The Television Writers Vault is thrilled to welcome Karyn Smith-Forge, Vice President of Programming for Fox Television Studios, in a personal interview for our continuing series of conversations with key Industry executives.
Karyn is responsible for the scouting, development, and packaging of projects for Fox TV Studios, whose credits include; “Burn Notice” (USA Networks), “The Shield” (FX), “Saving Grace”(TNT), “Persons Unknown”(NBC) and “White Collar” (USA Networks). She is an executive member of the Television Writers Vault , and shares some great firsthand experiences from the hub of Hollywood…Network Studio Development.
Scott Manville: Thank you for sharing your time with us, Karyn. I’m certain the Writers and Producers at the TV Writers Vault will enjoy reading your insight.
Karyn Smith-Forge: Of course, thank you so much for inviting me. I wish I’d had a resource like this when I first started.
SM: Thank you, it’s our privilege. Can you share with our readers what your job entails, and what a typical day is like for you in development at Fox TV Studios?
KSF: Hmm…A typical day for me. Well, it usually starts with me getting in anytime between 8:30 and 9 AM. I begin my day by looking through and answering my emails. From that point on, my day is typically filled with returning and making phone calls, writer and/or producer meetings, and reading/reviewing scripts in various stages of production or development. I may also check out and review cuts from one or two of the series I cover in production. I will then usually take my lunch meetings around 1 PM, returning to the office around 2:30, to begin the process all over again of returning calls, answering emails, reviewing scripts and/or cuts and taking more meetings. Then I typically leave the office anytime between 7:30 and 8 PM and may take a few scripts/cuts home with me to read/watch that night.
SM: How did you get your start in this business, and what attracted you to the Industry?
KSF: I’ve always been in love with movies and television. Always. I remember my family often commenting that I spent far too much time watching television, but I couldn’t help it. I loved it. After graduating from business school (and realizing that I wanted nothing to do with the traditional business space), I decided I would try to find a more “stable” way to get into the entertainment business: I would become an entertainment lawyer. I went to law school and graduated – then started working for a private firm, planning to later laterally transfer into entertainment law. One problem: I hated practicing law. Immensely. After a couple of years of practicing, I couldn’t take it anymore. So I quit my job and, knowing absolutely no one, came out here to Hollywood where I planned to enter into a business that my father had previously told me about: The agency business. It seemed like a natural transition to go from an advocate in law to an advocate in entertainment. I started in the mailroom at Endeavor (pre-WME) and worked my way up to TV lit agent. I was a TV lit agent for a couple of years before I caught the development bug and, consequently, left to begin a career as an executive.
SM: You must get to work with some extremely talented Writers and Producers.
KSF: Oh, yeah. Some amazingly talented writers and producers. They are what make my job such a fantastic experience. From Matt Nix to Jeff Eastin to Nancy Miller to Remi Aubuchon, just to name a few…We at FTVS are lucky enough to be in business with some of the top writing minds in the business.
SM: Do you venture into the unscripted arena at all, or is your main focus scripted series?
KSF: My main focus is scripted series, however, I’m always on the lookout for good programming, scripted OR unscripted. We have someone here at FTVS, Jill Schwartz, who heads up our unscripted department, so if I come across an idea that I like, I will bring it to her for her thoughts. If she agrees, then we may pursue it.
SM: How many projects do you handle at any given time, at all stages of development?
KSF: Right now, I have three current series that I cover (WHITE COLLAR, SAVING GRACE, and PERSONS UNKNOWN). I also cover a pilot entitled SUGARLOAF at A&E. And, with respect to development, I may typically have anywhere between 3-5 projects in development at various networks and anywhere around 15 projects that I am internally developing within the studio.
SM: What advice can you give to television writers shopping spec scripts? What do you look for in, for example, a great drama spec?
KSF: My biggest piece of advice to give to TV writers shopping spec scripts is to stay true to your own voice and style, especially when crafting an original pilot. Too many times I’ve seen talented writers forgo their own voice in favor of writing a pilot they believe “will sell.” Yes, studios eventually need to be able to sell a pilot to a network for the project to really move forward, but that should not be the writer’s focus. Write what inspires and impassions you. Sacrificing your own voice almost never works. Most critically acclaimed shows from THE SHIELD to MAD MEN to BREAKING BAD were created by writers who refused to water-down or shoehorn their voices into a more “saleable” pilot. And those fresh, original voices are exactly what studios and producers are looking for.
I primarily enjoy scripts that are a little quirky or off-center — often tinged with a taste of dark humor — and those that offer something a little unexpected. A traditional, commercial procedural is not normally my cup of tea – especially since FTVS focuses a lot of their development in the cable network arenas. We really like to focus on unconventional characters, whether, be they Vic Mackey in THE SHIELD or Grace Hanadarko in SAVING GRACE or Michael Weston in BURN NOTICE. I personally look for scripts that have fresh voices and contain a premise that either (1) I’ve never seen before; or (2) If I have seen the premise before, there’s an unexpected twist or point of view.
SM: When you’re working with a writer on a script for a project at Fox, how much do you get involved in the choices the Writer will make with character development and story? Does it depend on who the Writer is? Is it often a tug of war between the Writer and Producers?
KSF: My most enjoyable and productive development experiences occur when the writer and I work together collaboratively – and this is the case regardless of who the writer is. When I work with a writer on a script for an FTVS project, I give my honest opinion, thoughts and notes, which we subsequently discuss together. However, I always want to be completely open to the writer’s point of view and conscious of his or her creative vision for the project. We may disagree on some issues, but I always want to give the writer the benefit of the doubt, as it’s his or her creative vision that led FTVS (and me) to pursue the project in the first place. I feel that a good, open dialogue between the studio and the writer and/or producer can only lead to a better product.
SM: How was the development process for the new series “Persons Unknown”? Does NBC have an air date yet?
KSF: PERSONS UNKNOWN was an incredible experience. The pilot was originally written by Christopher McQuarrie, and the show was run by Remi Aubuchon. Both are phenomenally talented writers. This particular project was one that was very heavy on mythology and Remi and his writing team knocked it out of the park. In addition, since this was one of our first international co-productions and since it was developed and shot without an initial US network home, I had the opportunity to be involved very closely in almost every aspect of the project from casting to production to music to editing, etc. It was shot in Mexico City, and they even built an entire town from the ground up for the show! Incredible. We are so very excited that it will be on NBC next year. We don’t have a specific airdate just yet, but it’s coming!
SM: One of my favorite series that was produced by Fox TV Studios was “The Riches”, starring Eddie Izzard. Such a unique premise, having a family of gypsies who assume the identities and lives of another family that no longer exists. Terrific characters and storylines as they struggle to be “normal” and function in a traditional higher society, while being on the run from their past that continues to haunt them. It was critically acclaimed. How does a series like that get cancelled when so much of programming is taken up by shows with lesser substance or originality?
KSF: You know, I really wish I knew the answer to that. I mean, THE RICHES was a terrific show and we at FTVS continue to be extremely proud of it. There’s not always one clear-cut reason for a show’s cancellation, but, generally (and I think that’s what happened in the case of THE RICHES), show cancellations happen due to low ratings. As admired and original as the show was, the bottom line was that its ratings simply weren’t strong enough. The ratings in season 1 were only marginal, but due to the strong press and fan base, the network gave us a second season. Unfortunately, the second season ratings dropped dramatically, so it was ultimately cancelled. I’m sure that every person reading this now can think of shows that were critically-acclaimed, fresh, and original, and yet many feel were cancelled before their time. It’s a fact of life in the tv business, unfortunately.
SM: It was interesting to see that Fox TV Studios aired the first two episodes of “The Riches” on the internet prior to the television premiere. Do you see yourself developing programs that may be specifically produced for the internet, with television as an afterthought?
KSF: Absolutely. In fact, two of my colleagues at FTVS, Gabriel Marano and Ilsa Berg, are doing just that. They are very much involved in developing digital and presentation programming that are specifically produced for the internet, with the hopes of then going on to develop into potential television series. Internet programming can be a fantastic way of building an audience and then using that existing audience to launch a television series.
SM: Are you ever scouting books or news articles for development? How much do you pull from true life and other properties outside of actual scripts?
KSF: Always. I’m always on the lookout for properties, graphic novels, books, articles and formats. I’m always hungry for ideas – and, one thing I’ve learned in this business, ideas can come from anywhere and one would be a fool to ignore a good idea — regardless of where it came from.
SM: I understand that you’re involved with a variety of scripted projects that are produced for various outlets. With the possibility that you can produce shows for different networks, do you have a strict mandate for the types of projects your team will invest time in, or do you gravitate toward any genre script that happens to be great, and then decide where the right home is for it?
KSF: You know, it’s typically the latter. There is no mandate for a specific type of project — Just good, compelling writing. Each FTVS exec gravitates to the scripts to which he or she most responds — not really to a genre or type of script. We respond to great voices and great writing and then look to find a home for the project.
SM: Being so immersed in television as a business, do you still truly enjoy it as a form of entertainment, or does being part of the machine kill the magic?
KSF: Nah. I’m still too much of a TV addict to ever let the machine kill the magic. Well, occasionally, I may find a development thought or two racing across my brain as I’m watching a show, but typically I just try to sit back, shut off that part of my brain and enjoy.
SM: Thanks for sharing your time with us, Karyn. I look forward to seeing more of your great work at Fox TV Studios.
KSF: It was a pleasure. Thanks for having me.
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