The MT Interview: Kevin Reilly, Fox

Fox Broadcasting entertainment boss Kevin Reilly talks Kiefer Sutherland, Rupert Murdoch, and how to make it in the dog-eat-dog world of TV.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

When MT first meets Kevin Reilly in London - a preliminary encounter to see if we like the cut of each other's jib - he is suffering the after-effects of a very heavy duty carousing session with Kiefer Sutherland in Cannes. Three months later, the interview rules of engagement agreed, the discomfort continues in Beverly Hills. We're in a room on the Fox lot where Reilly is being 'groomed' for our photo shoot. 'This is terrible,' he groans, as the foundation is applied by a make-up artist. 'First you see me with the worst hangover. And now this. What are your readers going to think?' He is indeed the first executive I've ever interviewed who was told to do hair and make-up first. But this is Hollywood.

From make-up, we race down the corridor past Rupert Murdoch's office and out onto an exterior stairwell. As the photo shoot gets under way, I decide it's time to tease Reilly with news from the Murdoch empire's outpost in Wapping. 'Have you heard the latest about Rebekah Brooks?' I enquire casually.

A look of alarm enters his eyes, as he continues smiling with those fabulous Tinseltown teeth. 'No.' 'Well, apparently, she's been riding around her Oxfordshire country estate for the past few years on a borrowed police horse ...' 'She what!' His facial expression is a mixture of utter incredulity and 'those tabloidy Brits: nothing they ever do will surprise me any more'.

While News Corp's London newspapers are mired in controversy, the film and television operation in Los Angeles is making good money. This is the part of the business that the company would like us to focus on: hungry but wholesome, edgy and ground-breaking but not stepping over any lines. Reilly is entertainment president of the Fox Broadcasting Company and a bit of a Hollywood legend. Not only is he very successful, but in a town that has produced monsters like Jack Warner or Louis B Mayer, he is widely lauded as a nice guy. His staff clearly adore him.

We meet on the day after the Oscars and I wonder if he watches them with much interest. Best picture has just been won by The Artist, which may be a lovely piece of art house whimsy with a cute dog in it but it ain't going to be big box office. It will never 'tentpole', as they say around here.

So does he feel the poor cousin of the movies? 'I was a child of the 1970s, sitting so close to the TV that my mother said it would rot my brain. I was drawn to the creative part of this business: imagining making the great movie and sitting there as the lights went down. The truth is - now more than ever - the business has been the TV business. The feature business is more challenged than ever in this age of ubiquity.'

The stark facts are quite horrible. Movie attendance hit a 16-year low in the States in 2011 and seven of Hollywood's 10 biggest flops, adjusted for inflation, have been released since 2000. It was, incidentally, a well-known turkey, Cleopatra, which began the troubles at 20th Century Fox that ended with Rupert Murdoch buying into it in 1984.

'I'm not taking a shot at anybody in the movie business,' continues Reilly, 'but there are so many choices for the movie-going audience. And the ticket prices continue to go up, and then there are the economics of trying to create tentpole events that the worldwide movie business requires. When you hit something like Avatar, which is extraordinary - not only creatively but commercially - it just keeps on giving. But it's a hard business.' Murdoch's Avatar by January 2012 had taken $2,782,275,172. Well, something has to subsidise the London Times, which loses a million pounds a week.

So he's not envious of his colleagues who hit pay dirt with Avatar? 'No. Every other (movie) is the re-do of a TV show or a cartoon character. I don't think the brows are too high any more. We can celebrate some very small beautiful films at the Oscars but the truth is that some of the best artistry and writing and execution is on TV. If you want to create character as an actor or a writer, the opportunity is now in TV. Particularly as TV is broadened out to many different avenues and we have our own version of independent and smaller, very particular audiences. On the talent side, it used to be the rare exception that somebody would come over. We are now seeing the talent - writing and directing and actors - move effortlessly back and forth. There are only a very, very small number of people left that are exclusively in features only. And those are people that don't really have any desire. I've seen the biggest names in Hollywood coming down this hall trying to either produce or create a TV show because they want to work, and that is interesting.'

He's right. Big Hollywood feature film stars demand such outrageous sums to get out of bed and into the trailer that the risks have gone up and up. And the bankrollers are becoming more and more wary. But, more importantly, when you look at the list of TV shows with which Reilly has been closely involved, it is hardly anything to hang your head in creative shame over: ER, The Sopranos, Glee, House, 30 Rock, The Office, The Shield, Nip/Tuck.

More recently, he's the one who got into bed with Simon Cowell - God help the Fox man - to bring The X Factor to America. It hasn't produced mega-numbers yet, but it's doing fine. On Cowell as a business partner, incidentally, he seems genuinely enthusiastic: 'What you see is what you get. There aren't two personas there. He's as brilliant and as difficult as he appears on screen. That's why people are fascinated with him.'

Who needs film, anyway? Reilly could go to his grave happy, as he is the studio boss who has to keep the anarchic mobs that bring us both The Simpsons and Family Guy in line. (The latter are such a handful they don't even operate from the Fox lot but are kept in quarantine a few blocks away. When they come out, it's with a muzzle on.)

Reilly got into showbiz despite a marked lack of parental support. A native of privileged Long Island, Kevin was clearly a bit ants-in-his-pants at school. His parents were certainly invited to talk about Kevin. More than once. 'I was not hyperactive when I was younger but I did have a very difficult time sitting still and paying attention in school. My parents received a lot of notes from my teachers saying I was disruptive.'

Things didn't get any easier post-adolescence. 'My father was a Wall Street guy who, when I went to Cornell in the mid-1980s, was frustrated that I couldn't articulate exactly what it was I wanted to do - go to Hollywood. I wasn't going to be an actor. I didn't have any background, didn't know anybody in the business so I couldn't articulate.

'He was a difficult guy who had a boom-bust career and he was an alcoholic. Not a particularly open-minded person; he wanted a straight answer and wanted results. I didn't really talk about it to him. When he passed away 16/17 years ago, he had begun to see some of my success, but I never really got to turn the corner with him.'

After graduating from Cornell, Reilly got work as a freelance production assistant on music videos and commercials. Then in 1987 he made the big leap, driving to LA with $800 in his pocket.

 

His first foot in the door was in PR at Universal, then he got into the NBC network and developed the pilot for ER. Six years at indie Brillstein-Grey followed, where he helped nurture The Sopranos. Next he moved to Fox's FX cable network - then the 'real runt' in that litter. He had the most fun three years of his career and brought The Shield and Nip/Tuck to the world. An unhappy spell at NBC followed, before, five years back, Fox rehired him as president of the No 1 network.

Reilly has that classic American openness, even on the personal, and speaks with a lucidity and rapidity that carries you along with him. The reverse of a cautious, PR-protected US executive, he's ready with plenty of self-deprecating quips. He oozes nervous energy and clearly finds it almost impossible to switch off. When he's not at his desk, he's training for Ironman triathlons. He admits he's a nightmare on the rare holidays he takes. He worries that he cannot work out whether it would be better for him to take short breaks or an extended vacation. Restless, restless, restless. Goodness knows how his wife copes.

He has two younger brothers, one an investment banker with Barclays - 'always the straight one' - and the other involved with a web company. Despite being a New Yorker, Reilly says he feels at home in LA, living in the Pacific Palisades neighbourhood with his wife and three boys. He's an engaged Californian: a committed eco-campaigner who is unlikely to be sister channel Fox News' most avid viewer. One of his boys is a water polo ace.

US television is notorious for its reliance on focus groups, pilots and the deadly opinions of advertisers. You'd think it would be reduced to a grim lowest common denominator of crap. So Reilly needs to overrule the mob. When he decided he liked The Office, it was despite a 'horrifically testing pilot'. He tested Glee four times, with his audience giving it the thumbs down because it didn't fit into any reference bucket - comedy, drama or musical.

As he noted in an industry speech last October at the Mipcom TV market in Cannes, 'when you poll people about what they want, they don't know how to tell you they want or like things they cannot imagine'.

So what is the secret of his success? Creative businesses are notoriously tricky to get on in, but even when you do it's often hard to explain how or why. If you get a strike rate of one in 10, some say you are doing well. How do you reduce those odds, see the hits from a distance and make sure you pick the winners?

'It's a sense and it's experience. You've got to have an instinct. I've seen executives who are very mechanical and go by textbook rules. And even if they try to use instinct they get too fearful when they get too far adrift from those rules. The instinct gives you a little bit of a net underneath you to say: "OK, I'm going to go with this even though we're outside the margins here." Even though there are things that are very scary about this. I love that process. I love it in business.'

In the same speech, he put this very well: 'In business we like things to be quantifiable and predictable. I don't really want my head of finance to be passionate and emotional. As a result, what seems obvious or logical in the boardroom doesn't often translate in the writers' room.' Reilly is the go-between who has to talk both languages.

What was the scariest call he's ever made in his career? 'I've rarely had one where it seemed so perfectly easy. I don't want to say they're all scary now, I still have sleepless nights but I'm not quaking in my boots. It's a level of excitement that we're going out on a limb and we're going to have to have courage to go there. It is kind of a magical thing when it happens.'

And when it doesn't work and they lose millions of dollars, the buck stops with him?

'Yes. You have to screw the courage to the sticking place. But look - I'm not starting wars or saving lives, so there's not that kind of consequence to it. But I'm spending a lot of money. I'm putting livelihoods at risk. We're given quite a bit of money to play with but that money has to be spent wisely and this business moves very fast. Unfortunately, we don't have time to refine the manufacturing process, unlike other businesses. Once we create something we can't then just turn on the replication machine and it'll start coming off the conveyor belt. In TV, when you hit it right once you've got to keep it going for sometimes 200 episodes. So there's quality control all along the way and lots of places where you can drift off course. And there's both a familiarity to it that the audience likes but then you've to keep them from getting bored.'

American TV is in a bad place at the moment. (As is California. Up to a third of the shops around my modest boutique hotel on Wilshire Boulevard were boarded up. The state is bust.) TV's problem is falling numbers. The audience has fragmented and is watching stuff on YouTube and in places maddeningly out of reach of advertisers. The days of an all-American family sitting tight on the sofa watching Archie Bunker in All in the Family are gone. Reilly admits that for some of his top-rated shows, fewer than 50% of viewers are watching live. It's all Hulu, Netflix and Amazon. There are 16 million web-connected TVs in the US.

His answer is a vigorous interaction with social media. When he launched New Girl, his hit of last autumn, he prereleased the full first episode on iTunes and VoD. It attracted two million downloads and then the proselytising enthusiasts took to Twitter and Facebook in their droves, with Reilly showing the way. He admits that, in future, engaging viewers beyond the programme will be vital. Media companies will become data miners chasing audiences in multidimensions.

And the question to which everyone wants an answer, how does he get on with the indefatigable, 81-year-old tweeting bundle of restless energy that is Rupert Murdoch? The man who wants to out-Rosebud Citizen Kane.

'I've never been able to spend a tremendous amount of time with him. I don't come over for tea. But his presence is always felt, whether he's here or not. He believes in content. He's not paralysis by analysis. He can't stand layers. He'll indulge market research but at the end if you believe it - be damned with that analysis - you have to go for it. That's how he built all his businesses and that's at the core of what we do. And he will indulge bold failure.

'We had a show last year called Lone Star - which was probably the most well-received show of the fall - last one week. It was dead on arrival and we had to yank it after its second week. It cost us quite a bit of money. Not once did anybody say to me why did you do that? We took an equally big swing the year before and it was Glee. And there was no reason why a musical that had never worked on TV before would ever work. And it was a massive hit. So Rupert understands innately that you can't get the big hits without some misses. Not too many misses. I like that and I find it energising.'

This, one suspects, is fine, until the big swings end up hitting mere air once too often. Nobody pretends that, these days, being where the buck stops in US TV is not a highly precarious place to be.

Reilly is normally a behind-the-scenes guy but he was thrust unexpectedly centre-stage and into the spotlight last year when he got into a skirmish with the cast of The Simpsons - the lead actors were taking home $8m each for about 22 weeks' work. Fox demanded a 50% pay cut and the actors agreed, but demanded a piece of the back end from the huge syndication and merchandising profits. Reilly said no. Harry Shearer, who plays Mr Burns and was also Derek Smalls, the Spinal Tap bass player, went public and offered to take a 70% pay cut in exchange for back-end pay dirt. Reilly's comment on Shearer is unprintable in a family magazine.

So what happened? Reilly takes a deep breath and gives his side of the story. 'This network was founded on The Simpsons. Not only has it been running for 25 years but it was our first big hit. It defined the irreverent sensibility of Fox. And, of course, it has generated billions of dollars in revenue. It has built our empire. But over the course of that time the costs just began escalating and it didn't matter. It's distributed worldwide; it's on every minute of the day somewhere in the world. It hit the DVD business when it was robust. It's on syndication. My son watches it on a loop. We did our best to manage the costs but it's at its mature level.'

So enough was enough and Reilly dared to be the first one to utter the 'hang on a minute'.

He continues: 'Some of the people involved will feel as if there's bottomless and endless profits here and that they are getting hosed. But really, at the end, everybody involved has done enormously well. The performers who do that job are unbelievably talented but they get paid an incredible amount of money. They've earned it, been on it for 25 years. But it's a job they can do from home (the actors can record their voices down an ISDN line), it doesn't take too many weeks in the year and it's work they can be proud of. It's not like they're shackled to some horrible thing they wish they could get away from. It's one of the greatest shows in history. So we're going to go through our 25th series and we have an option for the 26th.'

When asked directly, Reilly confirmed the actors were taking home more than him. Not that's he's got anything against actors earning big bucks. He'd rather have Hugh 'highest paid actor in US TV' Laurie in his office than Shearer any day. The Brit star of House had been in MT's seat a few days before, discussing the final episode of the series. Laurie is 'a fine gentleman. Everyone in this organisation loved working with him.'

So there are times when the fantastic Mr Fox has to raid the henhouse. When the nice guy has to get a bit nasty to keep the bottom line in order. When the Mr Burns in Reilly has to show his teeth. And a very splendid set of gnashers they are too.

 

CHALLENGES FACING REILLY

  • Seeking that two-thousand carat gem that will sparkle for 200 episodes amid the dross, the losers and the also-rans

  • Working out how to find his audience in an age when kids have the attention span of a cocker spaniel puppy and the loyalty of Judas

  • Keeping his batteries charged at 100%

 

 

LIFE OF REILLY

1962 Born 29 August in New York
January 1987 Packs up his car and leaves New York for Los Angeles. Gets job as publicist at Universal Pictures
1988 Moves to NBC network and works on Homicide and Law and Order
1994 Joins Brillstein-Grey and shepherds pilot of The Sopranos
2002 FX makes history when The Shield wins Golden Globe
July 2007 Appointed president, entertainment for Fox Broadcasting.
   


Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime