In the studio business, you’re nothing without your content and creators. And when it comes to attracting the best minds to come work for you, charisma counts. So it’s fitting that in more than two decades in the business, Dana Walden, chairman and CEO of 20th Century Fox Television Studios, earns high marks for her flair, creativity and adeptness with talent.
“We’re in the business of competing for talent and trying to convince writers and actors and directors that they should come here and trust us and get in business with us, and Dana is really a magnet for attracting people because she just has so much charisma and has such good creative instincts,” says Gary Newman, her fellow chairman-CEO of 20th since 1999.
In a way, Walden has been studying for the role her whole life. She grew up in Los Angeles, where her father was friendly with a lot of people in the entertainment industry, and she became an early TV fanatic.
“My interests were television,” she says. “I would come in the door from school and watch TV until dinner and then afterwards, in whatever time was left, I would do my homework. I was a mediocre student and a great TV viewer.”
Walden graduated from the University of Southern California with a communications degree and started a career in public relations at Bender, Goldman & Helper. While working on the launch of the first Arsenio Hall Show, she got to know Lucie Salhany, then president of Paramount Domestic Television, who brought Walden with her in 1992 to work in publicity at 20th Television.
“Dana has an insight into programming; not everybody does and not everybody knows how to treat talent properly,” Salhany says. “She had that right from the time she was a junior executive.”
While working for 20th, Walden had a “Jerry Maguire” moment at a company retreat in 1994, where she gave a speech saying the studio had a dated strategy and was losing deals for lack of aggression. That caught the attention of Peter Chernin, the former president and COO of News Corp., who recognized her intelligence and interest in thinking about the business differently and recommended she be moved out of PR and into a creative job.
“She had a good sense of the marketplace; she had strong opinions, which I think is generally the key to being a good creative executive,” Chernin says.
When Walden and Newman were tapped to run the studio, it was producing five shows; its roster has grown to 44 series on broadcast, cable, premium cable and Netflix. It has also cultivated a reputation as a writer-centric studio, with creators like Steve Levitan, David E. Kelley, Ryan Murphy, Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, most of whom have had deals with 20th for decades, breeding a stability and loyalty among writers and executive producers who want to deliver success.
While Newman is more of a strategic thinker, Walden describes herself as an impulsive, go-fromthe- gut decision-maker, with colleagues applauding her for a willingness to take a big swing on talent without any guarantees of success.
“She’s really creative. She definitely has great input in terms of creative direction of the studio, but she’s a person who really hires people and brings writers in to let them pursue their vision. And I think that’s why that company’s been so successful,” says NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke, former head of creative affairs at 20th TV.
Kelley, who has created numerous shows for the studio, including Chicago Hope, Ally McBeal and this season’s The Crazy Ones, recalls when ABC offered to renew The Practice if the show slashed the budget and lost half its cast. “Everyone’s initial instinct was, ‘It’s over,’” Kelley says. Eventually, he came up with the new character of Alan Shore (James Spader) to revive the series; ratings went up, Spader won an Emmy, and it spun off Boston Legal, which went on to run for five seasons.
“That never would have happened if I didn’t have the mutual trust of Gary and Dana,” Kelley says. “I felt I could, and that was good enough for [them]. Nineteen out of 20 studio executives would have said, ‘Forget it, we’re not throwing good money on that kind of a pipe dream.’”
In her 14 years working alongside Newman, Walden has helped popularize the quality serialized drama with 24 (and figured out how to make money off of it by pioneering the DVD aftermarket); made 20th the first of the studios to start a cable arm, with Fox21 and Fox Television Studios; produced the first big cable drama in FX’s The Shield; and moved the studio to alternative platforms with Arrested Development on Netflix.
“She’s always pushing for what’s next,” says Showtime entertainment president David Nevins, who praises the studio for quickly hammering out a Homeland deal despite the show being its first premium cable series. “I think she’s been on the leading edge of how to make television feel new and feel differentiated in whatever form. They had made the decision that, creatively, this was a good home, and in very rapid fashion they figured out how to do it here.”
Walden says working with creators is the perfect job for her and credits her shared duties with Newman for allowing her to keep her time outside of work 100% focused on her family. She and her husband, Matt, and daughters Aliza, 13, and Casey, 10, enjoy traveling to their home in Deer Valley, Utah, where the animal-loving Walden can spend time surrounded by nature and get the perspective that contributes to making successful TV series.
“You can’t develop shows for a broad audience of people” she says, “if you’re not living a balanced life, if you’re not experiencing life challenges and blessings similar to the ones your viewers are.”