EXCLUSIVE: Fox Entertainment is opening a writers room for its Untitled Country Music Dynasty drama from writer/exec producer Melissa London Hilfers with an eye toward potential straight-to-series order for the 2021-22 season. The decision on the project, exec produced by Gail Berman, Hend Baghdady and leading country music manager Jason Owen, is part of a recalibration of the network’s approach to development. Already moving away from traditional pilot cycle to year-round development, the networks is further changing things up and is expected to be commissioning a mix of traditional pilots, lower-cost presentations, writers rooms as well as outright straight-to-series orders going forward.
The Untitled Country Music Dynasty drama would mark the first live-action scripted series fully owned by Fox. It represents a step in the evolution of the independent network.
Following the sale of its former sister studio 20th TV to Disney, Fox began co-producing its new scripted series with outside studios and signing direct deals with talent. Last year, Fox launched an alternative studio, which took over production of hit The Masked Singer and now fully owns a large portion of the newly greenlighted reality projects and those in the pipeline. The network is starting to invest selectively in fully-owned scripted series next. The effort is already underway on the animation side via Fox Entertainment’s acquisition of Bento Box, with a number of projects in development and a series commitment to a new animated show from Dan Harmon.
The script-to-series model involving the opening up of a writers room has been employed largely in cable and streaming, most notably by AMC, which in 2015 switched its entire development to it under then-head Charlie Collier, now CEO of Fox Entertainment.
The untitled country music dynasty project, which is currently looking for a showrunner, is described as an epic, multi-generational musical drama about America’s first family of country music.
“Music-driven programming is a big part of the DNA of Fox’s success with shows like The Masked Singer, Empire, American Idol and Glee,” Fox Entertainment President Michael Thorn told Deadline. “We have been looking for new ways to tell stories with music; what’s the next chapter for us in terms of a juicy drama that incorporates music in the storytelling.”
With its music elements and a dysfunctional family at the center, the Untitled Country Music Dynasty drama fit the bill from the start, and Fox bought the pitch with penalty last summer.
“We knew it was right for us and could be special for our audience,” Thorn said. “The question was how we move it to the next level and set it up for success, both creatively, which is the priority, as well as financially, given that we own it ourselves.”
That is when a decision was made that “the best way to set the show up creatively was to put a room together and write most of the first season so when we are ready to jump into production, we would have the majority of our scripts, we would know how to shoot it in the best way, given where the world is.”
This is a reference to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which halted Hollywood production in mid-March. It was during the months of the shutdown that the Fox executives took a step back for a closer look at how they develop shows.
“We are reexamining our approach,” Thorn said. “Our goal is to first and foremost develop great voice-driven projects and work with the creators to find the best strategy to make them successful.”
The writers room-based script-to-series approach, which Thorn said would also allow the Country Music Dynasty project more time to properly integrate music into the narrative, is not going to replace the traditional development process.
“It would be one of the strategies we use going forward,” he said. “This is a strategy you will see us continue to employ across drama, comedy and potentially animation.”
On the drama side in particular, where the model is most commonly used, “you will probably see at least one or two more shows embrace what we are doing with the Country Music Dynasty project,” Thorn said.
A writers room, traditional pilots as well as a cost-effective model going straight to series are all in play, he added.
Broadcast live-action comedy is an increasingly challenging business as the shows — especially single-camera — get more expensive yet the ratings are pretty low, particularly on the liner network.
“I think you will see cost-effective comedy presentations as a way to showcase the voice and the cast rather than just continue to shoot overly expensive single-camera pilots,” Thorn said.
The network has three live-action comedy series, veteran multi-cam sitcom Last Man Standing, recently renewed single-camera The Moodys and the new straight-to-series multi-can sitcom Call Me Kat starring Mayim Bialik.
Overall going forward, “what you might see is a mix of pilots and presentations scattered throughout the year as well as reexamining and developing cost-effective comedies that are built from the ground up to be smarter in terms of how to produce them,” Thorn said.
As it’s moving away from the traditional pilot season model, Fox this year only ordered six pilots, four dramas and two comedies, both single-camera. It remains committed to producing all of them when COVID conditions allow.
“We are doing our best to shoot all of them,” Thorn said. “Our goal is to shoot them.”
The country music drama was originally developed for Fox Entertainment by the network’s SideCar Content Accelerator, run by Berman, which was shut down in June, with its Its development slate folded into Fox’s scripted programming department.
Berman and former SideCar executive Hend Baghdady remain executive producers of the show through Berman’s Jackal Group banner, along with Hilfers, a New York-based screenwriter, and Owen, President/CEO of Sandbox Entertainment, who represents artists including Faith Hill, Little Big Town, Kacey Musgraves, Dan+Shay, Kelsea Ballerini, Midland and legacy clients including the John R. Cash Revocable Trust.
Should the project go to series, some of Owen’s clients are expected to appear on the series.
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