FX CEO John Landgraf on the ‘Racially Biased’ System and Taking Major Steps to Change His Network’s Director Rosters

FX John Landgraf
Courtesy of FX Networks

In the 2014-15 TV season, only 12% of FX’s directors were women or people of color, according to DGA statistics.

Though many networks, particularly in cable and streaming, have similarly spotty track records, FX’s was the worst, and a 2015 Variety article drawing attention to widespread inequality in the hiring of directors prompted the network to take action.

At the moment, 51% of the directors booked by FX and FXX are men and women of color, or white women.

“We set a goal that wasn’t incremental but quantum, in terms of what we wanted to achieve,” FX CEO John Landgraf said in an interview with Variety. “Part of it is, if you’re going to go from a laggard to a leader, try to get to something you can actually achieve and sustain that looks like real change.”

Landgraf has been trying to expand FX’s array of creators as well. Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” and Pamela Adlon’s “Better Things,” both of which premiere in September, are among the results of those efforts. But Landgraf noted that it’s “easier to solve the problem more quickly with directors than with writers,” given that most directors are freelancers who don’t stay with one series full-time.

“I hadn’t been really focused on directors, I had been more focused on this question of storytellers in the broad sense, and how do we get everyone’s story told — not just white males,” Landgraf said. “How do we get the right shows, the right executive producers? Because ultimately that changes the composition of the way a story is told and presented and it does ultimately change the composition of the employee base.”

Regarding directors, “we just happened to all be working in a system that was racially biased, and weren’t taking responsibility for stepping up and acknowledging that and saying, ‘OK, we will be the change,’” he added.

It’s worth noting that the statistics released annually by the DGA and the numbers FX shared with Variety have been tabulated differently; it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. DGA stats are published on a year-to-year basis (and the guild will be releasing its report in a few weeks). FX, on the other hand, considered the most recent seasons of its comedy and drama series and the upcoming seasons of shows that have not yet debuted; thus the time frame covered by their data set is longer than a single year.

On their 17 series — from “The Americans” and “The People v. O.J. Simpson” to the upcoming “Legion,” “Atlanta” and “Better Things” — there are a total of 170 director slots. Twenty-one of those slots are as yet unfilled. Of the 149 directing jobs that have been booked, 76 — more than half — have gone to men and women of color and white women. The breakdown is as follows: 73 slots went to white men (49%); 32 directing gigs went to men of color (21%); 11 jobs went to women of color (7%); and 33 helming jobs went to white women (22%). 

“I wish I had done it years ago,” Landgraf said. “The thing that’s most exciting to me about this is that this group of people has proven that it’s just a matter of priorities. It’s just a matter of will, and it can be done. Nobody really can say, ‘It can’t be done,’ or ‘It’ll take 10 years to do it.’ It can be done now.”

Landgraf’s first step was to send a letter to showrunners in January telling them that diversifying the pool of directors was a significant priority. “I don’t like to bigfoot the showrunners,” Landgraf said. The letter conveyed the idea that showrunners retain final decision-making power and that “We are not basically swinging a sledgehammer at you and your process.”

That said, the letter connoted the urgency of the desire for change, stated that FX executives would extend every possible resource to showrunners who wanted help finding diverse candidates, and encouraged creators to step up their own searches as well.

The credit for the turnaround, Landgraf said, goes to the showrunners themselves; to the team led by Jonathan Frank, FX’s executive vice president of current series; and to Nicole Bernard, executive vice president of audience strategy for the Fox Television Group.

“They’re the ones that went out and did it,” Landgraf said. “I think what Jonathan did and Nicole Bernard did is test the theory that there isn’t a large enough and available enough pool to fill these slots. And I was very heartened by the showrunners’ willingness to put their time and their energy in service of this — to take it seriously.”

“No one can rightly argue that this cannot be achieved or that achieving it would cause some hardship from a commercial standpoint or qualitative standpoint,” he added. In 2016, the year in which it set out to expand its directorial talent pool, FX set a record for the number of Emmy nominations received by a basic-cable network.

Frank said he and his team looked for candidates who may or may not have had TV-directing experience, but who could show, through some past work, that they had “an aptitude for finding character moments and emotional moments and could execute them and translate them so that they shine through,” he said.

“A lot of networks care about, did they make their days, are they on budget?” Frank said. “If someone’s horrible and always goes over budget, that’s a red flag. But for me, the onus of that falls more on the production, to make sure the train’s moving smoothly. For me, it’s about how they communicate with the producers, how they take the showrunner’s vision and execute it, and how they work with actors.”

Though Frank and his team met with a wide array of directors, some of whom had been stuck in “procedural jail” and wanted to break into the kind of character-driven stories FX and FXX are known for, part of the idea was to feed new TV directors into the system so that FX (and other networks) can continue to hire them. That goal is starting to pay off. Hiro Murai, who came from the world of music videos and who directed the pilot for “Atlanta,” impressed Frank so much that he recommended him to an executive producer of another FX show. 

Thomas Schlamme, a director and executive producer of “Snowfall” met Murai, “looked at his stuff and booked him onto ‘Snowfall,’ which is by all accounts a very different show than ‘Atlanta,’” Frank said.

“I think we’ve worked with more first-time showrunners than probably any channel, and here we sit right at the top of the heap in terms of quality,” Landgraf said. “We haven’t done that by hiring blue-chip brand names, we’ve done that by breaking” talent.

“White males are only, depending on how you count them, somewhere between 31% and 36% of the U.S. population. There’s nothing in my mind that says they ought to have 50% of the directing jobs,” Landgraf noted of the network’s yearlong efforts. “It’s not a panacea. It’s a beginning.”

The following are edited excerpts from an interview with Landgraf and Frank.

What prompted all the change?

John Landgraf: We just generally want to be in the vanguard of changing television for the better, and I think it was very hard to be the laggard, which is really where we were. The industry as a whole was really falling down, and FX, far from helping, was bringing up the rear. The article basically said there is a problem, it’s an industry-wide problem, and someone’s got to step up and try to figure out how to solve it.

What I realized after the article was, and what Jonathan and I have talked a lot about, is that it’s easier to solve the problem more quickly with directors than with writers. A showrunner is a life-of-series relationship and [a writer may be on a show’s staff for years]. It’s not that writing staffs don’t change at all, but they don’t change very much. Directors are freelancers. There are directors who do five or 10 episodes of a show every year for years, but [most] directors are freelance, they come and go.

Jonathan Frank: Ten percent of the slots [in the current directors’ rosters] are populated by first-time directors. The pool is definitely not large enough to make the shift easy. Booking directors on any series is difficult, no matter who you’re trying to book and whether or not you’re trying to change [the system]. There are a lot of different elements that make a director right or wrong for a show, and only some of them are pieces of information that, as network executives, we have the ability to suss out or locate. A huge part of what makes a director fit in to a show happens on the other side — it happens with the showrunners when they sit down and meet with them. There’s so much about whether that specific personality will fit in with the environment of a show and will work with the actors or the crew or the pace.

Landgraf: I think it’s helpful on a very basic level to look at all of this statistically and on paper. We have to start with some baseline. But ultimately it’s not about numbers, it’s not about resumes, it’s about people. You start with a baseline, and ours was really weak, and you start with a goal.

What was the goal, in terms of changing the numbers?

Landgraf: I think our idea was, as much as possible. That throws down the gauntlet for the industry to say this can happen, it is doable. If we did it, you can do it. We can all do it. Frankly, [the ratio] could be 60-40. It could be 70-30. I don’t really care, as long as we’re doing the right thing and we’re getting people. Not all those people will work out. But so far in what we’ve seen, it’s been really promising from a creative standpoint.

But that’s always been the case — not everyone works out, including some white guys.

Landgraf: Right. And there’s a value to having less experienced people, because you find a kind of passion and enthusiasm, that new surprise. You look at who’s actually created shows for FX that have succeeded and there are a lot of first-time showrunners — Ryan Murphy, Denis Leary, Louis C.K., the “It’s Always Sunny” creators, Kurt Sutter, Joe Weisberg, Pamela Adlon, Donald Glover. There can be a negative associated with the risk of having somebody whose less experienced, but there’s a huge positive too.

What it comes down to is, who hires the director? The showrunner hires the director. Not necessarily at every place, but at FX and some other places, the showrunner hires them. The first thing you have to do is have a conversation with your showrunners, and you have to gain consensus that this is going to be a priority.

Were you afraid the showrunners would resist this effort?

Landgraf: No. I have a lot of faith in our showrunners.

Where does it go from here?

Landgraf: It’s going to take time for an episodic director who got an opportunity at FX this year, because of this initiative, to find herself or himself in that category of showrunner or executive producer or director of every episode [of a TV season]. It’s going to take five of 10 years to get that person there.

If part of how people are getting jobs is that they’re white males, and there’s a sort of a lethargy or an inertia around that, and therefore we’re not looking at the entire available pool of human talent, then we’re squandering talent. Period. We’re squandering the talents of women and minorities, and we’re not fielding the best team. The way this change happens is that the industry decides it wants to field the best team and it wants to do what it needs to do to field the best team. [It has to] look farther afield and work harder to look beyond the usual suspects to achieve that.

If a black woman directs an episode of “Snowfall,” or an Asian man directs an episode of “The Americans,” why does that matter to you?

Landgraf: Well, equity matters. I hope that most of us believe that we actually would all benefit from living in a more equitable society. If that’s not happening, we’re squandering human potential. We want to make the best television possible. We should be drawing on the entire available pool of storytellers and directors, and we should be expanding that pool and trying to hire the very, very, very best people. That’s our job.

There is a privilege in American society to being male and being white, and I think it’s hard for white males to understand that privilege, because we’ve never experienced the opposite. When I sought out mentors to try to move forward, there were white males in virtually every position from which I was seeking mentorship. There was a natural simpatico or natural comfort. And so if you believe that’s true, and I believe it’s true, then we have to change that. We have to try to equalize opportunity and privilege.

Have you seen any change when it comes to the talent agencies?

Frank: I think since the article came out there’s been a real focus on the need for diverse and female directors. There’s probably been a growth in [representation] but also, with agencies, they’re in a volume-based business, and they can be reluctant. It takes a lot of work to break anybody, whether it be a writer, a director or an actor, into the business. Not ever having been an agent myself, my sense is that upper-level agents who have the most power, who can move people through the [system] more easily, are less willing to take on the volume of work to break somebody new. And then lower-level people, if they are willing to take on somebody new, they don’t necessarily have as much sway, and it’s harder for them to push somebody through.

Landgraf: I think that this will take time, but I think that there has been no real sense of purpose or urgency around it. If we have as an industry a sense of purpose and a sense of urgency around it, we can get it done.

Half, or more than half, of our [currently booked] directors are female or non-white. And I think FX is really well-respected for the quality of the work that’s put out under our brand, and [ideally] the perception of the quality of the work stays the same, or best-case scenario, goes up. Therefore no one can rightly argue that this cannot be achieved or that achieving it would cause some hardship, from a commercial standpoint or qualitative standpoint. 

[In future we may] struggle to maintain our 50 percent or better, because all the candidates that we’ve identified are working so damn hard on so many shows, because everybody’s booking them. And we have to then go find another set of candidates and they get taken away from us, and then we have to go find another set of candidates and they get taken away from us. But all the while, the percentage of [men and women of color and white women as directors in] the industry goes from 10 to 20 to 30 to 40 percent.

[The idea was,] let’s prove that it can be achieved in a localized space, which is FX. Let’s then challenge the whole industry to try to achieve it across every major producer of television, and then let’s deal with the problems that that creates — the fact that we don’t have the right farm system and we don’t have the agencies’ focus. If we have an urgency and intensity around solving this problem, we will solve it, because no one can argue it’s not solvable.