Thursday, January 21, 2021
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Disney Television Studios’ Craig Hunegs

When The Walt Disney Company’s $71.3 billion acquisition of 21st Century Fox was completed in March, it created a media behemoth. It brings together beloved characters and franchises from Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars and Disney, and popular programming from ABC, FX, Freeform and National Geographic. Disney already owned a 30-percent stake in Hulu; with Fox’s 30 percent, Disney now has a controlling 60-percent share of the streaming service, which has some 28 million subscribers in the U.S.

Providing content directly to consumers is the name of the game now in the media world. One of the motivations for the Disney-Fox merger was to have a constant supply of films and TV product to create a platform that can compete with Netflix.

Indeed, the streaming service Disney+ will launch on November 12 in the U.S., Canada and the Netherlands and on November 19 in Australia and New Zealand. Its offering will include new movies and original TV series, along with library product from all divisions of the company.

One of the main content engines for Disney+ will be Disney Television Studios, the newly formed studio that houses three existing labels. ABC Studios is home to Grey’s Anatomy and black-ish. 20th Century Fox Television’s slate includes This Is Us, Empire and Modern Family, while Fox 21 Television Studios produces Homeland for Showtime, Pose for FX, Genius for National Geographic and more.

Craig Hunegs, president of Disney Television Studios, is charged with managing collaboration between the three labels as well as growing the roster of talent available to them in the U.S. and internationally.

He was previously at Warner Bros. As president of business and strategy for its television group, he oversaw the production of programming for U.S. outlets, the acquisition of production companies around the world and the growth of Warner Bros. Animation’s children’s business. Also, as president of Warner Bros. Digital Networks, he was responsible for the launch of the DC Universe and Boomerang streaming services and forged relationships with talent, including Ellen DeGeneres for Ellen Digital Ventures and LeBron James for Uninterrupted.

Leveraging his experience running studios and starting direct-to-consumer services, Hunegs is positioning Disney Television Studios to create a broad range of content. The three labels will continue to produce for third parties, but as Hunegs tells World Screen, the top priority will be serving Disney outlets.

WS: What motivated the decision to keep ABC Studios, 20th Century Fox Television and Fox 21 Television Studios separate, and what are the benefits of each remaining independent?
HUNEGS: It’s a big advantage to have multiple creative filters and multiple creative teams, each with their own taste, their own talent relationships and their own relationships with agencies and with networks. Our ambition is to do a lot of programming. Right now, for the coming year, we will produce north of 70 series. Our ambition is to increase that significantly over the next few years. I think the way to do that most effectively is to have multiple studios, for the reasons I mentioned. My concern is that if you try to do a very high volume of programming with one studio, you end up setting up an assembly line—and that’s never the best way to create TV. I also like that the three studios give us multiple entry points for talent and creators. Each studio has a somewhat different culture and leadership team. We’re finding that many creators want to be at Disney, but they like having a choice of homes here, and it’s working out very nicely. One of my jobs is to manage collaboration among the labels—we’re calling them labels as opposed to studios—and also have healthy competition. If you look at other creative industries—music or film—it’s common for an umbrella studio to have multiple labels. It’s nothing entirely new. Netflix is doing it its own way where they have many creative teams, all of them small and focused on a smaller number of projects. But for us, this feels like the right size. It doesn’t mean we might not have two studios or four studios, but right now we came into this with three strong studios and an animation company on top of it. Each of the studios has a pretty impressive track record of success.

WS: These are not assembly lines manufacturing cars; these are people and talent you are managing.
HUNEGS: And each show has its creative ambitions and production requirements, and we’re trying to achieve different production values. We like to think that each of our shows is handmade or hand-built. Obviously, the creators’ vision is what we are trying to realize with them and for them. It also requires a lot of hands-on work from our creative teams, our production teams and our business affairs teams to make it all work.

WS: What have been your priorities since taking over the three labels?
HUNEGS: Number one is supplying the Disney platforms with the highest quality programming. We have four networks and two streaming services. ABC, FX, Freeform and National Geographic are the four linear networks. We now control Hulu, which is a large streaming service. Disney+ will launch in November and over time will become the home of more and more original programming from our studios as well. [Priority number two is] attracting the best creative talent. It’s incredibly competitive right now, so making our studio the best home for people to work is important. It’s also really competitive for executive talent. It’s a very high priority for Dana [Walden, chairman of Disney Television Studios and ABC Entertainment] and me to make this a great culture and environment, and the best place to work for our creative talent, our executives and our staff.

WS: How are the three labels balancing serving the needs of the Disney-owned outlets and third-party clients?
HUNEGS: Serving the Disney platforms comes first, and we are very clear about that with our talent, agents, talent reps and the community. The reason people are responding to that approach is that those six platforms I just mentioned are so varied that there is a home within Disney for almost anything a creator wants to make. But that doesn’t mean that we are living within a walled garden. We will and do produce for third parties. We have series on Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Epix and Showtime, and we even have some discussions going with HBO Max and with other cable networks outside the company as well. We have the number one series on USA, Queen of the South. We’ll continue that, and we hope to continue to be a big supplier to FOX Entertainment. There are close personal relationships that go back a long way from the legacy of the companies all being part of 21st Century Fox, and we want to maintain that. Those are people we like, and it’s been a great place for our shows and our creators. It’s a balance, but the Disney networks come first; we’re not pretending otherwise.

WS: Is Disney Television Studios fostering new talent through its writing programs and inclusion initiatives?
HUNEGS: Yes, it’s really important for us. It’s partly doing the right thing, but it’s also about reaching the audience with characters and stories that are authentic, accessible and relatable to our audience. It’s no secret that the population, especially the younger population, is much more diverse. We feel it’s incumbent on us to tell stories and have people behind the camera, in the writing room and in front of the camera who represent the audience that we are trying to reach. Disney has a long legacy of reaching out to new talent, and especially to diverse voices and developing writers and crew members. It’s our workforce for the future, and it is the face of the creative talent going forward. It’s not as it used to be, nor should it be, nor do we want it to be. The reason that in the U.S. we are able to produce 400 to 500 original series across all studios and networks is that we are hopefully much more open to new voices and new stories and emerging talent. We have a lot of examples of that as we are filling out our talent rosters for the upcoming years. We’re trying to find the right balance between established creators and showrunners. [We’re seeking] established showrunners who want to nurture new voices and find new talent, and we also reach out directly and bring new show creators into the studio. We’ve had a lot of success that way. Fox has been particularly effective at growing their own talent in-house across their shows and then having them emerge as show creators and showrunners. We want to do more of that as well.

WS: Are you looking to tap into Disney’s global network to cultivate talent outside the U.S.?
HUNEGS: Yes, and there are hubs where there is a lot of creativity and established production bases: in the U.K., in Mexico, in Korea. The Netherlands has been a very prolific creator of both scripted and non-scripted programming that travels the world. Our ambition is to be in business with more global talent, and we’re in a very active discussion here about how best to do that. When I was at Warner Bros., we had a particular strategy. We had a big presence in the U.K., and we bought companies in 16 other countries. We’re thinking about it a little differently here, at least currently. As Hulu and Disney+ expand globally, I don’t want to speak for them, but I would imagine they would want local shows as well as programming from the U.S. How we can help source and create that content is part of the strategy. But also, there are incredible creators all over the world. There are a few hubs we are focused on right now, trying to find the best way to work with the talent in those countries to create great programming. It’s something that we are very actively discussing right now.

WS: During your career, how have you seen the role of the showrunner evolve? And what do you look for when you are trying to spot the next super-talented showrunner?
HUNEGS: It’s such a rare skill. Showrunners are really like CEOs. Not everyone is cut out to be a CEO. Most people are specialists who are good at one or two things. To be a good showrunner, you have your hands in everything: hiring the crews, cast, directors and writing staff; running the business of the show; and establishing its creative vision, including the storylines for the characters and the season. If you think of people like Ryan Murphy, and Greg Berlanti from my old studio, who do that multiple times simultaneously, I don’t know how they do it.

What do we look for? We look for people who have leadership skills in addition to being great writers and creatives. I believe they have to have very creative instincts. Most of them are writers, but not all of them are. They need to have a strong creative point of view and vision for the show they are creating. They need to be able, like any leader, to put together a really strong team, recognize the strengths of the team and delegate. There are very few showrunners who write every episode of their series, so that’s the most obvious way they delegate. Putting together a television show, like creating a movie, is an incredibly collaborative enterprise. Leading means delegating in addition to providing an overall vision.

WS: In today’s landscape, what are the challenges of finding the right home for a series?
HUNEGS: It’s the most important decision we make. It can make or break a series, honestly. If you think of some of our current successes, This Is Us is a perfect fit for NBC. 9-1-1 is the kind of procedural that we think works perfectly for FOX. Modern Family is a classic ABC sitcom. American Horror Story fits the brand and sensibility of FX and its audience. We spend a lot of time with our creators deciding what is the best home for our shows and where we are going to develop them. Sometimes it starts with the creative pitch. Very often, we will pitch shows to multiple networks, and what we’re looking for is not just the best business deal. We’re looking for how passionate the leadership of the network or the streaming service is. How passionate are they about the idea of the series, and do they get it? Are they asking the right questions? Are they connected to what we want the series to be? Because very often if the network wants it to be something other than what the creators are pitching, it’s not the best way to create a successful show. Then, if it’s a linear network, we might look at the holes in the schedule and see whether a show we are pitching fits into the openings on the schedule. If it’s a streaming platform, we’ll gauge what else they have. Is what we’re offering similar to the service’s audience profile or the taste of the audience and will our show be a good fit? Or if it’s Netflix, what they are looking for [to satisfy] different audience segments? We take that into account. It’s a very thoughtful process, and we consider it to be the first big decision we make when we’re starting to develop a show. Who are we going to develop it with? Where will it ultimately live?

WS: Are certain shows best suited to linear channels and others to streaming services?
HUNEGS: A few years ago, we all felt that, in broad categories, procedurals and sitcoms did well on linear networks because the types of stories they told were more self-contained. Even if there was a week between episodes, it was OK. The audience didn’t have to remember the details of the story from the previous week. On a streaming service, where they would have multiple episodes up at the same time or sometimes the whole season, it felt like you could tell a more serialized story because the audience could watch multiple episodes at once. It was easy to track even a very intricate story. I think that has become less and less true. The only thing you might say is that shorter order series tend to live on streaming services. That has to do more with the way linear networks program and market their series and the amount of money they spend to market their series. I don’t think there is anything that makes a show inherently a streaming show or inherently a show for a linear network. There is a difference between broadcast and cable. Broadcast networks in the U.S. have affiliate stations that are still required to have government licenses, so the programming tends to be a little bit safer and broadly appealing. But I’m not sure there is a real difference between linear and streaming services anymore.

WS: It’s been nearly two years since the beginning of the #MeToo movement. What’s being done to make sets and production environments safe and to make sure people are heard and have recourse?
HUNEGS: I’m going to speak in platitudes first, but I think they matter because the values of the company translate to the culture of the company and then to our shows, how we run our shows and the message we send to our show creators, casts and crews. For Dana and me, personally, and for Disney, from Bob Iger [chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Company] on down, it’s of paramount importance to us that our workplace, in the office, at the studio and on sets, is safe and respectful to everyone who works on our shows and everyone who comes by to visit our shows. More specifically, we are putting all of the employees at our company and on our shows through sensitivity training, sexual harassment training and workplace environment training. There are very clear instructions. We are very focused on how to report violations of conduct or anything that makes anyone feel unsafe and how that works up to HR. HR teams are very involved. All of our executives, showrunners and people on our shows, hopefully, know that at the first sign of discomfort on the part of anyone at our company, it gets escalated to HR. We quickly investigate to understand whether there is a problem—whether it’s systemic and even if it’s more personal—and how we solve it. How do we make sure everyone feels comfortable? We don’t have a perfect track record—nobody does. There have been a couple of incidents this year, and I regret that we didn’t handle them even more effectively and even more quickly. But we are learning and getting better at it. The people here, from Peter Rice [chairman of Walt Disney Television and co-chair of Disney Media Networks] to Dana and me, and same for John Landgraf [chairman and CEO of FX Networks and FX Productions] and the other leaders of our television group, have strong reputations for fostering a respectful and safe work environment.

WS: How do you feel about this new chapter in your career?
HUNEGS: I feel incredibly lucky and excited. I’m at a company that has so many ways to touch audiences all over the world, and my ambition is that we create programming that is not just entertaining but also meaningful to people. If in some small way we can help people through their day-to-day lives, or if in some small way we can influence the culture, I’ll consider that a great success for us. To be sitting with colleagues and incredible creative talent who can help us make that happen, how lucky am I? I feel like Disney right now is a center of gravity of television, and I feel so fortunate to be in the middle of it. I always want to be careful to say I don’t think it’s ever about me; it’s about the great creative talent we have here and the great teams of executives and staff. They will all determine our success. My job is to be like an orchestra conductor, but everyone else is making the music!

About Anna Carugati

Anna Carugati is the group editorial director of World Screen.


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