Robert Rodriguez made a name for himself in the '90s as a movie director alongside frequent collaborator and friend Quentin Tarantino, but his latest claim to fame has been his El Rey network, which came out swinging with a TV version of Rodriguez's vampire flick From Dusk Till Dawn this March. The network itself—headquartered in Rodriguez's Austin—was the creation of a quirk in the Federal Communications Commission's conditions for the merger of NBCUniversal and Comcast, along with several other cable channels. Of the group, El Rey is far and away the highest-profile, and the slickest. We talked to Rodriguez about the network, its future, and what he's doing next (besides delivering keynote addresses this afternoon).
How do you go about running a TV network for the first time?
The programming is fun—I'd always been interested in television. I had a movie career and this opportunity to actually own a television network and create its identity from the ground up was like getting a giant train set. I could hire all these content creators and give them a place to make shows they'd always wanted to see that could be created through this system. I mean a network is just an empty channel—people come running to do projects they've always wanted to do. It just felt like an opportunity to do something creative. You can kind of try anything. You're a student, you're learning, and you can use that as an excuse—hey, for 10 years!
You guys came out with a slate of scripted originals immediately—how did you do that? The traditional network path is library content, a little unscripted, a little more unscripted, one scripted show, maybe two, and it takes years.
I've kind of learned over the years—I mean, my first movie I made for $7,000. I knew we could get a lot more bang for our buck and be very competitive with other shows. I've seen a lot of case studies of new studios and new networks, and they take a long time to make first impressions, and the first impression is so important. You have to come out guns blazing. Right away we've had to have prime programming that nobody else is going to do. Quentin and I control the rights to From Dusk Till Dawn; so it was a real coup to have that for our network first year, first quarter, and to show that we were bringing that kind of programming to our network and have that identity right off the bat.
It sounds like you direct a bunch of it yourself, too, right?
I've now done six hours of television in the last five months—I only intended to direct a couple! I've done four for From Dusk and a bunch of effects, and some of the music. I mean, I knew coming in that it was going to be very hands-on, but I guess I do everything but turn your television on for you. You can have friends come make things with you when you've got your own television network.
What are you talking in your keynote at the PromaxBDA conference today?
Well, when they said it's about creativity, I was like, cool, I do that all the time! I don't just make movies and create content. I'm someone who lives a creative life, constantly. Everything from how you put food on the table to what you do every waking, sleeping hour. I surround myself with master artists and enjoy life that way. I'm really just devoted to life and creativity. The typical things I've discovered and learned from masters who've lived creative lives are really fun and enlightening. In an open forum like that, you learn so much. You can get inspired to say something that permeates the room and you go, "Huh, I should apply that to my own life."
Speaking of creativity, your network was something that Comcast had to give away in order to get permission to buy control of NBCU—it seems like an opportunity that would have people lined up around the block, but you guys got it. How did you get it?
You had to show you could make a solid business out of it, and that you had an idea. We really came in very prepared. Our partners had a whole business plan—they'd done The Hub. They were very thorough and impressive. When you go in a new direction, you have very little competition. We had 100 people, I think, total, applying for this job.
You've got trailer-making guru Skip Chaisson doing your movie spots, with whom our readers are probably familiar—what sold him on the job?
He was sick of doing movies! He's said he'd done trailers and they'd go through 17 people and then it'd only sort of look like what you wanted. [He said,] "I give it to you, it goes on the air!" I know a lot of people like that—they're not sick of creating, they're sick of the process. They don't want to be hampered by a process that somebody made up years ago and nobody knows why.