With separate broadcast and streaming pacts and a unique freedom to sell almost everywhere, the showrunners behind ‘The O.C.’ target the zeitgeist again with their Hulu limited series ‘Looking for Alaska.’
Tucked away in a cozy bungalow, steps from the crazy of Hollywood Boulevard, lies the tranquil kitsch of Fake Empire, the production company Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage founded nearly a decade ago. The longtime writing and producing partners, with a staff of five, opted for this homey office in a bid to keep their company as intimate as possible in a television landscape otherwise devoted to growth.
Here’s where the showrunners behind such cultural phenomena as The O.C. and Gossip Girl cater to an industry thirsty for what they do best — programming for young adults, with an approach that flies in the face of what you’d expect from a company with five series and a groundbreaking two TV deals. For their broadcast-only pact with CBS TV Studios, there’s The CW’s Dynasty and rookie Nancy Drew (bowing Oct. 9). Those join a slate that includes Hulu’s hit Marvel drama Runaways, the lone holdover from the duo’s brief time with ABC Studios, and the long-gestating take on John Green’s Looking for Alaska — set at Hulu as a limited series (Oct. 18). Not tied to any single platform, they’ve also got a Gossip Girl reboot at HBO Max and a first-look TV deal with Apple.
Schwartz, a 43-year-old married father of two, and Savage, 50, open up about their nearly two-decade partnership, why they went independent and how the dual deal structure allows them, in a way, to sell to everyone.
Josh, you famously became a showrunner on The O.C. at 26. Two decades later, you’re still in the YA programming space. What’s the appeal?
STEPHANIE SAVAGE It’s the power of firsts: first love, first loss, first best friend, figuring out that your parents are just human … all that stuff happens to you one time. After that, it’s just variations. Telling that story of the first time resonates with us.
You’ve been working together since 2003. To what do you attribute your long partnership?
SAVAGE When we started, I was an executive [at McG’s Wonderland] and Josh’s boss. I was giving him script notes. Then I was a baby writer [on The O.C.] and handing my script in to him, the show creator, hoping that he liked it. Wearing different hats with each other set the groundwork for our relationship.
SCHWARTZ The business was already starting to change, and we had done a bunch for broadcast. We were looking to see what else was out there. We almost went independent and didn’t quite have the courage at that moment. Almost immediately, no knock on ABC Studios, but we realized we should have gone independent. Now, Disney owns everything — so it’s much easier to move within different silos. At the time, you were there to develop shows for ABC.
SAVAGE Our company had grown too big. We had offices at Paramount [for a feature film deal] and a big office at Disney and had three executives and four or five assistants and nine people working with us.
SAVAGE We’ll take a lot of risks, but not on Alaska.
How do these dual deals compare to, say, the increasingly common nine-figure overalls?
And it still affords you the opportunity to sell to places like HBO Max.
SCHWARTZ The show went off the air in 2012, and a couple of years later there was talk of revisiting it as a low-budget feature at New Line. The idea of being able to do it on a streamer where we’re less restricted was very exciting to us, so we called [executive producer] Josh Safran.
SAVAGE Safran loves twists and turns. I don’t think it’s going to be a meditative version of Gossip Girl. It’s a tone poem. If it’s more explicit, that’s something that we’ve talked about and haven’t really come up with a solid take on. Like, can they swear? Maybe there will be some nudity. We haven’t really figured it out.
How would you like to see the writers-agents standoff resolved?
Interview edited for length and clarity.