Saturday, November 10, 2007

Networks go to backup plan

Strike triggers deployment of pilots

WGA Strike


The WGA walkout may have rendered the 2007-08 television season stillborn — but that doesn’t mean the networks have stopped planning for the next campaign.

Like a government in exile, the small screen’s band of D-boys and girls is now waiting on the sidelines. There are no more pitch meetings or notes sessions to attend.

But thanks to the recent trend toward year-round development, webheads aren’t completely lacking in material for 2008-09.

That’s because a few months ago, as a strike became more and more likely, pilot development kicked into overdrive. Nets started handing out put pilot commitments, and even series orders, like they were candy.

The result: All of the networks have completed scripts in hand for projects they put into motion before the scribes skedaddled.

That means the TV studios won’t be entirely quiet over the next few months. As scribes march the picket lines across Hollywood, writers rooms are dark, latenight talker sets are collecting dust, and several series sets have already shut down — with many more to come in the next few weeks.

But there may still be work for TV thesps, helmers and below-the-line crew during the writers strike, as some pilots are ready to be shot (and others already have been).

To be clear, most scripts in development haven’t been turned in yet, or aren’t polished enough to be filmed. But NBC’s Ben Silverman boasts that he’s got more than a half-dozen pilots ready to lens, with big-name helmers attached.

Fox has already started shooting one drama (“The Oaks”), while another (“Hackett”) is wrapped. ABC already has its Cedric the Entertainer sitcom in the can, and CBS has begun production on one of its big hopes, “The Kingdom.”

Other projects could begin shooting within weeks. Most will have to wait until after a strike is settled.

Five years ago it was rare for any pilot scripts to pop up before Thanksgiving. But Silverman, ABC’s Steve McPherson and Kevin Reilly (first at NBC, now at Fox) have made so-called “off-cycle development” a priority the past few seasons as they tried to shake up a system that produced too many projects in too short a time frame.

Some execs are even wondering if a work stoppage could be the final nail in the coffin of a development system they all know is broken.

“This whole crazy cycle we’re in, with everyone doing the same thing at the same time, is crazy,” one webhead says. “If we can use the strike to break out of that cycle, maybe something good can come out of this.”

There’s also the question of whether nets and studios will want to foot the bill for a pilot (as much as $7 million for an hour-long drama) if there’s still no sign of a resolution with the scribes — and a similar threat of an actor walkout come June, when the Screen Actors Guild contract expires.

“Do you want to make a pilot, but then on July 1st have your actors go on strike?” asks one studio exec. “(You would) be sitting there with a pilot you invested $6 million or $7 million dollars in, but the network and studio couldn’t utilize it for some period of time.”

During the last major writers strike, in 1988, the networks and studios threatened to dust off old series scripts and reshoot them with new casts and modern scenery; ABC even ordered a new version of “Mission: Impossible,” planning to use old stories. That strike settled before things progressed that far; “Mission” eventually ran, but with new scripts.

This time out, no one’s threatening to raid their stash of used scripts just yet. For now, at least, here’s what’s still on tap at the nets. Some pilots are ready to be shot, and all of them could still be in contention if a strike is resolved before the end of the year:

ABC is sticking to what works best, developing several relationship dramas about people at a crossroads, including the Marta Kauffman-penned “Leap” (about people dealing with life changes) and Matt Reeves’ “Ordinary Joe” (which looks at three versions of a man’s life, depending on his choices).

Alphabet also has a wide range of procedural dramas, including several with a female bent (such as Daniel Noah’s “Candy,” about a mom who’s also a detective) and the more straight-ahead “Crime Prevention Unit,” from David Heyman.

Net also has two projects about God in the works (Tim Minear’s “Miracle Man” and David Hubbard’s “Letters to God”) and a wide range of fantasy-themed shows, including David E. Kelley’s adaption of “Life on Mars.”

Comedy projects at ABC include “Cedric” and the Jenna Elfman starrer “Literary Superstars.”

CBS isn’t giving up on diversifying its sked beyond the crime genre. Fanciful “Kingdom,” with its “Princess Bride”-like tone, seems like it could just as well fit on the CW or ABC Family.

Ditto “Eleventh Hour,” a sort of “The X-Files” meets “An Inconvenient Truth” drama from Jerry Bruckheimer about a professor who battles threats that arise from science and nature. And Cary Brokaw is behind “The Cure,” about a child healer who gets into people’s minds.

Eye also is making a bid for diversity. There’s a drama about a woman who writes about her immigrant family, as well as a sudsy drama about three Asian-American women.

But, following the quick failure of the risky “Viva Laughlin,” CBS is also making sure to load up on meat and potatos fare. There’s a drama about cops in Greenwich Village, cops who battle identity theft, and medical cops who track deadly diseases.

Laff-wise, CBS is working on adapting the Blighty skein “Worst Week of My Life,” while scribe Mike Sikowitz has a half-hour about a man who falls for his best pal’s ex-wife.

NBC’s Silverman is proud as a Peacock over the network’s advanced development slate, which already includes finished projects such as the Charles McDougall-helmed drama “The Watch.” Net has lined up Brett Ratner to shoot cop drama “Blue Blood” and Joe Carnahan to lens a Peter Berg-produced serial killer drama. There’s also escapist fare led by a new version of “The A-Team.”

For laughs, NBC’s finally ready to shoot con man comedy “Zip” (with Richard Shepherd directing) as well as an adaptation of Australian format “Kath and Kim.” Not surprisingly, Silverman, who started out as a program importer, is developing several U.S. versions of overseas series.

Funniest title (that will never see air) goes to “My Brother is an Asshole,” Gregg Mettler’s take on sibling rivalries that includes flashbacks to the 1980s.

At Fox, besides “Hackett,” laffers in the works include a single-camera entry from Dan Fogelman about a gated community of aliens.

On the drama front, net has a stack of procedural dramas in the works, with titles like “Anatomy of Fear,” “D.C. Metro” and “The F.B.I.” There’s also the female-driven sudser “Queen B.”

Fox gave a seven-episode order to the Eliza Dushku drama “Dollhouse,” although scribe Joss Whedon hasn’t yet written the segs.

Additionally, Fox gave a series commitment to the haunted house show “The Oaks,” from David Schulner. Net also has a procedural from Sam Baum about a character that can read body language; and one from Stu Zicherman and Raven Matzner that takes place in the New York luxury hotel industry.