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Alliance Atlantis explores `CSI’ spinoff

Jun 25, 2001  •  Post A Comment

It doesn’t take a forensic specialist from “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” to deduce that Canadian series co-producer Alliance Atlantis Communications would be eager to spin off a second series from the hit CBS freshman drama.
Looking at a potential billion-dollar franchise that could further cement Alliance Atlantis’ already strong international footprint and 20-plus years of production and co-venture financing expertise, the Toronto-based independent’s president of studio production, Peter Sussman, has only just begun floating the idea to CBS for a “CSI” spinoff formula in the mold of NBC’s successful “Law & Order” franchise.
“The truth is that it has been one conversation with CBS,” said Mr. Sussman, one of three company principals owning equity stakes in Alliance Atlantis. He declined to name the CBS executive involved, but it would not be a stretch to assume it was CBS Television Network President Les Moonves, who calls most of the major programming shots at the network.
“It was more of an observation rather than a conversation,” Mr. Sussman said. “It is just saying, `You know what? We have to start thinking about this.”’
A spokesman for CBS Entertainment similarly termed the conversation of a “CSI” spinoff as “exploratory.”
Mr. Sussman, who works out of Alliance Atlantis Entertainment’s Santa Monica, Calif., offices, catches himself a bit to explain that a spinoff of the hit 9 p.m. (ET) Thursday drama could take a couple of years to mount, possibly up to the 2002-03 season. And it would take the approval of “CSI” co-production partners, CBS Productions and Jerry Bruckheimer Films.
“This season, we did 23 grueling episodes-and there [were] no hiatuses-where the writers worked from July to May, and next season, we’re going to try to do 25 episodes,” Mr. Sussman said. “So now we have a platform from which we can certainly think about a spinoff, but I think people want to wait until we got a little further on the show’s run. We want to go a little further, because the demands on the staff are so great.”
First premiering last October in CBS’s 9 p.m.-to-10 p.m. Friday slot coming out of “The Fugitive,” “CSI,” which stars William Petersen and Marg Helgenberger, broke out with a 10.3 rating/17 share household average during the November 2000 sweeps, according to Nielsen Media Research.
The network then moved “CSI” to 9 p.m. Thursday as the lead-out from its hit reality series “Survivor: The Australian Outback,” where the show spiked 33 percent to a 13.7/20 in households during the February 2001 sweeps and finished as the highest-ranked freshman drama and third-highest drama overall for the 2000-01 season (11.7/19).
“When it is the right time [for a spinoff], we will do it,” Mr. Sussman added. “`Law & Order’ did it after [its] eighth or ninth season. I don’t think it will take us that long, but who knows? But then again, we also sold our second window after 16 episodes [to CBS’s sister network TNN], besides being a record-breaking price for an off-network sale to cable.”
Mr. Sussman is referring to the $1.6 million-per-episode licensing agreement with TNN, a record payday that could guarantee at least $500 million in back-end revenue to the three production partners over the eight-year contract with the reformatted cable network. In addition to CBS’s King World Productions syndication unit handling “CSI’s” domestic cable sale, Alliance Atlantis’ international sales force, which has a permanent presence on five continents, has it sold in more than 140 countries, garnering another $100 million or so in estimated revenue annually for the partners.
“What is nice about [`CSI’] is it is as pure a partnership as you can get, therefore our agendas are completely aligned,” said Mr. Sussman, who has described CBS as equal co-financing partner on the series, while Bruckheimer Films remains the core production entity.
“King World is [in] charge of selling it in the U.S., and we are in charge of selling the rest of the world. However successful these things are, the results of that success all goes in a common pot to be shared.” One of a handful of independents left in Hollywood, Alliance Atlantis is uniquely positioned as an international company that can navigate among the consolidated media conglomerates (Viacom, Fox, Disney, AOL Time Warner) to become an attractive, complementary financing and production player in the United States as well.
Mr. Sussman’s TV production unit also has a reputation as a high-gloss producer of long-form programming, including CBS’s top-rated 1999 miniseries “Joan of Arc” (starring Leelee Sobieski), which had come in at lofty $20 million-plus production budget.
The hit parade continued this season with the Alliance Atlantis-produced “Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows” (for ABC), the highly rated and acclaimed miniseries that starred Judy Davis; the poignant post-Holocaust escape movie “Haven” (for CBS) that starred Natasha Richardson and Hal Holbrook; and a remake of the Nazi-war-crime-trial film, “Nuremberg,” which was a two-part miniseries (for TNT) that starred Alec Baldwin and Jill Hennessy.
In its home base of Toronto, Alliance Atlantis has three long-form projects in various stages of production for CBS’s schedule next season: “Crossed Over,” a TV movie based on Beverly Lowry’s memoirs about her relationship with death row double-murderer Karla Fay Tucker (starring Diane Keaton and Jennifer Jason Leigh); “Jennifer Estess,” a telefilm based on the true story about a New York theater producer’s battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease (starring Laura San Giacomo and Jane Kaczmarek); and miniseries “Innocent Blood: The True Story of The Salem Witch Trials,” starring Shirley MacLaine, Kirstie Alley and Alan Bates.
Another high-profile movie project shooting in Toronto is “The Matthew Shepard Story” (for NBC), based on the true story of a gay college student in Wyoming who was brutally murdered in a hate crime.
Alliance Atlantis is similarly established in the first-run syndication marketplace with weekly action hours, including “Beastmaster” and “Earth: Final Conflict,” which are entering their third and fifth seasons, respectively..
But in light of the contraction in broadcast syndication, Mr. Sussman has been carefully steering Alliance Atlantis toward mounting a more aggressive cable network series-production slate.
Three series are in development for USA’s Sci-Fi Channel, including a pair of back-door pilots for next season: “Anonymous Rex,” based on Eric Garcia’s novel about a breed of dinosaurs who never became extinct and morphed into human-looking creatures; and “Riverworld,” based on Phillip Jose Farmer’s book series about past and future civilizations winding their way down a mystical river. One other high-profile two-hour back-door pilot, “Invincible,” a martial arts-based actioner being prepped for TBS, is a co-production with actors Mel Gibson and Jet Li’s Icon Productions.