Does NBC Really Have an Office Spinoff?

Also: Gaming out the Conan, Fallon, Leno, and Kimmel late-night musical chairs.

Ben Silverman

In front or upfront?: This evening, NBC’s “experience” will be taking the place of the usual upfront presentation. Recall that the network said it would forgo all of that this year, opting for the “in-front” session several weeks ago. So instead of filling Radio City Music Hall with advertisers and the press, as usual, the network will instead have reporters walk through some sort of display that will expose us to the many facets of NBC—including its mighty cable properties and the Internet stuff that CEO Jeff Zucker bored us with in upfronts past.

This is a weird year for the upfronts. The writers’ strike converged with ongoing digital-revolution-related problems plaguing the industry to throw everything out of kilter. The networks have said they wanted to cut back on the hoopla, anyway, though some think that’s not such a great idea. If you’re going to brag about being the greatest aggregator of eyeballs, this thinking goes, you gotta keep the show in show business. But it’s not going to happen so much this year. Only Fox is going for the full-on upfront presentation. The others are austere—no Tavern on the Green party for CBS, no rousing Dancing With the Stars turn at Lincoln Center from ABC entertainment president Steve McPherson. (That was two years ago now, but that was a show. We’ve never looked at McPherson quite the same way.)

Shari Anne Brill, who analyzes programming for advertisers, says she’s concerned that this year’s upfront won’t provide her with the usual dose of clips from upcoming shows. That’s partly due to the strike, though in some cases NBC is boasting of going straight to greenlighting shows without a pilot. Brill thinks that idea is rubbish, by the way. “If you don’t have a pilot, that’s going to hurt your success rate,” she warns. “Pilots allow you to make adjustments.”

Brill seems piqued with NBC generally. She wanted to take a look at Kath and Kim, an upcoming remake of an Australian sitcom. (Like so much of NBC programming—The Office, the planned Office spinoff, American Gladiator, The BiggestLoser—the show comes from Reveille, NBC Entertainment co-chairman Ben Silverman’s former company. Happily for him, the fact that he gets paid for getting his own shows on his network doesn’t bother parent company GE.)

Brill, concerned that she won’t get to see clips from NBC’s version of Kath and Kim, got hold of an episode of the Australian original. “That thing makes Married With Children look like The Brady Bunch,” she says. (To be clear, that is not a good thing in her mind, though Married With Children had quite a run and it may be a great thing in Silverman’s mind.) All in all, Brill seems unimpressed with Silverman’s progress to date. “Everything that he’s done has been an acquisition,” she says. And she says talk of an Office spinoff has gone on for so long that she’s beginning to doubt that the project will jell. “He doesn’t have an Office spinoff,” she says tartly. “He has spin.”

Well, we’ll see, won’t we?

NBC is also poised to announce today that Jimmy Fallon will replace Conan O’Brien when the latter takes over Jay Leno on TheTonight Show next year. In time, that ought to set off an interesting round of musical chairs. Leno won’t be able to make a new deal for six months, per his NBC contract, but he isn’t likely to take a break longer than he has to. He will be coveted by both ABC and Fox. New York Times reporter Bill Carter, who wrote The Late Shift (the book about the last changing of the late-night guard in the early ‘90s, when Johnny Carson retired), thinks Leno will go for ABC, which would give him an 11:30 p.m. time slot (Fox’s news lead-in ends at 11 p.m.). That would allow Leno to go head-to-head with O’Brien and David Letterman and prove that he’s the real king of late night.

Carter doesn’t think ABC would hesitate to kill off Nightline to make room for Leno. In that scenario, Jimmy Kimmel’s show would be pushed back 30 minutes, which might not sit well with him. So maybe Fox could chase him to fill its late-night void. With all that Leno’s seemingly premature forced retirement sets in motion, the drama around late night might be more compelling than anything on the networks’ fall schedule. (link)

May 8, 2008

Steven Spielberg 

Don’t dream it’s over: Steven Spielberg finally allowed the folks at Paramount to see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on Tuesday afternoon, less than two weeks before the film’s premiere at Cannes on May 18. That’s nice, considering that Paramount sunk a few pfennigs into this little romp. We’re told that no one at the studio had been permitted to see it before, and we have no word on how it played.

It’s safe to assume that the Paramount executives clapped pretty loudly, though. May is supposedly when DreamWorks can start shopping for a new deal, and Paramount might not be ready to say goodbye to Steven Spielberg just yet.

Speculation about the fate of DreamWorks has gone on for quite some time, as the studio has used the press to lay the groundwork for a negotiation over its future. There have been a number of stories about the DreamWorks team’s suffering under the supposedly heavy hand of Paramount; partner David Geffen even went on the record a few months back to tell Vanity Fair that the people running Paramount are “a nightmare.”

That’s why many observers expect Geffen and Spielberg and Stacy Snider to leave in the coming months. But the speculation about which studio will win over DreamWorks seems misplaced. To us, there seem to be only a couple of possibilities. Option A: DreamWorks raises a bunch of money and makes a deal with Universal to distribute its movies. Option B: DreamWorks raises a bunch of money and makes a deal with Paramount to distribute its movies. We lean toward A, though B probably makes more sense. That’s because we tend to believe that animus trumps logic.

We checked in with a favorite DreamWorks observer to see if he agreed with us. He did, kind of. First, he said, everyone should be clear that what began as DreamWorks—David Geffen, Steven Spielberg, and Jeffrey Katzenberg—now is only about Spielberg.

Katzenberg is bound to DreamWorks Animation, which is obligated to remain with Paramount for quite some time. Geffen is negotiating his way out of the movie business. Yes, he’ll want to make some noise as he settles the company’s fate, but that should be simple enough. He’ll just have to raise a mind-boggling sum to finance the DreamWorks slate. If Tom Cruise can raise $500 million, Geffen should be able to bring in about a trillion for a company with Spielberg’s name on it.

So the question is: Where will Spielberg want to make his deal?

We lean toward Universal, because Spielberg has always been attached to the place—he’s never left the lot notwithstanding the fact that his company belongs to Paramount. Of course, this isn’t necessarily the most logical move. If he were to leave Paramount, he would hypothetically also leave behind many projects in development there. But that’s what negotiations are for. The reasonable deal would be for Spielberg to take the projects he wants as long as Paramount can opt in as a partner when it wants.

Our DreamWorks watcher leans toward Option B, staying at Paramount. “There’s still a lot of hope at Paramount that Spielberg’s not leaving—at the highest levels,” he says. And why shouldn’t they hope? Paramount is looking at a great summer, but not because of movies that the current regime has developed. “They have Iron Man, which they didn’t make; Indiana Jones, which they didn’t make; Kung Fu Panda, which they didn’t make; and Tropic Thunder, which they didn’t make,” says our observer. “They made Love Guru.” (That’s a dismissive reference to the upcoming Mike Myers comedy, which is being written off as DOA in Hollywood. In spite or because of that, the impossibly difficult Myers is said to be driving the folks at Paramount so crazy that some say—jokingly, we think—that the studio set the film to open in June against the presumably more commercial Get Smart as payback.)

And Paramount should have its attractions for the DreamWorks crew. At this point, our observer notes, Paramount is largely staffed with DreamWorks alumni, and they seem to be doing a bit better at marketing movies than their counterparts at Universal. “The question is, what does Steven get out of going back to Universal?” he asks. To him, the answer is: not much.

As for the idea that there’s some bidding contest for DreamWorks involving a bunch of studios, that strikes our observer as foolish. The deal goes to Universal or Paramount. Surprise us, David. (link)

April 30, 2008

Robert De Niro

Weird: We’ve never been to the Cannes Film Festival, which is our loss, no doubt. But luckily we’ve already seen this year’s closing-night selection, What Just Happened?, which leads us to ask, what did just happen?

We saw the movie months ago, when it had a much-hyped premiere at Sundance. Robert Redford was there, and Robert De Niro turned up with producer Art Linson to introduce the film. In it, De Niro plays a fictionalized version of Linson—an embattled Hollywood player dealing with an out-of-control director and star (Bruce Willis puckishly playing himself) and winding up with a very bad movie.

Expectations were high that night. The film was directed by Barry Levinson and has a cast that includes Catherine Keener, Stanley Tucci, John Turturro, and Sean Penn. But the film fell flat. After its glittering night at Sundance, it laid there like an overpriced egg—no distributor bought it from that day to this.

So how does this failed venture turn up at Cannes? We asked a prominent producer who has nothing to do with the film to speculate.

“Who is the president of the jury this year?” he asked, as if to imply that we are not very smart. “Sean Penn.” And Robert De Niro is a Cannes favorite. “So who promises to show up? Because it’s always about movie stars. So Sean Penn shows up, Robert De Niro shows up. … It just seems so unlikely because the movie has been well-roasted. It was a bad move to take it to Sundance. It was considered at best an inside joke.”

The most amusing bit in the movie, to us, is when De Niro-as-Linson stands in the shower, his no-longer-firm flesh exposed to the world as he desperately slathers dye on his hair. That scene would seem to show a wry awareness that an aging producer (not to mention an aging star) doesn’t appear at his best when struggling to hold back the hands of time. And that it’s quite a challenge, in our culture, to stay graceful after 50.

But the handling of this film seems like an exercise in how profoundly all of them—Linson, Levinson, De Niro—don’t get that at all. It was an enormous act of ego to spend the estimated $30 million on this film, another one to take it to Sundance. And now, Cannes—which is funny because What Just Happened? ends with the Linson character taking his very bad film (where else?) to Cannes. Wag the Dog indeed.

All this reminded our producer friend of a memo, supposedly created by an anonymous CAA agent in the wake of De Niro’s recent departure from the agency. This has been pinging around the Hollywood blogosphere for a couple of weeks now, but we pass it along in part:

Why did Bobby leave us?They promised they could turn back time.They promised they could get him 20m a picture.They promised they could get a release for his “Something happened,” a Barry Levinson show biz pic that’s has no market, and Mark Cuban lost a fortune on.They promised they could get him the $1m production fee on every picture he does, that he and his partner put their names on, and do nothing to earn.They promised they could convince Hollywood that they should still pay that 1m vig on top of his acting fees.They promised him they’d find a respectable release for the Pacino picture he did last summer, that basically stars two 65 year old guys as detectives—while the audience is under 35, and has no interest in seeing.As I said, they promised him they could turn back time, and make him 50 again, and relevant, and hot, and interesting to today’s moviegoing audience.And they probably promised that they’d find a way to erase the memory of all of America about the number of god-awful paycheck films he did during the past ten years. De Niro had a choice ten or so years ago. He could either go the Nicholson route—very selective, very particular, protect the brand—or go out sending himself up in tripe like Analyze This, which made money but turned him into that “old psycho guy.” And he could have concentrated on quality stuff, but instead wanted to keep funding his little empire in New York. … Bobby blames everybody but himself for the way he’s squandered his career, and refused lots of quality pictures because they wouldn’t give him producer credit. Good luck in the Hotel Business, pal. (link)