Sex, Boundaries and Emmys – The Hitmakers Luncheon Recap
What defines a hit? Critical acclaim? Financial success? Ratings? Buzz?
On April 16th 2014, HRTS president Bela Bajaria posed these most fundamental questions, thus kicking off the annual Hitmakers luncheon at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Michael Schneider of TV Guide served as panel moderator and joining him on stage were multi-hyphenate panelists Michelle Ashford of MASTERS OF SEX, Carlton Cuse of BATES MOTEL, and Jenji Kohan of ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK.
Schneider began by appreciating the multiple demands on audience members’ schedules, saying “thanks everyone for taking time out from primetime pilot panic, or as Kevin Reilly likes to call it, primetime year-round development panic”.
Schneider asked Ashford and Kohan about basing their shows on actual people, saying “I’m curious what the parameters are when you’re dealing with real people and their stories”. Ashford said “I think we feel pretty beholden to the true story, they were public figures and they had a great impact on society and they did a lot of scientific work and so I feel that we need to represent that accurately” and as a result “we have stayed very close to the truth, we’ve never fudged the science of what they did. We do make composite characters, we do sometimes put them in emotional situations”. Kohan said that “we deviated from the source material pretty early on, we got a call that Piper had signed off but none of the other characters in the book were available for our use and so we should start making those up”. Given the rights situation and the need for a complex cast of characters, “all of these women come out of the writers’ room and our imaginations, we’ll cherry pick the book for certain details and scenarios but the truth is that when we read the book it was relatively drama-free, what made it so good was as a character piece”.
If the iconic film PSYCHO is your source material, how do you come up with a fresh, original approach? Schneider posed this question to Cuse, noting that “you’re doing an entirely different take on the world of Bates Motel”. Cuse replied that “the advantage that we had is that we had a studio, Universal Television, and a network, A&E, that were interested in developing something under the Psycho moniker” and so “the thing that really interested us was telling the story of this mother and this son. To me, Norma Bates was this incredibly fascinating character who was very famous in cinema history but we really knew nothing about her”.
Her show being called MASTERS OF SEX, Schneider asked Ashford if there’s “a rule of thumb for how much sex you can include in an episode or how much you want to?”, drawing a huge laugh when he added “I’m asking for a friend”. Ashford said that “it was an odd thing that I ended up with a show about sex since I’m sort of one of the biggest prudes on Earth about this and actually don’t like watching tons of graphic sex either in the movies or on television, so that presented an interesting dilemma”. And as a rule, “as much as we can, we never show sex in a way that isn’t deeply related to story”. Schneider drew another laugh when he noted that “I watch MASTERS OF SEX for the story, as we all do”. But it was Kohan who brought the house down when she quipped “I love graphic sex in film and television, the more sex the better”.
Schneider next explored the boundaries between drama and comedy and how the two are increasingly mixing together, saying “these days it’s hard to tell what a drama is, what a comedy is, and your shows have elements of both”, going on to ask “are we still hampered by definitions, categories, is there such a thing as a drama or comedy anymore?” Cuse grinned and said “only for Emmys, apparently”. He added that both drama and comedy are necessary ingredients, since “good storytelling is when you can cover the broad expression of human emotions and you’re not just having to hew down a narrow line”. As for the Emmys, Kohan said “I just wish there was an hour-long category and a half-hour category” since “a drama isn’t a real drama unless you have some comedy in it because you’re not reflecting reality, and if you have no dramatic moments then you have no armature for a comedy”.
Today there are many actors from overseas headlining TV series, Schneider noted the trend and asked the panelists why they think it is so. Ashford replied that “Britain has a very rich tradition of serious actors and acting”, pointing out that Michael Sheen is from the same Welsh town as Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins. Cuse concurred, saying that “I don’t know whether it’s better training, whether it’s a cultural proclivity where certain people choose to go into acting into those countries, I’m not quite sure what’s at the root of it but when you actually watch, when you see the auditions, it’s the winner takes it”.
Moving from imported actors to exported shows, Schneider said “for two of you, your shows are produced outside of LA, is this just the realities of the economics?” Being a California native whose show shoots in New York, Kohan said “it breaks my heart, I think California is really making a huge mistake in losing so much business”. She wanted to shoot in LA but the city can’t compete with New York since “you can’t beat a 35% below-the-line tax credit, you just can’t”. Cuse’s show shoots in Vancouver and he said that the reason “is purely economics, I’m very encouraged that Ken Ziffren is now involved in trying to create more opportunities for shows to stay here, to shoot here in town, and I hope that works”.
As for pilot season, Schneider noted that straight-to-series orders are becoming more common, asking the panelists for their thoughts on the changing nature of development and production. Kohan said “it’s awesome, you get to find your lens, you don’t have to throw everything and the kitchen sink in” and “it’s an initial vote of confidence, it’s ‘we have faith in you’, and the pilot process is so wasteful since if you believe in someone and what they want to do, give it a shot”. Cuse said “I totally concur, I’ve had a fantastic experience with Universal Television and A&E, we went straight to series and we didn’t have to jump through all those hoops”.
As for viewing habits, Schneider said “people are consuming TV differently now, they’re stacking, they’re binging, they’re waiting until the entire season’s done and they’re watching it all at once, how does that change storytelling?” Kohan said “I miss having people on the same page, I miss having the watercooler thing”. Ashford said that she doesn’t binge view since “I don’t have the time to do it, I could never devote 13 hours in a chunk. I watch in the old-fashioned way, I like the idea of appointment TV”. Cuse noted how binge-viewing can be an experience unto itself, relating how “I did this class in Madrid and a guy came up to me and said “I went into my room with a giant bag of marijuana and watched all of Lost in one week” and I thought that would be an interesting experiment”, drawing a big laugh when he added “so that’s on my To Do list”.
So in the final analysis, what makes a hit? A hit show results from passionate writers who have an intuitive sense of what works and what doesn’t, a talented cast of professional actors, and an empowering group of executives who are willing to place big bets on talent on a year-round basis.
Photos by Chyna Photography
HRTS and JHRTS members can watch the video of this luncheon in addition to the large archive of past HRTS Newsmaker Luncheons. Log in here with your HRTS username and password.