Universal TV, reshaping its producer roster under new management, has augmented its lineup with a half-dozen recent deals and is pressing forward with several new projects–including two direct-to-video movies based on the feature film “Darkman.”
The studio, stung by premature reports of its demise after a number of producers left or were cut loose to follow former U TV president Kerry McCluggage to Paramount, recently has cemented overall deals with feature film director-producer Ivan Reitman as well as writer-producers David Burke (“Wiseguy”), John Leekley (“Nightmare Cafe,””Miami Vice”) and R.J. Stewart (“Man of the People”).
The company also has inked exclusive agreements with Jeff Martin, recently exec story editor on “The Simpsons,” and British director Brian Grant, as well as a show deal with Rockne S. O’Bannon, co-creator with Steven Spielberg of the forthcoming sci-fi hour “Sea Quest,” which has already received a 22 -episodeorder for next season from NBC.
The high-ticket “Sea Quest” venture with Amblin TV and other new deals indicate that Universal is still determined to be a major player in the TV business, according to division president Tom Thayer, who added that the current climate requires greater fiscal responsibility and that “the economics were completely out of whack” on some Universal shows.
Thayer, who took over the division about 15 months ago, said network TV remains an auspices-driven business and thus compels suppliers intent on staying in the game to pursue top-notch talent, adding that the challenge has been to bring costs into line without hurting existing series. That would include such expensive hours as “Law & Order,” which lenses in New York, and “Quantum Leap,” where the studio had public run-ins on costs with exec producer Donald P. Bellisario, one of the producers to move to Paramount.
Although there’s been talk about all the studios seeking greater financial austerity in television, Thayer denies particular speculation about clamping down at MCA because of parent company Matsushita. “The (talent) roster has not diminished,” he said. “If anything, the roster has increased.”
The existing producer roll includes filmmaker Sam Raimi, who directed “Darkman” and will produce the two upcoming movies, to be shot back-to-back next year and possibly seek theatrical release abroad. U TV piloted the concept at Fox Broadcasting Co. last spring but saw greater economic potential in video for the movies (which may not involve Liam Neeson, who starred in the feature) after Fox passed on the series.
Other feature talent tied to Universal ranges from producer-director John Landis, who produces the HBO series “Dream On” for the studio, to Sam Hamm, writer of “Batman,” who is teaming on a project with Raimi. The studio also has picked up distribution rights on the CBS midseason series “Johnny Bago,” an hourlong show from Papazian-Hirsch Entertainment being produced by, among others , Robert Zemeckis and Frank Marshall.
Universal has continued to build in the series area around its two most prolific producers–Dick Wolf, responsible for “Law & Order” and in-production NBC back-up series “Crime & Punishment”–and Barry Kemp, exec producer of the sitcoms “Coach” and “Delta.”
Several “Law” staffers have been signed to previously announced overall deals , among them Michael Duggan and Robert DeLaurentis–the latter overseeing a new one-hour action series, “South Beach,” to lens in Miami. The NBC show will star Yancy Butler, who appeared in the scrapped actioner “Mann & Machine,” and will begin production in January on an eight-episode order.
Universal has more than two dozen pilots in the works, Thayer said, among them sitcoms against series commitments from producers Earl Pomerantz and Rick Hawkins as well as an ABC western being developed by Wolf.
The studio now has seven series on the air plus five midseason orders, among them “Crime & Punishment,””South Beach,””Johnny Bago,” ABC comedy “Home Free” (starring Matthew Perry and Diana Canova) and a seven-episode Fox commitment on “Danger Theatre”–a one-hour action series featuring three 20-minute segments–exec produced by Robert Wolterstorff and director Penelope Spheeris.
“Home Free” comes from producer Tim O’Donnell, who was among those to sign at Paramount but remains grandfathered in producing the show. “Danger” was initially developed by Wolterstorff with the producer team of Jeff Reno and Ron Osborn, who subsequently left for Par as well.