Although “Saturday Night Live” is undergoing a radical overhaul of writers and cast, odds are it can’t be revived to past luster. Despite that, the high rollers in Vegas were willing to bet big on “SNL.” The show was set to serve as the cornerstone of a theme restaurant at Kirk Kerkorian’s new $400 million conceptual casino hotel, New York-New York, which is under construction for a fall 1996 opening.
But while “Saturday Night” might be live from New York, it’s dead in Vegas, after NBC killed a deal that would have made the network and exec producer Lorne Michaels millions of bucks for doing nothing. Many feel it’s the result of an increasingly tenuous relationship between a network and its former golden boy, Michaels. NBC feels he’s spending far too much time exploiting “SNL” while not paying enough attention to the show itself. The situation has been building for several seasons as the show has declined.
The Saturday Night Live Cafe was the brainstorm of entrepreneur Mark Advent and Sig Rogich, a Vegas power player who headed the Ronald Reagan presidential campaign’s “Tuesday Team” and was a campaign director for George Bush.
Advent got Michaels jazzed about a cafe that would highlight the 20-year history of “Saturday Night Live.” They pitched Kerkorian, MGM and Gary Primm of Primadonna Resorts, all of whom were so taken by the concept that they decided to make Gotham the theme for the entire resort. New York-New York will come complete with replicas of the skyline, the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge and Coney Island, with an actual ferris wheel and a Cyclone roller coaster. The SNL Cafe plans were just as ambitious. Located at the base of the casino at the heart of the Strip, the cafe was to be surrounded by a replica of Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall, and modeled after the “SNL” set, with shrines to the Coneheads, Wayne’s World, Church Lady, Blues Brothers and other venerable skits. There was to be an Olympic Grill, home of the John Belushi-Dan Aykroyd “cheeseburger, cheeseburger” sketch; a Samurai Deli in honor of Belushi; and Nick’s Lounge, adapted from the skit where Murray crooned as a lounge singer.
In addition to food and drink, the cafe would have featured live comedians, live satellite feeds of “SNL” broadcasts, original sketches and TV monitors showing classic “SNL” sketches. The second floor would have been an upscale formal restaurant with a terrace overlooking the main stage below, modeled after “home base,” the stage on which hosts deliver their monologues.
They also were working with George Lucas’ ILM to create a theme park-caliber taxicab ride through the streets of New York.
Cafe construction costs were $15 million. Michaels and NBC weren’t supposed to contribute any of the money, but they were to get millions of dollars in licensing fees as well as 5% of gross revenues from food and beverage sales and 9% of gross revenues on merchandise, along with the potential to roll out the cafes to other cities, along the lines of Planet Hollywood. The Universal Studios Florida theme park was first in line.
NBC and Michaels initially would have been paid $3 million, and would have netted an estimated $3 million per year for doing nothing but granting the licenses. NBC then negotiated a side payment for an “administrative fee” of $8 million, which the developers were ready to pay. A conservative projection of total revenues for the cafe was $35 million annually. “There was so much money, tens of millions of dollars, that those two would have shared, just by saying yes,” said a source.
Michaels certainly was game: He has made millions merchandising the show into movies and memorabilia, with NBC generally giving its approval and getting 30% of the take.
But NBC, with prexy of NBC Enterprises and NBC Prods. John Agoglia negotiating, ultimately just said no.
Advent and Rogich then forfeited what many consider to be the prime space in Vegas because they suddenly had no licensing agreement. Litigation might well follow, as the pair spent more than $1 million prepping the concept with Michaels and NBC.
Advent confirmed the entire casino concept was born out of the “SNL” idea, but wouldn’t comment on whether there’d be legal papers. He didn’t hide his disappointment: “I firmly believed we had a deal and was terribly disappointed at the 12th hour to have the deal squashed by NBC.”
Asked why the deal caved, he said, “Sometimes it’s hard to mediate what some might view as a very bad marriage,” referring to the increasingly frosty relations between Michaels and NBC. “I got caught in the middle of that. At the same time, I have high regard for Lorne and his executive team, as well as John Agoglia, and I’d like to believe we could resurrect this concept.”
Unless relations thaw between NBC and Michaels in their attempts to get the latenight show back on track, that seems unlikely. Sources say the network is trying to get Michaels to steer away from side deals and concentrate specifically on reviving the show. The web also sacked a proposed pic based on the “Da Bears” skit about rib-chewing, beer-swilling Windy City windbags who love the Chicago Bears and Mike Ditka.
Given the feature flops “Stuart Smalley Saves His Family,” “The Coneheads” and “It’s Pat,” NBC might be smart to put the brakes on “SNL” films.
But Advent feels the Vegas venture could have helped “SNL” by showcasing the good old days. A spokesman for Michaels’ company, Broadway Video, summed it up this way: “It was an interesting opportunity that had merit, creativity and probably a future to expand upon. But NBC turned it down.”
A spokesman for Agoglia said he feels the talks are not dead.