A Visit to the Set of Fox’s Sleepy Hollow

Buyers bet on new fantasy/sci-fi/cop show

But ratings guarantees and measurement aren’t the only things that have reduced network executives to grinding their molars into a fine particulate. “The length of the broadcast season itself is arbitrary,” Reilly says. “Thirty-five weeks puts us in the position where we have to run repeats, and repeats no longer deliver what they once did, at least not in the prime-time window.”

It was a half-century ago that ABC, CBS and NBC uniformly shifted their fall launches to September, a move designed to create a showcase for Detroit’s automakers. Since then, the networks have marched in lockstep, spending tens of millions of dollars every year in order to promote 20-25 new series that generally premiere within a narrow two-week window.

As Olin puts it, the signal-to-noise ratio is all out of whack. “We have to figure out a way to change this because the networks can’t sustain that initial level of promotion that goes into launching the show, which means the tap pretty much gets turned off after the premiere,” Olin says. “So the most important episodes, the second, the third, the fourth, are only getting in-house promos. Everything else dries up. And then you sit and watch the numbers drop for 22, 23 weeks. It’s crazy.”

To that end, Sleepy was given a 12-episode order (13 counting the pilot). Molina argues that a more compressed arc can actually be a godsend for the writers’ room. “We know exactly what the arc’s going to be. We know what the last shot is, and we know who comes aknockin’ and why they come aknockin’,” Molina says. “We know. We don’t know a lot about Season 2, but Season 1 we’ve got completely dialed in.”

Should Sleepy Hollow become a breakout hit, there is a possibility that Fox will turn around and give it a standard back-nine order, says Fox COO and senior marketing strategist Joe Earley. “If it’s a big hit, there’s a possibility that it could come back in January,” Earley says. “That’s not the plan, but we’re not ruling it out, either.”

If Molina has his way, everyone will just stick to the original game plan. “I mean, it would be awesome to be that successful that they order more episodes, but I think it’s probably—for my taste, anyway, and I don’t know that everyone would agree with me—I think it would be best to do the 13 then go away,” Molina says, adding that the lag time would allow the writers to “figure out a big fat detailed arc for [hopefully] a 22-episode Season 2.”

On the other hand, if Sleepy’s live-plus-same-day numbers aren’t exactly overwhelming, it’s hard to imagine that Fox won’t be as patient with the show as prudence allows. The network not only wants Sleepy to work, it needs Sleepy to work. While Super Bowl XLVIII will go a long way toward erasing last season’s ratings slump, if the entire schedule is to succeed, Sleepy will have to do a lot of heavy lifting.

“If we pop a big number that first night, that bodes well. And obviously, if you stumble out of the gate … well, that’s something you want to avoid,” Reilly says, in a nod to last fall’s low-rated drama The Mob Doctor. But given the investment (Sleepy’s budget is around $4 million per episode) and the emphasis on more data, will Fox be especially patient with its big fall launch? “I hope it’s not hard to be patient.”

Hooray for Wilmywood
And now, a word about Wilmington.

Movie and TV productions began flocking to this quiet coastal town in 1984 after Frank Capra Jr. filmed his adaptation of the Stephen King novel Firestarter here. Thirty years later and Screen Gems is the largest studio complex outside of California. Among the high-profile projects that have been filmed here over the years are Iron Man 3, Under the Dome (another King adaptation), Revolution, Dawson’s Creek, One Tree Hill and Matlock.

On the way in from the airport, a drive of roughly five minutes, the cab driver relates a story about seeing Robert Downey Jr. “buying an awful lot of margarine” at a Costco. (The same driver would go on to recommend the salad bar at a nearby service station.) Along with the 25 percent tax breaks and the 150,000 square feet of studio space, Wilmington can’t be beat in terms of providing a vast array of locations. Without having to burn much fossil fuel, a crew can go from Beach Blanket Bingo to The Cabin in the Woods in about as much time as it takes to put away a gas station salad.

At the moment, Screen Gems is perhaps a bit too popular. As Tom Mison (Crane) and Lyndie Greenwood (Jenny Mills) prepare to shoot a pivotal scene set in a psychiatric hospital, the generator powering Eastbound & Down’s air conditioner is making an unholy racket in the adjacent studio. “You know, because of all the fucking improv they do, they roll forever,” a PA grumbles, despairing of getting the scene wrapped by lunch.

While the Sleepy crew waits out the noisy interlude, the 31-year-old Mison reveals that this is the first time he’s tried his hand at American telly. “There’s some really good American TV at the moment, so I thought, why not have a look at a few pilots?” Mison recalls. “There were a few really good ones this year, but this absolutely stood out … because it had a man with no head and a gun. … Obviously, it can’t not stand out.”

Mison radiates a sort of quiet sincerity when he talks about the stage (“this is the longest I’ve been away from the theater in my career”), but says he was drawn to Sleepy because it was the only script he’d read that made the prospect of leaving England for an extended period seem bearable. “It’s selfish, but I want to know that I’m leaving home for something that will stay exciting for that full time,” he says. “I’d hate to come over here and do a run-of-the-mill procedural cop show.”

As Mison gets ready to resume the scene with Greenwood, she mentions that this is literally her first day on the set. “I’ve just been checking out some of the weird books,” she says, referring to the props that litter Jenny’s hospital room. “I really don’t know much about the show beyond the two scripts that I’ve read, to be honest. I don’t really know what’s going to happen next, except that Jenny disappears at the end of this episode. But, hey, you just have to go with the flow, man.”

Kevin Reilly certainly hopes audiences do the same. 

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