Television: Robert Rodriguez' El Rey Network Throwing away the rulebook
NEW YORK -- In the past year, Netflix, with its online, all-at-once D.C. thriller "House of Cards," has jolted the medium we used to know as "television."
Now TV could be rocked by another game changer. Say hello to Robert Rodriguez, who, down in the Lone Star State at his aptly named Troublemaker Studios, is ready to rewrite some more rules.
It’s not just that Rodriguez, a prolific, much-admired filmmaker, has recently launched a TV network. Cable networks with a big name attached (remember Oprah Winfrey’s?) don’t inevitably rock the world.
But El Rey, Rodriguez’s gift to the 500-channel universe, could prove radically different. And disruptive. Here’s a channel spawned by a demonstrated, multifaceted auteur; a boutique network that could leverage its founder’s rambunctiously personal vision into a mainstream outlet carrying a chorus of other independent voices.
The revolution, if that’s how it turns out, could be sparked by El Rey’s first scripted original, "From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series," which premieres tonight at 9. (El Rey is now available in 40 million TV homes.)
This supernatural crime series is a reimagining of his 1996 cult classic of the same name written by Robert Kurtzman and Quentin Tarantino with a cast including George Clooney and Salma Hayek.
The series (Rodriguez is directing several of the 10 episodes) centers on the brutish bank-robbing Gecko brothers (played by D.J. Cotrona and Zane Holtz), who are sought by a pair of Texas Rangers (Don Johnson and Jesse Garcia) after a bank heist leaves several people dead. The brothers flee to Mexico and take refuge in a stripper bar. But the bar turns out to be the lair of vampires.
Judging from the premiere, made available for preview, this could be a fascinating ride. But it’s just the beginning, Rodriguez said.
El Rey is billed as a channel for young men "and what we call ‘kick-ass females,’ " he said during a chat far removed from his Austin, Texas, headquarters as snowflakes fell outside a mid-Manhattan restaurant. El Rey has also been described as an English-language network catering to Latino viewers and a general audience that might not even realize it has a Spanish name.
But what Rodriguez seems to really have in mind is much more basic: a network that programs stuff he gets off on (whether masterminded by him or by others), aimed at any viewer who shares his cool wavelength -- or might be ready to take the plunge into this culture.
"I don’t really want the network to be niche," he declared. "With us doing a show like ‘Dusk Till Dawn,’ people say, ‘Is that the kind of shows you’ll be doing?’ But our next (original) series will be a little broader."
That series is "Matador," created by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman ("Sleepy Hollow," "Fringe"). It focuses on a globe-trotting soccer champ and playboy who, unbeknownst to his adoring public, is also a top-secret CIA operative. It’s set for a July debut.
"Then our next show after that might open things up even more," Rodriguez went on. "We’ll keep surprising people."
Rodriguez’s mission is a distribution channel that connects him and others in his TV salon directly with their audience, no network suits or number crunchers in the way.
"I’ve had people tell me, ‘You just bypassed the whole system! It’s an insurrection,’ " Rodriguez said with a laugh. "But it makes sense."
He may be a TV newcomer, but this 45-year-old Texan, the son of Mexican-American parents, has always worked outside the system, beginning two decades ago with the film "El Mariachi." It was made for $7,000 and became a Sundance Film Festival winner.
With his newest undertaking as El Rey Network chairman, Rodriguez, looking very un-chairmanlike in jeans and leather jacket, has stuck to his practice of wearing many hats, in addition to the Goorin Bros. cadet cap that, at this interview, rests on his head. As the need arises, he’s a producer, director, screenwriter, cinematographer, editor and musician. He even shoots the photos for his films’ poster art.
As a mega-multi-hyphenate, Rodriguez created the "Spy Kids" franchise, "Sin City," "The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D," "Grindhouse" and "Machete," among his many films.
Now he has a pipeline for them and other stuff he likes, running straight from Austin to the screens of his loyal fan base and the broader viewership he means to cultivate.
Measuring success by gut
"As we grow," he said, "our priority will be more about hiring and training the right people to run the network. But I’ll still have to be pretty hands-on. And right now, I do everything but turn your TV on for you."
How will he measure success for his new venture? By his gut as much as raw numbers, he said. Ratings won’t be available the first year.
"If there’s a show we feel will be great if we just stick with it, we’ll keep it on," he said, looking ahead to a network that could keep him as surprised as its audience.
"I’m the person who’s starting the network," he said. "But it’s not the Robert Rodriguez Network. It’s called El Rey because it’s bigger than me: Mi Network Es Su Network!"
An idea like that could blow TV wide open.
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