NYFA: Would you mind sharing with us a little bit about your background and what drew you to producing initially?
Diego Foyo: The initial factor that sparked my interest in filmmaking was the urge to change society for the better through the most efficient method, telling stories. I approached my father at a young age to inform him of this discovery, which I appropriately labeled “vocation,” and he had a very reasonable response “What do you plan to say?” It clearly caught me by surprise; my explanation only covered issues that my friends and I were going through. And so I left to see the world and learn about philosophy and the different cultures to become a qualified preacher to the masses, or so my ignorant-self proclaimed. I lived in the northwest of England for a year, one in France, two in Spain, another in the Caribbean, three in NYC and now four in LA. After 12 years of traveling it was clear I did not leave to learn about the world, I traveled to find myself and form a personal view of society, a view that became the cornerstone of my work. There is one rule that screenwriting guru, Robert McKee, has apart from his many principals, “Always tell the truth.” This can only be achieved after answering the question ”What do I want to say?” or at least that is what I believe.
NYFA: What in particular was it about NYFA’s curriculum that you found attractive? What lesson learned at NYFA have you continued to apply throughout your many endeavors?
DF: There is one thing that made me choose NYFA over the many options available to learn about filmmaking, and that is the hands-on method. Gladwell’s book Outliers came out around the time I started and he argued that 10,000 hours of practice will make anyone reach mastery in any field, even though I also agree with Epstein’s counter-argument regarding genetics, I think Gladwell has a point. I asked the few people I knew, in the entertainment industry, and they all repeated the same thing, practice makes perfect.
Obviously, there are many lessons I learned at NYFA that I still use today, but by far the most important one is teamwork. The importance of this is very clear for producers, directors, actors and anybody that works on set, but it’s not only for them. Screenwriters tend to believe they have the luxury of being anti-social since they write alone, but they still have to pitch the story, work with producers, directors, and sometimes actors. Making a quality film or TV show takes so much time that you’ll inevitably be stuck with others in an office at one point or another, and nobody wants to work with a person they don’t like. I can’t tell you how many shows we have rejected because the producers lack simple manners and we can foresee the pain of working with them. Unless you have a last name worthy of attention, the lack or abundance of manners will be noted from the moment you pick up that phone or you enter that building.
NYFA: You currently work as a programmer for Azteca America, in which you help select the shows that will air on the network. How did your producing education at NYFA help prepare you for your current role as a programmer?
DF: What is a producer selling if not a dream that only exists in the mind of its participants? There is no tangible product, and if produced, there is no way of knowing if it will be a success; the producer sells the idea of a program and claims to be certain that the audience will love it, and/or that it will be finished on time. Studying production helped with one critical aspect, cutting through the bullshit.
NYFA: Following up, in what ways do you still explicitly apply your producing skills and in what instances do you serve as an associate producer?
DF: Producing skills come in handy during many different scenarios yet it’s almost never a recurrent one. Since we are part of a corporation that is the largest supplier of Spanish language content in the world, there are many variations to each specific show or special. Credits are quite bureaucratic when working for a large corporation, never unfair, but always subject to the circumstances at the time. There is a show called Fabrica de Huevos where I have an Associate Producer credit, I had the privilege of working with the Huevocartoon Company through the creative process and functioned as a link between them and Azteca. This doesn’t happen too often.
NYFA: Did NYFA help you to develop additional filmmaking skills through our producing program? In what ways do you find your writing and directing abilities informing your position and goals as a producer?
DF: The producing program at NYFA is complete because they include classes on acting, directing and screenwriting. Whichever field you decide to focus on, learning about the other aspects of filmmaking will make a huge difference in your professional development. I must clarify that my personal goal is to work as a screenwriter for general market feature films and both general market and Hispanic TV series. To express the obvious, knowing about producing, directing, and acting (more than anything) will increase the quality of your screenplays dramatically.
NYFA: What are the criteria you and your boss employ to determine which show deserves to air on Azteca America? Is it purely the quality of the show, its potential appeal to a mass audience, or a little bit of both? What other factors are at work in seeing a show make it to TV?
DF: Remember those annoying moments when you want a specific answer and the teacher keeps responding, “It varies”? This is a very similar case. There are many variations which cause a show to make it or not, I’ll try to mention the basic ones, but be aware that this knowledge comes from my limited experience (3 years) with a Hispanic TV Network.
First of all, it has to be something the network is looking for. You may have a spectacular TV series, but if the network already has something similar and is not looking for more, there’s no chance for your spectacular and original series. Unless it is so good that it surpasses all the expectations, which almost never happens. Research the network you want to approach, look at their programming history and target audience. If the programmer is interested and a good space and date are available in the annual planning grids, the departments of Marketing, Research, and Legal Affairs will be involved to make sure the network can market the show, hit the target audience at the desired time and frequency, actually sell the spots, and get exactly the deal they’re looking for with the available budget. If everything is in order, a focus group will be organized to get the opinion of the audience.
The best advice I can give to somebody who wants to submit a TV show, of any kind, is to research the networks. Quality of screenplay and production are quite obvious, but the reality of the situation is that networks plan ahead to reach the sales goal of each quarter and they know exactly (in a sense) what they’re looking for. If you can’t sell your awesome series to Comedy Central or FX, it doesn’t matter; there are many networks in this country and many countries with more networks. Visit the markets, don’t limit yourself, go to MIPCOM, NATPE, LA Screenings, MIPTV, among may others.
NYFA: How has your career developed since leaving NYFA? Was programming something you saw an opportunity or was it something that came about naturally?
DF: NYFA has been extremely good to me, after studying in NYC, I came to LA looking for work and NYFA took me in. I worked for the LA campus during almost a year. At nights and weekends I was working in production and screenwriting with a fellow co-worker, the wonderfully energetic, Ana Menendez. The programming position at Azteca came to me by pure luck. I was applying for work in the production department and they needed somebody in programming, met with the boss and the rest is history. This was a crucial move in my career since it gives me a steady paycheck, a work visa, plus the nights and weekends free to work on my screenplays while still learning about TV business every day. Next step is to sell a couple of my screenplays, get the artist visa, and focus only on screenwriting for as long as possible.
NYFA: As a programmer, you wield significant power in terms of the fact that you shape what people watch on television. What kind of balance do you look for in the shows you program to provide the most well-rounded and absorbing TV viewing experience?
DF: There’s a couple of factors that dictate what could be called a “well rounded and absorbing TV viewing experience,” the science behind the schedule and the psychology of the target audience.
Depending on who your audience is and who you want it to be, at what time you choose to air a specific show, and the frequency, has (again) many variables to be considered. We’re not going to air a show that targets F18-24 at 11:00 am during weekdays, but we would show a program which targets F18-49 in order to reach the housewife. We won’t air a 1-hour comedy on primetime unless it tackles many subgenres, we would probably ask for a half hour version or consider it for the weekend. These guidelines are normally constructed by experience and research by the networks with the help of organizations like Nielsen.
The sad part is that most people want to see trash TV. I used to hate the fact that networks would insist on showing extremely stupid programs and wondered if they were doing it on purpose. Does The Learning Channel even care about their audience with a show like Honey Boo Boo on the air? Why on earth is the Kardashians a show with more than one episode? Don’t the networks have any sense of responsibility for molding the minds of tomorrow? The answer is they have no choice, the viewer already decided. If network A airs a show that stimulates the mind and entertains at the same time, while network B airs a show that is pure entertainment and demands not a single thought from the viewer, network B gets an award while A has to fire staff, cancel distribution deals and lose millions. What would you do?
NYFA: What do you wish you knew when you started your career? Do you have any pieces of advice to give to the next generation of producers and filmmakers?
DF: There is only one thing that I would tell my younger self and anybody who wants to break into the industry: Never waste a second, always be working towards your goal! This seems like a very obvious advice, something that everybody knows and doesn’t really help much to hear it again, but if you only knew the importance of a single hour, a night, or a weekend, every second makes a difference. It is intimidating to think that millions of young and talented students want to do the exact same thing as you, they want to be producers, screenwriters, directors, actors and they come from every corner of the world, but if you pay close attention you will realize that most are quite dumb, lazy, with horrible work ethic, and lack of discipline, having said that, never underestimate the real competition. The way to shine is to fall in love with the process, it is not about the happiness part, it is about the pursuit. It is a common misconception to link creativity to dreamers, this industry is full of dreamers, if you really want to do this for the rest of your life you must ground your feet and work non-stop. Don’t listen to music during traffic, use audio-books, don’t watch a movie to relax, analyze it with pen and paper, if you spend too much time on Facebook, Snap Chat, or Instagram, not networking, delete the accounts. Limit your fun-time to once a week; be healthy to be able to work more, be smart about it. This is the moment to give 100%, most of the competition might be worthless to employers but they still take up time and space. You are hoping for a very privileged job that pays way more than a regular job with the same work hours, to get it you must deserve it. Dress the part, make eye contact, speak loud and clear, develop friendships with the security guard, the receptionist, the assistant, and most important of all be humble.