Slate includes sci-fi, drama, Western

A one-hour sci-fi series from David Lynch (“Twin Peaks”) and Neil Gaimon (“The Sandman”) and an hourlong superhero drama from “Spider-Man” creator Stan Lee are among the projects Imagine TV is developing for the 1999-2000 season.

The company’s development slate also includes the previously announced contemporary Western drama from Larry McMurtry (“Lonesome Dove”) and his partner, Diana Ossana.

With the new projects plus a healthy stable of new series debuting this fall and midseason, Imagine — which is the principal supplier of film product for Universal — is promising to become one of the major TV suppliers for U’s cross-town rival, Disney.

One year after reopening its TV division and hiring CAA packaging agent Tony Krantz as partner-CEO of Imagine TV, the company has orders from four webs for series, and three of Disney’s five new shows for next season are co-productions with Imagine.

With the U film deal and the TV deal at Disney both set to expire in the next 18 months, get ready for a pricey battle to retain or steal the services of the company run by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer.

While Imagine is focusing mainly on film and TV, the company partners’ ambitious vision is to break into areas such as music, sports and electronic shopping. Imagine is exploring a potential bid for the Continental Basketball Assn. (CBA), although the idea is a long shot for now.

Despite the current heat, Imagine has run into a few snags of late. Even with a 13-episode commitment from NBC, prospects for the Paul Reubens (better known as Pee-Wee Herman) variety show remain murky.

Imagine couldn’t get a solid script ready in time for the fall, so the ambitious project was delayed until midseason. Just weeks ago, Disney decided not to deficit-finance the show. Imagine’s deal allows the company to shop it to other studios, but so far, Reubens hasn’t found a new home.

Another headache: One of Krantz’s two main TV development execs, director Sally DeSipio, abruptly left the company recently after what one source called a “personality clash” with him.

Still, most indies only dream of being in a position to dominate the film slate of one studio and the TV slate of another.

Imagine has five feature pics on the U release sked in calendar year ’98-’99, including the Gus Van Sant-directed remake of “Psycho,” Howard’s “Ed TV,” the Eddie Murphy/Martin Lawrence starrer “Life” and the Murphy/Steve Martin starrer “Bofinger,” all of which U expects to generate top-dollar revenue.

“There are very few independent production companies that are in our position,” says Krantz, who joined Grazer in sitting down with Daily Variety last week to talk about Imagine.

“We’re open to the highest bidder,” Grazer joked.

Hopeful of renewal

Casey Silver, chairman of Universal Pictures, hopes U will step up and renew the overall deal with Imagine.

“I’m hopeful that we’ll all choose each other again,” Silver says. “We’ve had a good, long and successful run together.”

Joe Roth, chairman of Disney, wasn’t available for comment. But Mouse insiders say Roth may have initially made the estimated $10 million to $15 million TV deal for Imagine with an eye toward bringing over the film division at some point, too. The Imagine principals worked with Disney on the Mel Gibson pic “Ransom,” which grossed more than $300 million worldwide.

Triumphant return

What a difference five years makes. Not long ago, Imagine was recovering from a disastrous six-year run as a public company, which ended early in 1993 after Grazer and Howard spent millions and borrowed heavily from Universal to personally orchestrate a company buyout.

Imagine’s TV division went belly-up after flops such as the TV version of the hit movie “Parenthood” and “My Talk Show,” which together lost about $10 million.

The company had run up costly overhead expenses after its initial public offering, orchestrated by Wall Streeter Herb Allen. Grazer said he and Howard spent $23.5 million in the buyback to avoid embarrassment. “We didn’t want to be written about in a negative way,” he says.

Today, Imagine’s film division is so successful — racking up grosses of more than $3 billion with 38 pics such as “Apollo 13″ and “The Nutty Professor” — that Grazer recently was rumored to be courted for an exec post overseeing U. Grazer adamantly denies he would ever accept such a position.

And even if Disney’s ultimate motivation is to get Imagine’s film business, the company is already demonstrating tremendous potential to be a serious player in TV.

Unorthodox execs

Imagine sports one of the most unorthodox exec corps in Hollywood. Grazer, with spiked hair and an insouciant attitude, and Howard, living in Greenwich, Conn., keep the industry ever-confused as to their plans. Krantz, an avid art collector who was at CAA in its heyday Ovitz years, is described by one colleague as “a pit bull.”

Some liken Grazer to Howard’s “dark side.”

“Plausible deniability — that’s what Brian Grazer does for Ron Howard,” says one industry titan. “Ron can run this gigantically profitable company and never have to run the day to day, never have to take the responsibility.”

The TV deal is structured so that Disney deficit-finances the projects, owns the copyrights and gets distribution rights, while Imagine gets nearly total creative freedom and a hefty chunk of any backend profits.

Just one year after the TV division was formed, Imagine got more shows picked up for next season than some far more established TV companies, and its diverse collection of series is generating buzz.

Picking spots

Unlike the major studios, Imagine also did it without forking over millions to sign writers to development deals.

“We’re not in the overall-deal business,” Krantz said. “It’s expensive, and we’re not in the quantity business. We pick and choose our spots.”

Media buyers consider “Felicity,” Imagine/Touchstone TV’s coming-of-age drama for the WB network, to be one of the most promising new series for next season. Fox’s midseason “foamation” comedy, “The PJs,” which stars the voice of Eddie Murphy as the superintendent of inner-city housing projects, is the first animated series of its kind.

ABC’s “Sports Night” is a unconventional and realistic comedy about a fictional sports channel and its nightly newscast. Then there’s the variety show with Reubens. Overall, not your typical TV fare.

Aside from originality, the strength of Krantz’s personality, his vision and persistence are frequently cited as reasons for Imagine TV’s strength in getting its shows on the air.

Krantz has been described by one exec as a person who “ruffles feathers.”

“He operates outside the box, forsaking conventional wisdom” according to Lloyd Braun, chairman of Buena Vista TV Prods. “Combine that with unlimited drive, smarts and an unwillingness to take no for an answer and you have a pretty potent force.”

Of course, there’s a big difference between selling interesting pilots and actually delivering consistently solid series that catch on with the public. “We were successful selling shows, but we haven’t made them succeed yet,” Krantz said.

Many of Imagine’s ideas are so unusual that the projects are inherently risky. Also ticklish is Imagine’s strategy of turning to film talent such as Murphy on the “PJs,” Aaron Sorkin (“The American President,” “A Few Good Men”) on “Sports Night” and J.J. Abrams (“Armageddon”) and Matt Reeves (“The Pallbearer”) on “Felicity.” It remains to be seen whether they will be able to adapt to the rigors of weekly series TV.

The one Imagine series that’s aired so far, the sitcom “Hiller & Diller,” was canceled by ABC after less than a full season.

That misstep aside, the current buzz surrounding Imagine’s TV division is a new phenomenon for Grazer and Howard.

“I failed in TV, and I could feel I’d fail more,” Grazer says of his early days as a TV writer before he paired with Howard in the film biz. “Ron and I then took ad hoc shots at TV, but ‘Parenthood’ pushed us out. We were so disillusioned by how the process of TV worked.”

When Howard and Grazer decided to jump back into TV last year, they approached U, whose execs were divided over the wisdom of such a move. Disney’s Roth, on the other hand, courted Imagine and made a generous financial offer, which ultimately led to the current split studio arrangement.

It’s unclear whether Imagine will want (or be able) to keep the present situation intact. Imagine clearly has loyalty to Universal for bailing them out of the public debacle of the early 1990s. U no longer has a TV division after selling the assets to Barry Diller, and so it isn’t likely to want to steal Disney’s TV deal with Imagine.

Disney, on the other hand, is poised to pounce. “Joe (Roth) would like to be in business with them in every way he could,” says one Disney exec.

Krantz believes there is no reason the current two-studio model couldn’t continue. “We have the ideal situation with Disney,” he says. “With ‘The PJs,’ if it’s a success, we have the full Disney company, the merchandising and marketing machine, geared up to take advantage of the show.”

From a negotiating standpoint, having at least two serious bidders may serve to give them more leverage to achieve their larger goals.

“My dream would be to have film and TV in a unified family, possibly with a music company — a multimedia company that’s independently standing,” Grazer said. “Our other main goal is to have the copyrights revert to us.”

Imagine has no DreamWorks-type ambitions to be the next studio behemoth, though. “I think there’s a limit to how much one company can properly do,” Krantz said. “The problem with the studio system is that it’s about feeding the monster, not doing the show. A smallish size is better for quality.”

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