Fox TV Studios’ David Madden: Art v. Commerce
by Heather Courtney Quinn
I met David Madden about a decade ago when I was a VP at State Street Pictures at Fox. We’ve stayed in touch over the years and are currently in the process of selling a show together.
He is the President of Fox Television Studios. He and his team are responsible for many popular TV shows, including USA’s Burn Notice and White Collar, The Killing for AMC and Netflix, and the current and critically acclaimed The Americans on FX, among many others. Madden and the studio also are in production on a comedy for FX called The Comedians, from Burn Notice creator Matt Nix, starring Billy Crystal and Josh Gad.
David is definitely one of the good “souls of the biz” and I admire and respect his work ethic. I am looking forward to finally getting the opportunity to work together.
Heather Courtney Quinn: Describe your day in 10 words or less.
David Madden: Bullshitting with writers… arguing… fighting for shows… finding thinking moments.
HCQ: What was your first break in Hollywood?
DM: It happened in a circuitous way. I originally wanted to write… was going to be the next great American novelist. And, I wrote a novel that was very appropriately rejected by every publisher because it was wildly pretentious (a classic grad student’s novel). I needed some kind of steady job. I didn’t know what to do, but I read an article in the LA Times that said studios had something called readers. It was hard back then because there weren’t that many creative executives. Development jobs just didn’t exist so I was getting nowhere.
After six months, I got lucky and walked into the office of an executive named Lucy Fisher at Fox (who is now a producer) and she gave me a job as a script reader. After a year and a half, a woman named Sherry Lansing became head of Fox and she liked my coverage and offered me a story editor job. At the time, I didn’t want to become an executive, I was a writer! Then I thought about it and a) I realized that I wasn’t as good a writer as I wanted to be; b) I had gotten interested in the process of how movies got made. I never consciously set out to be a studio executive, but at that moment I got offered that job I realized that would a better opportunity. So I just followed that path at Fox and then went over to Paramount and rose up the ranks.
HCQ: What movies or TV shows have inspired or enlightened you?
DM: Early in my career, I developed and was the studio executive overseeing a movie called Children of a Lesser God. It was Marlee Matlin’s first movie (she played the lead and ultimately won the Academy Award). It was incredibly moving to be around these kids who had had this experience of living a life where they did feel like children of a lesser God. They felt inferior because they could not hear, and now, they got the chance to be movie actors. With the exception of Marlee, most of them would not go on to have acting careers, but they still had this moment where it was their day in the sun and it meant so much to them.
When I was a producer, the last thing I was really involved in was a movie called Something the Lord Made (which was made for HBO and ultimately won an Emmy). It was about how heart surgery was invented by a young, black guy named Vivian Thomas (played by Mos Def). It was an incredibly inspirational story about what a man, who doesn’t seem to have any of the natural advantages of education or stature, can accomplish by just believing he is right.
Even now, working on The Americans… it is a show which on one level is a spy/espionage show… but it is really a show about trust. Trust has been a theme that runs through a lot of shows I have been involved with (whether that is accidental or intentional, I’m not quite sure). The show is really about can you trust the other person in your marriage when it is built on a lie (built by the KGB)… even if you are starting to have genuine feelings for this person you are married to, can you trust them? Can you trust anyone around you?
Early in my career, I worked on Fatal Attraction and that was another version of, can you trust the person you sleep with? I also worked on a movie called The Hand That Rocks the Cradle… and that was about can you trust the person that watches your child? So I tend to gravitate towards things that deal with trust… not with everything, but probably because I have issues with trust. Now I am in a really good marriage and I am happy about that, but it took me a long time to get there.
HCQ: So you’ve been able to work it out through your movies?
DM: It’s cheaper than therapy (laughs). No, but I have been in therapy too. I am sure one influenced the other. I think everybody who does this brings their issues or problems to work.
HCQ: What three values do you admire most in others?
DM: Honesty. Integrity is important to me. I don’t consciously tell lies and I value that in other people. Compassion. I think that no matter what chair you sit in (professionally or personally), it is important to try to keep a sense of what it is like for the other person. Lastly, I think it’s passion… the ability to not succumb to cynicism. It is so easy to become jaded. I try to do the things I like, the things I care about — that really mean something to me as opposed to giving them something I think they want.
HCQ: What keeps you motivated?
DM: I love doing this. When I sit down to watch or read something that I haven’t seen before, I still get enormous anxiety about, is this going to be good? And, I still get a great feeling of exhilaration when something is good. At the end of a process (whether making a pilot or developing a piece of material), it works or it doesn’t. It is devastating when it fails and it is thrilling when it succeeds. And, I still feel that. If the day comes when I don’t get anxious or nervous about something, then I should stop. I still get as anxious as I did when I was 25.
HCQ: What does ‘soul of the biz’ mean to you?
DM: I think it would have to go back to art v. commerce, because I think all of us who are in this fight feel a bit like we’re doing it for our souls. In any of the jobs I’ve had as an executive, there are invariably those moments when, metaphorically, I have to look at myself in the mirror and ask: how did I do? Did I betray myself, or my principles, or did I stand up well?
I think ‘soul of the biz’ means reconciling the things we work hard to pursue with the ways in which we treat the people around us, and we all need to be our own judge. It’s easy to lose focus because of the intense pressures to succeed and win in this business. I think the battle for your own soul is a process, and it manifests itself differently every day.
HCQ: Is there anything that you haven’t done that you’d like to do?
DM: I really love what I do, but if I’m being honest probably the greatest high I’ve ever had was when I directed two little movies. It was in the 90s. Neither was commercially successful and both were aesthetically flawed (maybe the kindest way to describe it). But the feeling of directing — that is a different kind of high than the feeling of producing or being an executive. The other angle on that is, as the last professional thing I do, I would like to teach. I guest lecture whenever I am asked to and I enjoy that.
HCQ: Where do you see the business in ten years?
DM: God knows! Ten years ago in 2004, I didn’t see this coming! I was here, but we were doing longform — movies for television. We had The Shield on the air, but my business was not the cable business. Now my business is all cable series business. I couldn’t have told you that ten years ago.
Right now, we are in this Golden Age particularly of cable series drama, but in television series in general. I’m not smart enough to know whether that feeling will be here ten years from now. I think it probably will. I think there is a thirst for serialized drama content, whether we will be consuming that on traditional networks or through digital platforms (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon or their successors) is what could change. I think that, in some ways, things change very radically… and, in some ways, things don’t change. People have been predicting since I got into the business that movie theaters would go away… that the feature film business would collapse… and it doesn’t because there are a group of people who like that experience.
The same thing is true with television. If I had to predict what would be the case in 2024, I would predict that there would be people in a large proportion watching some version of a Netflix experience. Then there are things that people want to watch in traditional network way, like sports and live events. And, I think there is something to…”oh, I want to watch Game of Thrones on Sunday night”…there just may be more different ways to watch, but I’m not sure the traditional ways will go away all together.
HCQ: What are you most grateful for?
DM: While there are a lot of things I am grateful for, I am probably most grateful for the opportunity to raise my daughter, who is 9. I came to fatherhood late and didn’t think I was going to be a parent… had resigned myself. And, through the graciousness of my wife, that happened and it has truly been the transfiguring experience of my life.