Lights turning green for Polone

Sep 10, 2001  •  Post A Comment

In the Hollywood corridors of power, few agents would have predicted onetime wunderkind Gavin Polone would be caught up in such mundane affairs as making sure that copy machines are repaired or negotiating for additional office space in Beverly Hills, Calif.
As it turns out, Mr. Polone, who is often remembered for his tumultuous yet high-flying days as a literary agent at United Talent Agency and International Creative Management, has parlayed his recent role as a talent manager into a highly lucrative and blossoming career as an independent TV and film producer.
Under his aptly titled company banner, Pariah, in addition to his remaining interest in the Hofflund/Polone management and production company, Mr. Polone is again riding high at the center of the creative television universe. It also helps that Pariah’s founding last May was based on an exclusive TV development and production deal with Sony Corp.’s Columbia TriStar Television unit.
Resurrected and energized from the critical success of The WB Network’s sophomore drama “The Gilmore Girls” and the coming third year of HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Mr. Polone and his production company are in demand from the broadcast and cable networks.
As the 2002-03 development season gets into gear, Mr. Polone and Pariah President Richard Feldman are juggling more than two dozen series projects-of which a half-dozen have gained script commitments from the networks-while trying to figure out how to repair a copy machine that had coffee spilled on it.
“These days, I’m having almost as many meetings with copier repairmen [as] I do at the networks,” Mr. Polone joked.
From the time Mr. Feldman joined Pariah in mid-July, the startup has indeed proved adept at closing the deal and has lined up several high-profile writer-producers for projects. They include:
* David Koepp, a noted screenwriter behind such movies as “Jurassic Park,” “Mission Impossible” and “Stir of Echoes” who has been attached to a Pariah drama about a cop-turned-taxi driver who fights injustices for CBS’s 2002-03 season development slate.
* Michelle Ashford, a TV writer and producer of dramas “L.A. Doctors” (CBS) and “21 Jump Street” (Fox) who has a drama about a female sheriff in the old West parked at Fox for next season.
* Eugenie Ross-Leming and Brad Buckner, the veteran writing-producing team behind “Beggars and Choosers” (Showtime) and “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” who are developing a law drama seen through the eyes of jurors for TNT’s cable slate in 2002-03.
* Jon Turteltaub (HBO’s “From the Earth to the Moon,” “Disney’s The Kid”),who is committed to direct and produce an NBC drama project about a single woman who sees what her life could be like as a married woman, somewhat loosely based on the 1998 motion picture “Sliding Doors.”
Mr. Feldman said that among other drama concepts currently being pitched to the networks Pariah has linked with a major unnamed auto advertiser to partially fund an action-oriented series set in Miami’s South Beach district. The series is in development at an unspecified network.
“These days, it’s sometimes easier to get in the door [at networks] with an advertiser already tied in for a major sponsorship position,” said Mr. Feldman, who also suggested the series could translate into product placement for the automaker.
Pariah is also talking about developing a musical drama, potentially tied in with Madonna’s production company, Maverick Entertainment Group. With the sitcom development season expected to kick off in earnest next month, Pariah is in the early stages of developing a comedy around writer-actress Alex Borstein, who is best known as a cast member on Fox’s “Mad TV” sketch series and as Drella, the no-nonsense harp player at Independence Inn in “Gilmore Girls.”
Mr. Polone, along with Mr. Feldman and development executive Vivian Cannon (also vice president of Pariah), is spending very few days in the office as Pariah stakes its claim as one of the few production companies tackling projects for both the TV and motion picture worlds.
“It is really hard to [do] both things that we’re doing,” Mr. Polone said. “But there really is a sort of seamless, unspoken communication between the three of us where we just seem to be always on the same page. At the top of the year we have over 25 shows to go out with. On average, there are four network pitches multiplied by 25 shows where we’re driving out to networks in different areas of town, so we can take up to 110 to 115 meetings [during a development season], and you end up wanting to kill yourself.”
“On top of that,” he added, “I have to be at the `Gilmore Girls’ set half a day, every day. And we’re in pre-production of a movie [“Tick-Tock”] that I’m producing at Columbia TriStar.”
“I’ve known Gavin for a number a number of years as an agent and manager, and the guy just has phenomenal creative instincts and a total understanding of the business affairs side,” said Tom Mazza, president of Columbia TriStar Teleivision.
Mr. Polone has used his extensive ties to the literary community developed during his talent agency and personal management days to cultivate a new role as a producer who is mindful of protecting writers’ rights and financial interests as he negotiates series deals with the networks.
To do so, though, Mr. Polone dropped his personal-manager hat. Instead, he decided to devote his “full-time” energies to working with his stable of writers-including longtime clients such as “Gilmore Girls” creator Amy Sherman-Palladino and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” star and writer-producer Larry David-to help those scribes “close the deal” as he goes over the finer contractual points with the networks.
It is a similar approach to what agent-turned-talent manager Michael Ovitz has taken with his Artists Management Group and soon-to-be shackled Artists Television Group production unit. However, there is a big difference in how the two companies are funded. Pariah gets a pipeline of “discretionary” development funding from Columbia TriStar in exchange for granting the Sony-owned studio all domestic and syndication rights to any TV series that gets a first-run order from the networks.
“We basically have the discretionary money for developing series and locking up talent-holding deals,” Mr. Polone said. “We use their production services, and everything goes through them on covering production [including costs]. We don’t have a separate [production] staff. We try to keep it as lean as possible and outsource as much as we can.”
Mr. Polone acknowledged that Pariah’s deal with Columbia TriStar is “very different” from the arrangement the studio had with Mr. Ovitz’s ATG, which got advance money but bore the costs for production and any deficits from series production. In paying a 17.5 percent distribution fee back to Columbia TriStar, Mr. Ovitz’s company was, however, able to hold on to up to 60 percent of the revenue from international sales and back-end domestic syndication for any series that could maintain a run on the broadcast networks of at least four years.
Such a deal gave Mr. Ovitz’s company greater control over production and a larger share of the back-end revenue, and it looked great on paper. But when all four of ATG’s network series were canceled in their first year, all hopes of a return on investment from the back end were dashed. Industry sources have speculated that, all told, ATG incurred as much as $20 million in red ink, which was a major factor in the TV unit trying to sell off several remaining midseason series projects starting last month.
“I looked at the economic model, and it was obvious that I did not have that kind of up-front capital Mike [Ovitz] has, so therefore, it was not an option for me to fund all of this personally,” Mr. Polone said. “They were paying all of the overhead, paying these overall [talent] deals and spending millions of dollars above their advances in order to fund the deficit. In return for however many millions of dollars they spend over a three-year period o
f time, they end up owning like 60 percent of the pie that comes back to them-in success. We probably get about 20 percent of the upside, but we have no downside.”
Mr. Polone nonetheless expresses great admiration for Mr. Ovitz’s “revolutionizing” of the talent agency business during the 1980s, when the latter put Creative Artists Agency on the map-coaxing some of Hollywood’s biggest stars and producing talent from the competing agencies. At his core AMG management company, Mr. Ovitz still shares representation of major TV producing talent like Barry Levinson, Tom Fontana and Darren Star.
“All that being said, I happen to think Mike Ovitz is a great man, and I really mean that,” said Mr. Polone, whose office is in the same Wilshire Boulevard location as AMG. “He revolutionized the agency world to the extent that nobody revolutionized any part of the entertainment business before. He about single-handedly elevated the interests and rights of artists in this town, in terms of helping them get a fair shake from the studios.
“And he’s a guy with gigantic balls who put up huge amounts of his own money to maintain control and put forward a vision he had for the company,” he added. “I don’t know if it has failed yet. But if it does fail, I think he should be given the utmost respect for taking the risk. You cannot name a person who has been massively successful in any field of endeavor in the world who has not had significant ups and downs. But people who have had huge ups in the beginning of their careers, a lot of times they end up having huge downs later on-and then they come back.”
Mr. Polone speaks from the heart-and personal experience. He started his career as an assistant at ICM, then rose up the ladder to become a literary agent in 1985 at the age of 21. A former agent recounted that it was at ICM where Mr. Polone posed with brass knuckles for a Premiere magazine photo shoot as part of his alleged “take-no-prisoners mentality” in regard to competing agents and potentially defecting clients, which may have played a hand in his being fired in 1989. Later that year, he joined the boutique agency Bauer/Benedek, which evolved into United Talent Agency. Mr. Polone was made a partner and head of the television department when he was 28.
In April 1996, UTA fired him for what the agency publicly charged was his “inappropriate behavior” for allegedly making an unsolicited advance toward a female co-worker.
Mr. Polone vehemently denied the charges, and after lawsuits had been filed by both sides, the agency settled the case in January 1999 for an undisclosed sum. Mr. Polone agreed to a confidentiality pact regarding the settlement and any discussion of incidents leading to his exit.
“It would make a good book, but I am bound by a settlement agreement,” Mr. Polone said. “Back then I was extremely immature about how I handled myself in terms of dealing with other people. “I sued them initially because they shouldn’t have fired me and they slandered me and said things that weren’t true-it’s all a matter of public record.
“It helps to make a transition when you get fired. It catalyzes things,” Mr. Polone added, with a chuckle. “I just thought at the time, what you do is to kill anybody who gets in your way, and that is how you are successful. Honestly, increasing amounts of success and lots of money reinforced that bad behavior I had at the time. You either learn how to deal with yourself or let it kill you. And I turned around and analyzed myself, and in certain ways, I’m 180 degrees from what I used to be.”
In many ways, his pangs to get more involved in creative content could have their roots in his mother, Judith Polone, who has executive produced more than 25 made-for-television movies (including “Riot” and “JFK: Reckless Youth”). And he found further inspiration from another Judy, this one Judy Hofflund, a former UTA colleague who persuaded him to join the independent management company she founded in March 1995.
From the time Mr. Polone added his name to Ms. Hofflund’s banner in April 1996, he jump-started the company’s production presence in the motion picture arena. It started with such critically received films as “Drop Dead Gorgeous” (1998) and “Stir of Echoes” (1999) and included the controversial and somewhat panned “8mm” (1999), which starred Nicolas Cage as a narcissistic, violent private investigator.
After a few pilots failed to get network pickups (such as “The 900 Lives of Jackie Frye,” “Birthmarks” and “Out There”), the company made its first successful plunge with Larry David, the creator and executive producer of NBC’s long-running “Seinfeld.” Starting as a self-described “mockumentary” special in 1999, Mr. David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” was picked up as a series last season, attaining somewhat of a cult following for its cutting, offbeat look at life in Hollywood.
“Putting aside my personal interest, I think the funniest shows on television-bar none-[are] `Curb Your Enthusiasm’ and `TV Funhouse’ on Comedy Central,” Mr. Polone said. “When you look at what is on TV, there is nothing else like `Curb Your Enthusiasm.’ Nothing else like `Gilmore Girls.’ At a time when the critics and viewers are saying there are so many derivative shows, we also [are] grateful that they’re recognizing our shows as something different, something original to their genres.”
Mr. Polone’s self-professed intentions to break certain conventions in television will be put to the test with Hofflund/Polone and Columbia TriStar’s launch of “Bad News, Mr. Swanson” on FX later this season. Set to go into production for 13 episodes next month as a single-camera sitcom with no laugh track, “Mr. Swanson” deals with a man who is dying from cancer but is inspired by Death (played by John Lydon) to take risks and “have fun” before he departs from this world.
“It is heavier, but it is still very funny and it has some very broad moments to it,” Mr. Polone said of the series project from writer-executive producers Lisa DeBenedictis and Daryl Rowland. “In the character of Death, we see kind of a guardian angel of death, helping the lead character sort out his life and live it in a different way from the past. In a weird way, getting cancer has been a blessing to him, because it caused [him] to live his life differently.”
Another holdover comedy pilot project from Hofflund/Polone is “More, Patience,” which stars Mary McCormack as a harried physical therapist named Patience More. With the pilot shot and directed by Mr. Turteltaub last April, Fox is said to be seriously considering “More, Patience” as a midseason replacement by early to mid-2002.
“Fox has told us it was one of their highest-testing pilots last spring, so we’re pretty confident of hearing about a [midseason] pickup shortly,” Mr. Polone said of the sitcom, which is being executive produced by Maya Forbes and Jed Seidel. “The innovative programming is mostly being done on cable, but a lot of interesting things are being done on Fox. `Patience’ is a single-camera sitcom and is not overly jokey-much in the same vein of `Malcolm in the Middle.’ `Malcolm’ is a great example of what we want to be doing here.”
The growing cachet Hofflund/ Polone was gaining in network development circles from the success of “Gilmore Girls” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” led to the “exponential increase” in the number of series and film projects that convinced Mr. Polone to form Pariah Productions last May. In looking to devote his full-time efforts to the creative side of the entertainment business, Mr. Polone lobbied his former ICM co-worker and then-president of Saturday Night Live Studios, Mr. Feldman, to come aboard as president of Pariah, which had simultaneously launched into its exclusive production pact with Columbia TriStar.
“I really needed somebody to come in and be my partner and have the perspective and creative shorthand I speak in,” Mr. Polone said. “The thing about Richard is that he has that broad perspective on all of the writers that are out there, in addition to knowing all of the same deve
lopment executives at the networks to help me get the deals closed.”
Mr. Feldman gave his perspective: “I came here specifically because Gavin was going to be focusing purely on the production side, and it just became such an intriguing opportunity because of what we could possibly do together.” Mr. Feldman worked at ICM for 11 years before taking over SNL Studios’ motion picture and TV divisions in 1999. “One day [last spring] he called me up and said, `You are going to be making a lot less money, but you will be a lot happier.’ But honestly, there is a lot more upside when you have a vested stake in seeing us grow this company and seeing it succeed-which it will.”
Mr. Feldman’s background in literary representation extended beyond TV and into the motion picture world. Like his high school chum, Mr. Feldman is the scion of an entertainment-oriented family. His father, Edward Feldman, is a noted film producer of more than 50 motion pictures and telefilms, including “101 Dalmatians,” “The Truman Show” and “Save the Tiger.”
The younger Feldman is proud of having developed a roster of literary/producing talent when he was an agent at ICM, such as Kevin Williamson (“Dawson’s Creek”), Betty Thomas (“Dr. Dolittle,” “Private Parts,” “Hill Street Blues”) and Rene Balcer (“Law & Order: Criminal Intent”), that straddled the TV and movie worlds.
“The only person I wanted to do this with was Richard, because I don’t like the over-specialization you find in the producing business, where some people can only do movies and some people can only do TV,” Mr. Polone noted. “There are not many people who can understand the deal process on both sides of fence. You have people who say, `I’m just a creative executive-I don’t understand how to get a deal closed.’ Well, you can’t be creative unless you can get the deal closed.”
That is apparently why some marquee writers, producers and directors have let Mr. Polone and Mr. Feldman use their extensive backgrounds in business affairs and overall network contacts to handle the closing of series and script deals on their behalf. More than anything, big-name show runners-such as “Gilmore Girls” creator Amy Sherman-Palladino-spread their creative energy over everything from writing to executive producing to directing episodes of their shows. They don’t have the time nor the inclination or knowledge to protect their financial interests when it comes to network license fees and back-end profit participation.
“Both Gavin and Richard have a tremendous amount of energy and commitment when it comes to representing their roster of writers and producers,” said Columbia TriStar’s Mr. Mazza. “For the writers, they are tremendous assets and advocates to have in their corners. They have a great eye for writing talent and a knack for finding new voices that may have not been in the television arena before.”
“Producing a television show is such a mammoth job,” Mr. Polone said. “In the movie business, there tends to be a more of a breakdown of what gets done; the director has his thing, and the producers and writers do their things separately, on the whole. In the television business, it is standard that the director, writer, the producer and even the business affairs person can be all one person. What we can do is to break out the elements of producing a television show that the writer is the writer of the show, or the writer-producer of the show, [to avoid] things they are not well-equipped to do and allow them to focus their attention.”
Mr. Polone and Mr. Feldman also have an expressed interest in developing an “eclectic collection” of TV movies, limited-run reality series and game shows for next season and beyond. Pariah already has a commitment from HBO to produce a telefilm based on the ill-fated Donner Party, which cannibalized family members and friends after being stranded in the Sierra Nevada mountains over a long, snowbound winter.
Believe it or not, Pariah is developing a beauty pageant for the TV networks, though Mr. Feldman declined to elaborate on whether it would be similar to Fox’s much-derided “Sexiest Bachelor in America” and “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?” specials. “You can never tell what angle we’ll take with it,” Mr. Feldman said.

One thing is for sure: Mr. Polone and Mr. Feldman aren’t worried about offending the tastes of viewers or development executives by going against the grain with what has been seen as less than politically correct subject matter.
“Either way, we will alienate the world or take it by storm.” Mr. Feldman said.