U’s big task: Bringing ‘Tower’ to screens

Studio's daunting pact calls for 3 films, TV series

Universal’s getting deeply into Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower,” announcing an ambitious — and daunting — plan to produce three films and a TV series based on Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower.”

Studio made the announcement Wednesday, five months after talks began among King, Akiva Goldsman’s Weed Road and Brian Grazer and Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment. Aside from disclosing that Howard will direct the first film from a script that Goldsman’s writing, the studio did not reveal any dates for “Tower” to come to life.

Seven-book series is set in an alternate world resembling the Old West and focuses on the last member of an ancient order of “gunslingers” and his quest toward a tower that’s also the center of all universes. The first book, “The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger” was published in 1982; the final book, “The Dark Tower VII,” was published in 2004.

Plans are for the film’s release to be immediately followed by a TV series for NBC that will “bridge” the second film. After the second film, the series will resume with the adventures of the protagonist as a young man as a bridge to the third film.

But NBC and Universal were vague on development specifics. A TV project can’t get rolling until a firm release plan is in place for the first “Dark Tower” feature — which means the Peacock series wouldn’t likely hit the screen until 2012 at the earliest.

For now, NBC has ordered a script for the smallscreen version of “Dark Tower,” with a penalty attached if a series isn’t ordered.

Studios rarely attempt to simultaneously produce a franchise for both TV and film, fearing that resources might be spread too thin. Most notable attempt in recent times came in the late 1990s, when “The X-Files” bridged two of its TV seasons with a feature.

More recently, Kiefer Sutherland and the team behind “24” waited until after that show’s finale before starting active work on a feature version.

“Sex and the City” also wrapped its TV version before moving to pics. Notion of simultaneously using a franchise in both TV and film has been particularly successful with Paramount’s “Star Trek.”

U likely hopes that this plan turns out better than its big plans for “Van Helsing.” In 2003, NBC and U — which were about to merge — had such high hopes for the feature that the net and studio immediately put a TV spinoff into development.

But NBC eventually soured on the project, titled “Transylvania.” As a feature, “Van Helsing,” ultimately flopped — and the first major attempt at synergy between new siblings NBC and U fell flat.

At least in the case of “The Dark Tower,” NBC and Universal are relying on a company — Imagine — with a strong track record in bridging the gap between film and TV. Imagine TV has two series on the air that are adaptations of movie franchises — DirecTV’s “Friday Night Lights” and NBC’s “Parenthood.”

Source material, of course, also comes from a man who has found much success (and admittedly, a few failures) on both the big and small screens.

King’s recent TV credits include Syfy’s “Haven,” based on his short novel “The Colorado Kid,” as well as the telepic “Stephen King’s Desperation” and the series “Kingdom Hospital” at ABC.

“Building a franchise home for ‘The Dark Tower’ is an exciting opportunity for this studio, and we’re thrilled that Stephen has entrusted us to bring his beloved novels to the big screen,” said Universal Pictures chairman Adam Fogelson. Howard admitted in a statement that making “The Dark Tower” in both realms is “the challenge of a lifetime.”

“We are excited to have found partners at Universal who understand and embrace our approach to King’s remarkable epic,” said Howard. “By using both the scope and scale of theatrical filmmaking and the intimacy of television we hope to more comprehensively do justice to the characters, themes and amazing sequences King has given us in ‘The Dark Tower’ novels.”

Howard will direct the first film and the first season of the TV series. Goldsman will produce the film through Weed Road with Howard and Grazer for Imagine.

Howard, Grazer and Goldsman will exec produce the TV series for Universal Media Studios. Kerry Foster will exec produce the first film for Weed Road along with Todd Hallowell and Erica Huggins for Imagine.

“I’ve been waiting for the right team to bring the characters and stories in these books to film and TV viewers around the world,” said King in a statement. “Ron, Akiva, Brian along with Universal and NBC have a deep interest and passion for the The Dark Tower series and I know that will translate into an intriguing series of films and TV shows that respect the origins and the characters in The Dark Tower that fans have come to love.”

Howard’s most recent directing gigs have been “Frost/Nixon,” “Angels & Demons” and the upcoming comedy-drama “The Dilemma,” which is in post-production and set for a Jan. 14 release from Universal. He’s attached to several other projects but none of those have been greenlit.