A Visit to the Set of Fox’s Sleepy Hollow

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

The sun is slowly dragging its way out of the earth and up the trunks of the black gum trees and loblolly pines when a silent figure appears from out of the fog. Ashen like the floor of a crematorium, hollow eye sockets all but a rebuke to the wan coastal light filtering through the leaves, the interloper gets within a few yards of his prey before the young woman suddenly realizes that she’s no longer alone in the clearing.

Enter Sandman.

While she’s terrified by the specter that stands in front of her, Abbie Mills’ police academy training overrides her fear. In one smooth motion, she raises her .40-caliber Glock service pistol at shoulder height and empties the magazine.

After a series of insert-CGI-here pantomimes—the gunshots and muzzle flare will be added in post, as will the whirling sandstorm that wipes the screen as the villain makes his escape—the two combatants quit each other’s company. Sandman (Marti Matulis) staggers up a rise, where he’s met by a pair of production assistants. “Ugh. Mosquitoes,” the creature says, or something to that effect. Given that the area where his mouth should be appears to be sealed shut by a taut flap of skin, it’s hard to be entirely sure what’s on his mind.

Seated a few yards away in a fog-wreathed stand of trees, Sleepy Hollow star Nicole Beharie is echoing the sentiments of her otherworldly scene partner. To say that it’s humid here on this late August morning in Wilmington, N.C., is to traffic in a realm of vast understatement; as such, the 28-year-old actress is having her hair and makeup fussed over a bit while director John Showalter calls for a switch to a Steadicam setup.

[Check out  behind-the-scenes photos from Sleepy Hollow]

“I’m getting murderized out here,” Beharie jokes, at which point one of the crew helpfully points out that the woods are positively acrawl with any number of creatures that would gladly sink their envenomed fangs into human flesh. “Banana spiders” gets tossed around quite a bit out here behind the vast EUE Screen Gems Studios lot.

“Snakes, too,” says the PA, who has a length of heavy-duty electrical cord coiled around his neck. Beharie fixes the guy with a lash-wide stare before glancing over at Sandman. The sun’s burned off much of the fog, and yet the itchy Matulis is still the stuff of nightmares.

“Thanks,” Beharie says, turning her gaze back to the clearing. “Super helpful.”

Putting the Fun in Funeral
When Fox takes the wraps off Sleepy Hollow (the show premieres tonight at 9 p.m. EDT), Washington Irving may very well spend the evening spinning in his cramped grave like a rotisserie chicken. Rather than lob pumpkins at luckless Tarrytowners, the 21st century Headless Horseman prefers to spray his victims with rounds from an assault rifle. If that weren’t sufficient villainy, a goat-horned humanoid does a bit of radical feng shui on guest star John Cho’s cervical vertebrae.

And we haven’t even mentioned the part about George Washington’s [apparent] role in a Masonic conspiracy to unleash the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Headless being one of them) upon the nation that he was instrumental in establishing. Oh … and there are witches, too.

And yes: All of those events, including the resurrection of the dashing freedom fighter Ichabod Crane—a rebirth some 232 years in the making—come to pass during the 45-minute Sleepy Hollow pilot. But as overstuffed as the show may be, the dizzying skein of dastardly developments is leavened with a palpable sense of adventure. It may be batshit crazy, but that only makes Sleepy Hollow all the more fun.

“That sense of fun is one of the main reasons why we’re so invested in the show,” says Fox entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly, who suggests that Sleepy could prove to be an alternative to the wince ’n’ grimace aesthetic that’s had a chilling effect on so many other scripted series. “There are a lot of good dramas out there that are dark and complex, but not a lot where you go, ‘Hey, that thing is fun,’” Reilly says. “And Sleepy Hollow is fun. The concept may be a bit of a reach, but you just go with it.”

In the weeks leading up to the launch, the buzz on Sleepy is rivaled only by that for ABC’s much anticipated superhero-bureaucracy strip, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. According to NewMediaMetrics’ annual “LEAP TV” study, Sleepy has an 83 percent chance of being renewed, making it tops among all freshmen dramas. NMM CEO and co-founder Gary Reisman says women are responding more favorably to Sleepy than any other new show—so much so that the series is outpacing Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the hypothetical race for a second season by 10 percentage points.

Other preseason surveys have Sleepy and S.H.I.E.L.D. running neck-and-neck with comedies like The Michael J. Fox Show (NBC) and The Crazy Ones (CBS). But while favorable reactions from the throngs at Comic-Con and the TCA Tour helped reinforce the notion that Sleepy has struck a nerve (the vagus, presumably), no one involved in the production of the program seems to have a handle on why this may be so.

“There’s something about this show—it seems to, like, have come around at just the right time. And you just don’t know why people are responding to it the way they are,” says Ken Olin, who serves as an executive producer on Sleepy alongside genre heavyweights Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (Alias, Fringe, the 2009 Star Trek reboot) and Len Wiseman (Live Free or Die Hard, the Underworld film series). “If I had to guess, I’d say it’s a reaction to the combination of the more fantastic elements of the story with the emotional underpinnings and character development.”

Media buyers and their clients have been eager to set up shop in Sleepy’s Monday night time slot, as automotive brands, movie studios, electronics/gadgets purveyors and the telcos are investing heavily in the show. TV buyers say Fox is charging an average unit rate of around $189,250 per 30-second spot, although time in the premiere commanded a premium—as much as $275,000 a pop.

“There’s an awful lot of stuff on Monday night that gets big reach numbers. But as far as the demos go, Sleepy Hollow looks like it could turn out to be a real smart buy for us,” said one national TV buyer. “Head-to-head, it goes up against a very old show in Dancing With the Stars, a very female-skewing Voice and two CBS comedies. If you’re trying to reach younger guys on Monday nights and don’t want to spend football money, this show may be your best bet.”

[Check out  behind-the-scenes photos from Sleepy Hollow]

Man Out of Time
Because the past is constantly having its way with the village of Sleepy Hollow—as writer Jose Molina puts it, the dozy river town is a vortex between worlds (“We call it the Epicenter … because obviously Joss Whedon would come after us if it were a Hellmouth,” he jokes)—time is perhaps a more fluid concept here than in most other broadcast dramas. It’s a nifty irony, then, that time-shifting will almost certainly play a crucial role in determining whether Sleepy succeeds or fails.

“As much as I’d like as many people as possible to watch Fox day-and-date, the reality is that a lot of people just are not watching that way,” Reilly says. “That trend’s not going to reverse itself. As long as we can count them and measure them and monetize them, that’s OK with me.”

Fox’s midseason thriller, The Following, was the top-rated new series of 2012-13, averaging a 2.6 rating in the 18-49 demo in Sleepy’s Monday night slot, per Nielsen’s live-plus-same-day data. But when seven days of DVR playback were brought to bear on The Following’s performance, the demo shot up 65 percent to a 4.3. The show’s reach also blossomed, as time-shifted deliveries tacked on another 3.91 million total viewers to The Following’s season average (7.96 million).

Given the nature of the show (sci-fi is the most DVR’d genre), Sleepy is likely to deliver a good number of viewers beyond the three days guaranteed by the C3 currency. Here’s where the math gets a little tricky. Because the live-plus-same-day numbers are statistically consistent with C3 data, it would appear that all the additional deliveries made possible by time-shifting do not compensate for the commercial avoidance that is so rampant in playback. In other words, while millions of people are catching up on their favorite TV shows with the aid of a DVR (or VOD, online streaming, Netflix, etc.), most of them, when given the opportunity, are zipping through the ads. And, naturally, no marketer is going to want to pony up for a viewer who isn’t watching the ads.

For his part, Reilly says that the currency issue plays into his determination to push back at a system he’s inherited but is no longer relevant in this everything-on-demand era. “Ask an honest media buyer and he’ll say that C3 is just a negotiation,” Reilly contends, adding that he believes the C7 stream and its additional four days of baked-in playback will be adopted as the currency before the 2014-15 upfront swings into action.

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.