ABC develops drama about iconic airline

Legendary airline Pan Am is once again taking to the air, via a pilot commitment at ABC.

ABC is developing a 1960s-set drama circling the pilots and flight attendants who once made Pan Am the most glamorous way to fly.

Sony Pictures TV is behind the project, with “ER” alum Jack Orman attached to write and “The West Wing’s” Thomas Schlamme on board to direct. Idea for the project came from producer Nancy Ganis, who was a Pan Am flight attendant 30 years ago.

Project reps one of two major commitments made at the end of last week by new ABC Entertainment prexy Paul Lee and his team. The Alphabet also landed Rene Echevarria’s smallscreen take on the 1994 James Cameron feature “True Lies.”

In the case of “Pan Am,” Sony Pictures TV production president Zack Van Amburg said the idea came from a meeting he and fellow prexy, Jamie Erlicht, had with Ganis and her husband/production partner Sid Ganis.

When Nancy Ganis began spinning tales of historically relevant intrigue, sex and what it meant to be a flight attendant in the go-go days of flight travel, Van Amburg and Erlicht latched on to the idea.

“These were the world’s ambassadors,” Van Amburg said. “They were really interesting women at a time when a lot of things were happening, particularly for women in this country… and in terms for what Pan Am did for exporting American culture and importing the world, think about all the visuals of the Beatles landing at JFK on Pan Am.”

“Pan Am” will take place in the mid-1960s — the same era that Emmy-winning drama “Mad Men” chronicles. Without dwelling too much on that show, Van Amburg admitted that the critical acclaim behind “Mad Men” likely made it easier to pitch a period piece like this one.

“Absolutely ‘Mad Men’ made the period more acceptable,” he said. “It’s a template for that period. But I don’t think we’d go out and imitate what ‘Mad Men’ does.”

Before pitching the show, however, Sony and Ganis had to secure the rights to the Pan Am brand — which wasn’t easy.

The intellectual property for Pan Am (full name: Pan American World Airways) is owned by the privately-held Pan Am Systems, which is run by Mellon banking heir Timothy Mellon, as well as David Fink and son David A. Fink, among others.

The original Pan Am filed for bankruptcy and shut down in 1991; however, the name has been licensed to other small airlines since then. No plane has flown under the Pan Am name since 2008, however.

More recently, the Pan Am name and logo were used by designer Marc Jacobs for a line of hugely successful handbags and accessories.

Sony and Ganis had to wait until Jacobs’ license to use the Pan Am name and logo expired before moving forward. The rights have now been fully licensed for the show, Van Amburg said.

“Nancy worked long and hard to convince them that TV was the next flight for Pan Am to take,” he said.

Although he has no confirmation of this, Van Amburg said Pan Am’s owners may see the TV show as an opportunity to relaunch the brand — perhaps once again via flight.

“But that’s all secondary to planning to make a great TV show,” said Van Amburg, who noted that Schlamme “got the visual architecture of the show as well as the narrative.”

“Tommy sees this as an incredibly patriotic show,” Van Amburg said. “Jet travel was part of the exporting of American culture.”

And in bringing on Orman, who wrote the “Matadors” pilot last season for Sony (where he now has an overall deal), Van Amburg said the scribe “got the possibilities of what ‘Pan Am’ could be and elevated all those anecdotes.”

An excited Van Amburg, who called “Pan Am” “the most viable drama I’ve heard of or seen in a long time,” said the show received interest from multiple networks but that ABC’s Lee “moved mountains to make it happen.”

As imagined by Orman and Schlamme, along with Nancy and Sid Ganis, “Pan Am” will focus on the flight attendants and their underlying secrets. One of the characters, for example, is recruited by the State Dept. into espionage — something that actually happened in real life. Another character may hail from France.

Van Amburg said there’s also a bit of wish fulfillment and an aspirational quality to “Pan Am,” given how today’s air travel is seen as pretty miserable by most travelers. In the 1960s, jet travel was still considered exotic, and something people dreamed of experiencing.

“Pan Am” will be based in New York, where the airline had a major hub. Show will also regularly use Miami and foreign cities as settings. Orman, Schlamme and Nancy Ganis are all exec producers, while Sid Ganis is co-exec producer.

Sony, meanwhile, already has another major commitment at ABC, a rework of “Charlie’s Angels.”

“Charlie’s Angels” is about to head into casting; Van Amburg said Lee has also been heavily involved with that project since joining the network.

Also at Sony, the studio landed a big production commitment from NBC for a new police procedural from Ron Moore (“Battlestar Galactica”). Moore, who is based at Sony under an overall deal, has come up with a drama set in a world ruled by magic instead of science.

“It’s a Ron Moore-created world unlike one you’ve ever seen,” he said.

And at Fox, the studio landed a commitment for “Rescue Me” exec producer Peter Tolan’s next project, a take on the book “The Council of Dads.”

“We’ve spread our bets across multiple networks, and our A-level creators are yielding A-level commitments,” Van Amburg said. “We’re feeling bullish where the network business is right now.”

As for “True Lies,” that project puts ABC back into the spy game (where it previously found success with shows like “Alias”). Project, which comes with a penalty, is from 20th Century Fox TV. Echevarria will serve as showrunner.

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more