money, I’m not going to buy your show. Now, if your intent is to make a great show, then we can have a conversation.”

Landgraf also said that there would have been no second season of Fargo without Hawley.

“We would have absolutely discontinued, ‘Fargo’ after one season if Noah had said, ‘I don’t have another idea,’” Landgraf said.

Van Petten mentioned having been involved in the launch of FX back in 1994. Landgraf joined network as its top executive more than 12 and a half years ago. He pointed out that when he joined FX, he had spent 11 years as a producer and four as an executive.

“When I went to FX I went in with a producer’s mindset, saying, ‘Well, I’ve been bitching and moaning for most of my life now about what idiots network executives are and how they make it impossible to make anything, so maybe I try to put my money where my mouth is now,’” Landgraf said.

But the incursion of digital was a recurring theme throughout the conversation. Hawley talked about building his episodes with the knowledge that they would be binge-watched by many viewers watching digitally.

“You know what happens to you when you do that,” Hawley said. “You start to go into this sort of weird zone, this zombie place. On Netflix, if you do nothing for the next 10 seconds, we’ll show you another episode. If you notice in that first year [of ‘Fargo’] that every episode starts somewhere confusing, to try to break that spell, to make people’s brains engage.”

According to Landgraf, that is something that some digital programmers have yet to master.

“I do think that the basic building block of the television series is the episode,” Landgraf said. “I think there is a value to making episodes that function well as pieces of storytelling that then aggregate into seasons. And I think one of things that OTT has to figure out is how to encourage people to do that. Because if you just make an episode that’s designed to get you from episode one to episode three and all it is a bridge, it’s just really not, you haven’t done your homework in terms of storytelling.”

Hawley and Landgraf also talked about Hawley’s next series, “Legion,” based on the X-Men comic books. Hawley said that unlike “Fargo,” which is an anthology, “Legion” will be an ongoing series.

“I don’t think that John or any network is interested in only doing limited series,” Hawley said. “I think there is a business model where you do it and you just have to build on people’s affection for characters and wanting the familiarity of that story as well. But I do think it’s important to reinvent things as much as possible to prevent them from getting dull — whether that’s introducing new characters or the way you play with the structure of the show.”

Landgraf stressed the importance of that reinvention.

“There are so many movies and television shows based on superhero characters now, you have to ask yourself ‘Why make another one?'” Landgraf said. “It’s a very similar question to ‘Why make ‘Fargo’ into a television show?'”