He gets real

Jul 15, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Only in arcane Hollywood would the word “alternative” be used to characterize what now constitutes around 85 percent of programs on the network schedules. Chris Coelen, head of alternative programming at United Talent Agency, is out to take the much-discussed genre even beyond that number.
Mr. Coelen, 33, is sitting atop a division within the agency that seems to be growing as fast as the office space UTA is absorbing in the heart of Beverly Hills, Calif. Once a nonfactor while the reality boom swept America’s television sets a couple of seasons ago, UTA has launched two high-profile summer series, NBC’s “Law & Order: Crime and Punishment” and TBS’s “Worst Case Scenario,” this summer alone. Coming around the bend are TNT series “The Residents,” Carsey-Werner-Mandabach’s syndicated series “Livin’ Large” and ABC’s much-hyped Joan Cusack talk show, among others.
“Its funny because with `Survivor’ the alternative business has gotten a lot of attention about being hot or a new genre. But if you look across the landscape and around the world, the alternative business probably makes up about 20 to 21 hours a day on your average channel,” he said. “People may say the boom is over, but let’s face it, the stuff works. It worked 20 years ago and it works now as a viable programming option.”
Though he now boasts clients who include “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” executive producer Michael Davies, Pilgrim Films’ Craig Puligian, R.J. Cutler’s Actual Media Productions and RDF Media, Mr. Coelen almost opted out of the business before moving to the alternative realm. He joined UTA in 1996 and before that was an agent at the Agency for the Performing Arts, which he joined in 1992 and where he created the agency’s division representing on-air hosts and producers.
“About a year and a half ago, I decided this was the only thing I wanted to do,” he said. “I was going to quit and become a producer because I was dying having conversations with casting directors and actors who just didn’t have anything I was interested in. It was exciting because it was an opportunity to be entrepreneurial and build from the ground up.”
The agent is an outdoorsman, opting to surf or hike when time permits, but work remains his main passion. Since forming the Alternative Programming Department, Mr. Coelen’s packaging deals have included the Emmy Award-winning PBS series “American High,” upcoming reality series “The Residents” and “Livin’ Large,” starring Carmen Electra.
Mr. Coelen recently firmed up deals with Thom Beers (of “Monster Garage”) and packaged TNT’s Stan Lee animated series “Stripperella” featuring Pamela Anderson’s voice.
“When I was with WAMI[-TV in Miami], Chris was the only agent that called on me. He saw opportunity when no one else saw it,” said Matti Leshem, executive VP of Davies’ Diplomatic Productions. “Not only is he highly intelligent but he works so hard to help push clients in the right direction. He’s someone we rely on for a business perspective as well as someone whose opinion matters to us.”