“The Goonies’ never say die” is a memorable catchphrase from that fan favorite 1980s film. But it could also describe Warner Bros. TV’s recent strategic efforts to keep some of its series alive through crafty dealmaking.
And that, coincidentally, includes “The Goonies”-inspired “Untitled Film Re-Enactment Project” that had been adapted by writer Sarah Watson into a pilot for Fox. The drama, about a teacher who helps her students re-create, shot-for-shot, the original movie, eventually was passed on by Fox, which felt it skewed too young for the network. But Variety can exclusively report that the series, which now has the title “Our Time,” is being redeveloped at Disney Plus. The Donner Company and Amblin, which were behind the original, are back on board.
“Sarah worked nonstop to deliver this incredible script, we had our table read, and then the world shut down for COVID,” says Clancy Collins White, exec VP and head of development. “So we came back many months later and finished the beautiful pilot, and it was an incredible cast, but unfortunately a little bit too young for Fox. And so we immediately swung into high gear and hit the town with it. We did not yet have anything in development at Disney Plus. It’s been another example of being able to carve a pathway where there wasn’t one by virtue of a great story, a great pilot, a great series. The deal has taken a while to make, but we’re really excited to be moving forward.”
Besides Watson, executive producers include Gail Berman and Hend Baghdady from The Jackal Group; Lauren Shuler Donner and the late Richard Donner; and Amblin TV’s Darryl Frank and Justin Falvey.
Other recent “never say die” examples at Warner Bros. TV include several series that wound up on the cancellation heap — but were soon revived at new outlets: “Manifest,” which shifted from NBC to Netflix; “All Rise,” which moved from CBS to OWN, with second windows on HBO Max and Hulu; and “Pennyworth,” which is heading to HBO Max after two seasons on Epix.
In previous times, we would have never seen those orphaned series again. But with a growing number of subscription- and ad-supported video on demand services, independent studios like Warner Bros., Sony (such as “One Day at a Time’s” hop from Netflix to Pop) and Lionsgate (producing a “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” holiday special for Roku) are figuring out different business models to make such platform jumping work.
“If something happens along the way, whether it’s a regime change, or a loss of interest in a concept or a change in programming strategy, we’re going to find a new place for a project to live and hopefully thrive,” says Warner Bros. TV Group chairman Channing Dungey. “Looking at the track record that Warner Bros. has had in this space made me really excited to come in and be a part of that. One of the hardest things for me when I was on the platform side was having to say ‘no, this doesn’t fit with our needs, we don’t have room for this.’ Whereas here, if we fall in love with an idea, and we want to pursue it, there’s no limit to our passion.”
For Warner Bros., the trend of finding solutions to keeping a show alive really kicked into high gear with “Longmire,” a modern Western that ran for three seasons on A&E. “The show was performing relatively well, but [A&E] just didn’t want to be in the scripted business anymore,” says Warner Bros. TV president Brett Paul. “We were adamant about [the show] not being ready for pasture.” This was 2014, during the early days of streaming, and Warner Bros. took a one-season chance on moving the show to Netflix. “And it worked,” Paul says. “We ended up doing a few more seasons there.”
Because the streamers frequently require international, not just domestic rights, this is where the dealmaking gets a little tricky. “Longmire” still had a pretty good international berth available, and Netflix was really focused on Australia (where series star Robert Taylor hails from), so it worked out. In the case of another show, “Lucifer,” things were a bit more complicated. Airing in first-run on Fox, “Lucifer’s” domestic out-of-season rights had been sold to Hulu. When Fox canceled “Lucifer” after three seasons, Netflix wanted it — but with the stipulation that they wanted all the rights.
“To port that entire show to Netflix required that we sort of find a way to buy back the rights from Hulu in order to move the whole thing,” Paul recalls. “We had to pull some territories back and figure out ways not to upset our existing customers. We had to find other things and give [Hulu] some value for releasing the show in a way that would enable the new episodes and the prior library episodes to appear at the same time. That’s been more challenging.” Warner Bros. TV pulled off a deal, however, and “Lucifer” continued for three more seasons on Netflix.
When a show has been canceled and deals need to be renegotiated to revive it somewhere else, things can get complicated. But Paul says that most of the time, the parties involved are of the same mind: As long as the financials work, figure out a deal to keep a show going by any means necessary.
“As a studio, we’re not looking to do things that are purely for donative effect,” Paul says. “But we have to be flexible, and we have to figure out models that work for everybody in success. So each one of these shows that we’ve moved, [the deal is] really is very unique to itself. And they all have very different models and different dynamics associated with them. The one thing that we absolutely do is we’re entirely transparent with the talent about the terms, the timing, the impact.
“People get very committed to these projects, [and] there really is sort of esprit de corps about moving things,” he adds.
In many cases, it was the off-net digital window that convinced a streamer that there was more life in the show than the original broadcaster saw. Besides “Lucifer,” “All Rise,” “Pennyworth” and “Manifest,” that has happened with Warner Bros. shows including “You,” which was a quiet performer on Lifetime but became a phenom on Netflix; and “Doom Patrol” and “Titans,” both of which switched from DC Universe to HBO Max.
The most visible example of this may be “Manifest.” Everyone now knows what a phenom “Manifest” was this summer on Netflix, which turned the just-canceled NBC drama into must-see TV and allowed Warner Bros. TV to bring it back for one more season.
According to David Decker, exec VP, Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution, “Manifest’s” journey to being revived at Netflix was a kind of serendipity: The show launched to strong numbers on NBC in 2018, which convinced Warner Bros. to aim for a large second-window SVOD sale — in other words, a big streaming deal right on the back of a network deal. But the market had already been shifting from that model, and Warner Bros. had to sit on making such a deal.
“Unfortunately, time turned against us, and the show started stumbling in the ratings, and so we did a non-traditional short-term deal with Netflix for the existing seasons,” Decker says. “That’s not a deal we would have normally done. But we believed in the show and we thought that if it gets an audience, this could help either on NBC or maybe even something bigger. It exceeded all our expectations… We’re proud of that one.”
At the same time, Dungey says Warner Bros. exhausted every possible scenario to keep “Manifest” alive at the network. “We probably would have taken a slightly compromised deal at NBC just to make that happen before they canceled it,” she says. “When we were still hoping that they would just say, ‘OK, fine, eight more, 12 more,’ we were willing to go kind of down to the bone to get that done.”
Adds Paul: “As these conversations were ongoing, all of a sudden, there was this wave that just continued to build on Netflix. And it became almost unbelievable. That one, too required us to look very, very carefully at the international buyers that had the show, including our own platform in a multitude of countries. Netflix did have the out-of-season right domestically, so doing something without them would have been almost impossible. And as this thing was building, I think they made a case that was really undeniable.”
Ultimately, the economics were more favorable in moving the show to Netflix. “It was complicated, because [NBC is] an important customer, and we didn’t feel great about it, because I think eventually they thought, ‘oh, gosh, maybe there’s something we can do.’ But at that point, we were so deep into our conversation with Netflix, it would have been a terrible turnabout. So, we ended up closing the deal at Netflix, and we’ve delivered them the entire globe. Season 4 will be a nice, big long season. And [creator Jeff Rake] gets to tell his story, which I think we’re all dying and find out.”
For “All Rise,” the show was developed with CBS’ network license fees, which allow a large production, in mind. Moving that show to OWN, which has a smaller budget as a basic cable network, required figuring out a financial setup that allowed the size and scope of the show to remain. That’s where finding two SVOD partners in HBO Max and Hulu came in.
“That was a little trickier and required a lot more esprit de corps,” Dungey says. “Warner Bros for so many years was, best in class at churning things out on the broadcast model where there was very little latitude. Every broadcast series cost is basically the same as every other one. This is how much a drama, this is how much a comedy is, and it’s a lot of plug and play. The business that we’re in now, it’s not that way at all. Nothing’s plug and play, everything is à la carte and bespoke.”
On the development side, besides “Our Time,” projects have swapped outlets recently include “Sweet Tooth,” which shifted from a pilot at Hulu to a two-season pickup on Netflix; “Kung Fu,” developed at Fox and eventually moved to The CW; and “Shining Vale,” a comedy developed at Showtime and later sold to Starz.
Perhaps the WBTV show that experienced the most maneuvering in recent years was “Animal Kingdom,” which was originally developed at Showtime, then set up at Amazon with a full season one series commitment, then further developed at Starz before finally being placed at TNT, where it has run for six seasons.
“It’s been an explosion of just being able to really be nimble and quickly pivot,” Collins White says.
As for “You,” Collins White credits Warner Bros. TV’s independence with the ability to go wide and “place the show at the right home.” “You” was originally developed at Showtime before moving to Lifetime, where it aired for a season before its Netflix move.
“I think a lot of people initially passed on it because they were a little uncomfortable,” Collins White says. Are we glorifying stalking? But what ‘You’ needed was also a home that would accept it and support it and nurture it for exactly what it was.”
The streaming era, of course, has opened the door to more ways of saving an orphaned show. Dungey laments that “American Crime,” a show she was proud of during her days at ABC, might have been rescued by a streamer had it aired now.
In the case of Warner Bros. TV, is also has a sibling in HBO Max that provides an opportunity as a potential home for shows looking for one. Decker cautions, however, “the deals inside the family are the hardest deals to make. And that’s goes back to HBO and Turner, that we’ve been doing business with for decades. But it’s amazing to have HBO Max side by side where the creative community would love to have their show be there… We love when the home team gets a hit. And we love when our frenemies get a hit, because when it’s our shows it ultimately helps all of us here.”
Adds Paul: “The media is obviously in a transformative period, but there are a lot of platforms. The volume requirements are also so much grander that a quality show today, regardless of where it’s launched, can potentially find [a new home].”
Streamers have infinite room for programming, so it really comes down to budgets. “And so that also creates opportunity,” he says. “We’re in an interesting time. And I think over time as the network business may or may not consolidate, we’ll have to see what sort of opportunities there are for moving things around in a different way. This year, I think, is emblematic of it. I think we’ve moved five or six shows in one year.”