A-list will fuel UPN dramas

Net expands studio contacts

UPN Entertainment prexy Dawn Ostroff is making good on promises to up the talent quotient her at weblet, signing pilot development deals with Joel Silver, Wes Craven, Mel Gibson, Danny DeVito, Brian Grazer, John Milius, Mike Newell and several other A-list producers and scribes.

Net is also expanding its contacts with studio outlets not associated with UPN owner Viacom. Projects are in the works with 20th Century Fox TV, Warner Bros. TV, New Line Television, Miramax and Sony-based Jersey TV.

For years, netlet was frequently the last stop on the pitch circuit, with producers often coming to UPN only after other outlets had passed. But with the acquisition of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” as well as Viacom’s decision to put UPN under the control of CBS supremo Leslie Moonves, studios and scribes seem to be giving UPN a second look.

While 20th Century Fox TV prexy Dana Walden emphasizes she had a positive experience working with ex-UPN topper Dean Valentine on “Buffy,” she said the combination of Moonves and Ostroff has taken the net to a new level.

“Les and Dawn together are a very formidable team,” Walden said. “They’re two executives who understand the creative community, who know how to brand a network and get the language that makes writers and producers feel that UPN will be a caring, nurturing home for their project.”

It helps that the net is also hungry for new drama hits.

Despite some good critical notices, frosh hour “Haunted” flopped, while Wednesday anthology skein “The Twilight Zone” is still struggling to find an aud.

What’s more, this year could very well be the last for “Buffy.” UPN’s two-year deal for the skein is up in May, and while a spinoff or sequel has been buzzed about, there’s also a chance financial considerations could close the book on the “Slayer” chronicles.

Overall, UPN’s Nielsen numbers are off sharply vs. year-ago levels, when it was basking in the glow of the “Buffy” and “Enterprise” premieres. Net has pulled even to where it ranked during the May sweeps, however; last week, it posted gains vs. 2001 averages.

With UPN’s Monday comedies clicking, drama is clearly a priority at the net. Industry insiders said the web will likely end up with just north of 25 hourlong scripts and will probably produce between six to eight pilots. That’s nearly double the number of pilots the net ordered last year.

Ostroff declined to comment for this story, citing the web’s blanket policy against talking on the record about development.

But UPN execs have made no secret of their plans to use the goodwill earned by Moonves at CBS and Ostroff in her previous gig at Lifetime to bring a different level of talent to UPN. Strategy already seems to be paying dividends.

“If a writer comes to us and pitches a project that is clearly a home run for UPN, we have no problem pitching it there,” Walden said. In the past, studios might have felt uncomfortable bringing a project to the net.

Buoyed by the success of the urban-based Monday comedy block, UPN also seems to be looking to feature multiethnic casts and producers for its drama projects. Even in cases where a minority character isn’t the lead, it’s expected overall casting will be more diverse than on many Big Four shows as part of an effort to reach out to auds being underserved.

Another goal, UPN insiders have said, is to go for concepts that will easily grab viewer attention.

A case in point: “Newton,” an hourlong drama from exec producer Joel Silver (“The Matrix”) that at first seems to be about a simple American family living in the suburbs. Instead, the family will end up living in what’s essentially a testing ground for strange, beyond-state-of-the-art inventions.

UPN execs no doubt hope to get viewers interested by focusing on the heightened reality at the core of Warner Bros. TV’s “Newton,” which comes from scribes Craig Silverstein (“The Dead Zone”) and David Nadelberg.

Here’s a look at several other drama projects in the works at UPN for fall 2003:

  • “Kamelot”: Wes Craven and Marianne Maddelena (“Scream”) are producing this Miramax TV hour in which King Arthur is resurrected as a hip revolutionary who reigns supreme in a Camelot-like future society. Ron Milbauer and Terri Hughes, the scribe team behind the 1999 feature “Idle Hands,” are scripting.

  • “3 Card Monte”: Gibson and Bruce Davey have teamed with Big Ticket Television for an hour dramedy about con artists who scam folks who deserve to be scammed. Adi Hasak is writing the project, to be produced in association with Gibson’s Icon shingle.

  • “Orderlies”: A drama from scribe-exec producers Josh Pate and Jonah Pate (“Good vs. Evil”) about twentysomething Bonnie and Clyde types who battle corporate America on behalf of the little guy. Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and David Nevins are exec producing for Imagine TV and 20th.

  • “Blur”: Ex-con and his brother team with Las Vegas Metro Police to infiltrate the criminal underworld in Sin City. DeVito, Stacy Sher, Michael Shamberg and John Landgraf are exec producing for Jersey TV in association with Sony.

  • “XXX” scribe Rich Wilkes is writing and co-exec producing an untitled hour about a former con man who ends up the inhouse detective at a Hard Rock-like casino in Vegas. Neil Moritz and Marty Adelstein are exec producing with Dawn Parouse via their 20th-based Original banner.

  • “Delta”: Milius is penning and exec producing a show about the military special ops team that joins forces with the CIA to thwart terrorists of all stripes. Newell (“Donnie Brasco”) is exec producing with Cam Jones and Gus Gustawes for New Line Television.

  • 20th-based producer Scott Vila has set up a pair of projects at UPN: “The Edge” and “707 Park.”

    Former pilot script is from scribe Matt Carnahan (“Fastlane”) and revolves around two FBI academy grads and an undercover agent working to solve crimes in a beach town on the U.S.-Mexico border. “707 Park,” from scribe Stephen Tolkin (“Kate Brasher”), is a family drama about an interracial couple who blend their two broods together.

  • “Outside Chance”: A show-within-a-show set within the confines of a fictional crime-based reality skein. Michael Gans (MTV’s “Spy TV”) and Richard Register. Greer Shepard (“Popular”) and Michael Robin (“NYPD Blue”) are exec producing via their overall at WBTV.

  • Former UPN Entertainment topper Tom Nunan is returning to the net as a producer, teaming with scribe Brandon Boyce (“Apt Pupil”) for “Title 21.” Skein, from Paramount Network TV, will focus on undercover DEA agents working in Los Angeles.