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

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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.”

 

Check out the rest on Variety.com

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