There’s no secret formula to making a hit, according to Brian Grazer, the producer of film and TV successes like 24, Splash, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Empire, and Friday Night Lights. But there are some guidelines. “In television I don't ever want to try and reinvent the wheel,” he said on stage at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Friday. “But changing the spokes within the wheel is a good thing.”
Take Jack Bauer, the terrorist-fighting hero of 24. “He does thing that are very wish-fulfillment oriented,” Grazer said. “That makes people very excited, because wish fulfillment almost always works. You have to root for the character, and rooting for the character is rooting for what they want. It's easier to root for what somebody wants if what they want is noble.”
Which sounds logical enough. But what about a show like Arrested Development, the Grazer-produced sitcom where the main characters are, in the word of Grazer’s on-stage interviewer Derek Thompson, “assholes”? The show struggled in the ratings and was canceled by Fox after three years, but it made such a cultural impact that Netflix brought it back for a fourth season and will be making a fifth. How did that series fit into Grazer’s rule about having characters you can cheer for?
“The thing that you root for that lives inside of these—what did you call them, ‘assholes?’—is family,” Grazer replied. “If you have family in shows, you're going to always root for them, even in the case of Arrested Development. And then I have to be humble enough to say that had they not been assholes, they would have been Modern Family. So it's very successful within its own limitations."
The Aspen talk largely revolved around Grazer’s recent book, A Curious Mind, which details the producer’s habit of meeting and learning from experts in fields he’s unfamiliar with—science, government, literature. Toward the end of the hour, an audience member asked whether Grazer had any regrets in his career. “I have a lot of mulligans for sure,” he said with a laugh. “Every category—movies, TV, and life.”
One particular work came to mind. "I agreed to be part of a movie called Cowboys & Aliens,” he said, referring to the 2011 box-office bomb starring Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford. “I don't like cowboys, or aliens! But there were a lot of superstars involved with it—Ron Howard; Steven Spielberg; the director of Iron Man, Jon Favreau. I remember having this one meeting, an early meeting, and they're talking about the title, Cowboys and Aliens. I said, 'We aren't really calling it that, are we?' [The others said] 'Yeah, of course we are!' I was going, I don't get this at all.
“Every once in a while I rationalize quality,” he continued. “There are so many decision you make, and you're trying to do excellence. We know what excellence is. We know what better food is versus not good food. But there's a rationalizing process—that's good enough. Anytime the light bulb goes, that's good enough, it's shitty!"