Feature talent flocks to webs

Scribes pitching more TV projects

Feature film writers are flocking to network TV like never before.

Just weeks after the broadcast webs and studios began taking script pitches for the 1999-2000 season, an unprecedented number of film writers are trying to create series for the small screen. Networks and studios, anxious to find fresh voices, appear to be lapping them up.

The WB netlet is leading the pack and capitalizing on the heat it has received for feature vets Kevin Williamson’s “Dawson’s Creek” and Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” The WB already has inked a half dozen script deals with writers from feature backgrounds.

“The feature business is controlled by directors, but the writer is king at the WB,” said Jordan Levin, senior vice president of programming at the WB. “We’ve been very fortunate to have very fresh talent from the feature business interested in expressing their unique voices to our audience, which demands a cinematic styling. Our audience speaks to their sensibility because the 12- to 34-year-olds are moviegoers, and film writers don’t have to adjust their voices here to succeed.”

Randi Singer, who wrote the film “Mrs. Doubtfire,” is working with former Sony chief Mark Canton at Warner Bros. TV to develop a new drama for the WB. The netlet also is developing a drama with author Lorenzo Carcaterra, who penned the book and film “Sleepers.”

Indie filmmaker Tommy O’Haver, who wrote “Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss,” is creating a half-hour series at the WB.

Marlene King (“Now and Then”) is crafting a single-camera comedy about two teenage girlfriends from opposite sides of the track, while Terri Hughes and Ron Milbauer (“Idle Hands”) are penning a half-hour series about two competitive brothers in high school. Also working on a single-camera comedy at the WB is Carol Heikkinen (“Empire Records”).

Cost spike

The WB isn’t the only network looking outside TV for new ideas. NBC and ABC are both anxious to get their hands on feature talent, but all of this interest is driving up costs.

NBC, for instance, is expected to pay a pricey $750,000 for a spec script from Don Roos, who wrote and directed this summer’s “The Opposite of Sex” and penned screenplays for “Boys on the Side,” “Diabolique” and “Single White Female.”

“Clearly there’s been a bit of a frenzy as the TV business tries to get talent from the feature film world,” said Sandy Grushow, president of 20th Century Fox TV, which last week signed a deal with Jersey Films to create a TV division at the studio. “There isn’t a sufficient pool of talent in TV to go around any longer.”

Aside from writers, feature directors, actors and producers are also turning to TV. Venerable TV producer Aaron Spelling, for instance, is developing series from some respected feature directors, as well as screenwriters. “I know it’s the thing to do, this year more than ever,” Spelling said.

Joel Schumacher, who directed such films as “Batman & Robin” and also co-wrote and directed “St. Elmo’s Fire,” is working with author Scott Turow (“Presumed Innocent”) to create a new drama series for Spelling TV.

Spelling also has deals with Eric Roth, who wrote “The Horse Whisperer” and “Forrest Gump”; Andrea King, who wrote the film “Still Life”; Jonathan Mostow, who wrote and directed “Breakdown” and executive produced “The Game”; and Roger Avary (“Pulp Fiction”), who is developing a series at NBC.

Development deals

It’s still very early in the development season, and dozens of other feature film writers are just starting to meet with the networks about creating TV series. Among those interested are film legends such as Oscar-nominated director Sidney Lumet, who helmed “Serpico,” “The Pawnbroker,” “Network” and “Dog Day Afternoon.”

Also pitching series are such filmmakers as John Milius (“Rough Riders,” “Apocalypse Now”), F. Gary Gray (“The Negotiator,” “Set it Off”), Ben Ramsey (“The Big Hit”), Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (“The Mask of Zorro,”), Jim Abrahams (“The Naked Gun”), Allison Anders (“Gas, Food Lodging”), Jake Kasdan (“Zero Effect”), Tom Shadyac (“Liar Liar”), Tony Puryear (“Eraser”) and Neal Moritz (“I Know What You Did Last Summer”).

Michael Bay, the director of “Armageddon” is mulling a TV series at Disney as well.

“I’ll give you seven reasons why people want to do it: ‘ER,’ ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer,’ ‘Dawson’s Creek,’ ‘L.A. Doctors,’ ‘Sports Night,’ ‘Homicide’ and ‘Felicity,’ ” said Chris Silbermann, an agent at Broder, Kurland, Webb, Uffner, who helped package CBS’ “L.A. Doctors,” executive produced by Mark Johnson and written by John Lee Hancock.

(The WB’s “Felicity,’ which debuts this fall, is from feature writers J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves, and ABC’s upcoming “Sports Night” is from screenwriter Aaron Sorkin.)

While several action writers and directors are in the TV mix, networks appear most interested in young, hot indie feature writers who can develop characters compatible with TV.

“It’s a mistake to identify writers who have written big action movies that can’t translate to the small screen,” Grushow said.

Silbermann also warns that the challenge in using film talent in TV is finding a way for people with great one-shot ideas and characters to be paired with someone who knows the rigors of sustaining a weekly TV series.

“At the end of the day, someone has to execute the TV show,” Silbermann said. “Not everyone can do it. The pilot may come out great, but who runs the show after that?”

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