Exit from series development strands Sony production deals

Oct 22, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Columbia TriStar Television’s exit from network TV series development has left boutique production companies that have deals with the studio wondering about their fates.
While Sony Corp. USA head Howard Stringer said last week that Columbia TriStar will abandon future program development for the broadcast networks (see story, Page 1), talent agency sources who handle representation for several boutique production companies and producers, said Columbia TriStar Television President Len Grossi and Tom Mazza, president of production, have yet to give them any firm indication whether the studio will close out all future development and new series production.
“What [Mr. Stringer] is saying in the media is going to make it harder for me to move forward,” said Gavin Palone, whose Pariah Productions has an exclusive production deal with Columbia TriStar and about a dozen projects being considered for the 2002-03 season. “If it closed its doors, I would have to ask at some point to be allowed to go to another studio.”
He is not alone on that front.
Just four months ago, claimed a leading Hollywood agency TV department head, Mr. Grossi had received word of imminent restructuring of the network TV division but went on to nonetheless sign major production deals to “ramp up and dress up the studio’s position in the network TV arena.
“Len was told by Tokyo to reduce the division, but he had also told them he had sold over 30 hours [of pilots] to the networks for next season,” the agency source said. “It was [a] valiant effort to maintain the integrity of the TV division.”
The unfortunate turn of events for the network TV unit is in marked contrast to a multimillion-dollar spending spree Columbia TriStar began last spring to corral major production talent.
Last August, Danny DeVito’s Jersey Television was wooed into leaving 20th Century Fox Television for an estimated $9 million three-year deal. A month or so earlier, the studio signed Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope Studios and independent producer Denise Di Novi (creator of CBS’s “The District) to similarly lucrative two-year deals. Other production companies that have deals remaining with Columbia TriStar are Brad Grey Television (“Just Shoot Me” and “The Sopranos”), James L. Brooks’ Gracie Films and actor Will Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment.
“Many of us saw it coming, and we all kind of put our heads in the sand hoping that Columbia TriStar could keep things afloat, but they did spend a bit high on the hog,” said an agency TV series packager who requested anonymity. “Those days may be gone, because the vertically integrated networks are not into signing as many overall long-term production deals or talent-holding deals these days.”
Michael Shamberg, co-chairman of Jersey Films, while declining to comment on the dollar amount of Jersey TV’s production deal, said much of the money provided by Sony goes into program development and “discretionary” budgets for signing writing and producing talent.
“This is not money committed to our pockets, but is for finding talent and generating projects,” said Mr. Shamberg.
John Landraf, president of Jersey Television, whose division has eight series currently in development with Columbia TriStar, said he was unaware of any pending restructuring at Sony at the time he signed the production deal with the studio. He also said Jersey, like other production units under Columbia TriStar auspices, are hearing they will receive a “formal moving-forward plan” from the studio that will grandfather in financing of programs already in the development.
“Given that our deal extends into August 2004, we will simply keep up to our end and continue to move forward on our existing projects,” Mr. Landraf said. However, Mr. Landraf, like other producers, indicated that they would otherwise expect Columbia TriStar to pay out the remainder of their existing contracts or sell their rights to another studio/network production entity.
“They have been terrific partners and a great home, so I’m just hoping this could be a minor restructuring,” Mr. Shamberg added.
While the fate of shows in the middle of development at Columbia TriStar is still up in the air, the studio will maintain production of the seven series it currently airs on the broadcast networks.
However, Columbia TriStar’s pullout of new development also has producers and talent agents lamenting the potential death of the independent studio community.
“It is what everybody feared when [the government] deregulated the business and got rid of the financial interest and syndication rule [in 1995],” Mr. Polone said. “What has happened to [Columbia TriStar] is the inevitable and expected byproduct of years of complacency when it comes to regulating the [media] conglomerates.”
Many in the Hollywood community wondered how long Columbia TriStar would survive.
“Columbia TriStar had always been a studio of first choice because of their independent status, and for the fact [that] producers felt they wouldn’t get screwed because Sony couldn’t do sweetheart in-house deals because they don’t own a [broadcast] network,” said an agency source. “But not owning a network also meant that Sony was susceptible to granting ownership positions to the networks-in addition to still carrying deficits and the huge overhead of keeping talent in long-term deals.”
For example, the agency source said even on hit series like CBS’s “King of Queens,” Columbia TriStar was “shoehorned” into a co-production deal, where CBS Productions, advertiser Procter & Gamble and show talent all share profits.
“By the time they gave out [gross profit] points to everyone else, Sony [was] probably left with no more than 30 points [percent] of the proceeds,” said the source. “I’m not sure if that could come close to covering their front-end [production] deficits on that show-even after its enters syndication [in fall 2002].”