'Superstar' to kick off co-venture

NBC and Paramount Pictures are close to finalizing a deal to co-finance feature films produced by “Saturday Night Live” exec producer Lorne Michaels.

The first project to fall under the new co-venture — tentatively dubbed Saturday Night Live Films — will be the low-budget comedy “Superstar.” The pic stars “SNL” cast member Molly Shannon as nerdy Catholic girl Mary Katherine Gallagher, a character she originated on the show (Daily Variety, June 25).

NBC for years has been licensing rights to “SNL” characters and sketches, which formed the basis of such films as “Wayne’s World” and “Coneheads.” Now, the network has come up with a way to share both the risks and the potential rewards of spinoff features.

Additionally, because the Peacock web is one of two broadcast networks not owned by a Hollywood studio, it has a tougher time getting access to feature films. NBC believes that owning and co-producing films is one way to better control its programming destiny.

For Paramount, the arrangement fits perfectly into the studio’s avowed goal of seeking financial partners on virtually every production, in order to offset the risks inherent in the feature film business.

Michaels until recently had a first-look feature production deal at Paramount under his Broadway Video banner. The company’s most recent production was the SNL spinoff “A Night at the Roxbury,” which Par will release this fall.

Under terms of the new deal, NBC and Par will share the production costs on films, which initially will be based solely on “SNL” characters, but eventually could encompass unrelated projects as well. Par will handle all marketing and distribution, except for broadcast TV, while NBC will promote the film on-air and get network rights.

Sources said NBC shopped the SNL Films idea to several studios before getting into negotiations with Par, which has produced most of Michaels’ films in the past. NBC and Par declined to comment on the deal.

The motion picture deal would be a natural extension of NBC Enterprises’ partnership with SNL creator Michaels, which resulted in the creation of SNL Studios last July.

The strategy fits with NBC’s attempts to beef up its TV production and series ownership at NBC Studios, which also is a defensive move to keep up with vertically integrated competitors such as Disney-ABC and News Corp.’s Fox.

But while SNL Films gives NBC a natural entree into the film biz, there are no guarantees of success. Forgettable flops such as “It’s Pat” (which grossed $90,000 domestically) and “Stuart Saves His Family” ($912,000), are at least as common as surprise hits like “Wayne’s World” ($121.7 million).

Historically, networks have reaped few rewards from their efforts in the motion picture arena. ABC and CBS both created theatrical production divisions years ago, but neither had great success and the film ventures were eventually shuttered.

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