It looks so easy, making moderately priced comedies like “Napoleon Dynamite,” “The Pacifier,” “Mean Girls” “School of Rock” and “Sideways.”
But as anyone who’s tried will assert, producing comedies is a tricky business, with the occasional crash-and-burn like “A Lot Like Love,” “The Wedding Date” and “The Honeymooners.”
Studio execs often view comedies as a poor alternative to the steady stream of tentpoles and action films.
So it’s a bit surprising that the latest foray into comedy features comes from sitcom queen and king Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, among the most successful indie producers in TV comedy with their Carsey-Werner shingle — usually valued in the $1 billion range, thanks largely to syndication revenues.
Think “Roseanne,” “The Cosby Show,” “Third Rock From the Sun,” “Grace Under Fire,” “A Different World” and “That ’70s Show,” which has been picked up by Fox for an eighth season.
The TV successes have given Carsey-Werner a freer hand in film than most startups. Rather than set things up at a studio, they’ve gone into their own deep pockets to fully finance “You Are Going to Prison,” 2½ years after launching their film banner. They’re partnered with producer Marc Abraham and recently completed a two-month shoot at Joliet Prison in Illinois.
There’s no distributor onboard yet; Paramount, where CW Films has a first-look deal, passed prior to production starting.
“We surprised ourselves by spending our own money,” Carsey admits. “It’s either going to be a brilliant move or not.”
The shingle, originally dubbed CWM Films to include the since-departed Caryn Mandabach, was formed in late 2002 to co-produce comedies with Paramount via split financing.
The basic business model hasn’t changed — develop character-driven comedies in the midprice range, starring up-and-comers rather than A-listers.
In this case, they picked a script (by Robert Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon and Michael Patrick Jann) that had near-legendary stature as one of the town’s best unproduced projects, then opted for Dax Shepherd (“Without a Paddle”) and Will Arnett (“Arrested Development”) for the leads and selected veteran TV writer-performer Bob Odenkirk as director.
Carsey says working for more than two decades in TV has taught her how to move quickly.
“As an independent producer, you are always adjusting your business model depending on what’s going on — so there may be times you find yourself staying very lean and scaling down in one area and expanding in others.”
Should “You Are Going to Prison” not succeed, CW Films plans to press on. Its other projects in development, under prexy Matt Berenson:
- “Brother Solomon,” penned by Will Forte of “Saturday Night Live.” Plot details are being kept under wraps.
- A comedy about the professional miniature golf tour, based on a pitch by Bobby Newmyer and Scott Strauss at Outlaw Prods.
For his part, Werner’s well aware that long shots can come in, due to his partial ownership of the Boston Red Sox, who won their first World Series in 86 years last fall.
“There’s already a buzz about ‘You Are Going to Prison,’ and we believe there’s going to be a lot of interest once we take it out,” he says.
CW’s decision to greenlight its own film is also intriguing, given that it comes at a time when Paramount is going through a not-dissimilar transition, with new top execs Brad Grey and Gail Berman: They, too, made their bones in the TV world and are attempting to re-invent Paramount as a studio that’s more nimble and in tune with a core young audience.
“What we’re about is bringing a TV mentality — moving quickly once you have a clear idea — into the film world,” Carsey notes. “So I think that what Brad and Gail are doing is fabulous.”