For whom production tolls: Small tollin/robbins outfit becoming a giant killer

Aug 12, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Hollywood loves a rags-to-riches story. It’s Lana Turner being discovered at Schwab’s. It’s Tony Danza being noticed as he’s working out at a boxing gymnasium in New York. It’s Christie Brinkley getting tapped on the shoulder while she’s walking down a street in Paris. “Kid, I’ll make you a star,” all were told, and then success happened, of course, almost overnight.
OK, maybe it didn’t quite happen in that romanticized way we want to believe. But the myth of someone being an overnight success is still irresistible.
Two of Hollywood’s latest “overnight” successes are business partners Mike Tollin and Brian Robbins.
The two men have about 20 employees working out of a nondescript office in a small two-floor North Hollywood building, and nine series in production for next season — including four destined for The WB’s prime-time schedule — to “overnight” put Tollin/Robbins Productions into the upper echelon ranks with the four major vertically integrated Hollywood studios. And Tollin/Robbins is as versatile as the big studios, producing such varying fare as “Smallville” for The WB, “Kenan & Kel” for Nickelodeon and the 1999 feature film “Varsity Blues.”
In fact, Tollin and Robbins have slowly, deliberately, build up their “overnight” success over the past 10 years. Four years ago they added a talent management division — headed by former agent Michael Goldman — that has established a strong farm system of young stars (such as Amanda Bynes and Nick Cannon) and writer-producers that rivals management/production houses such as Brillstein-Grey Entertainment and Industry Entertainment.
“What makes Tollin/Robbins the next-generation entertainment company comes from Brian and Mike’ finding their creative origins as directors and nonwriting producers and using that total understanding of the creative process to the benefit of all the company’s entrepreneurial activities,” said Albie Hecht, president of film and television entertainment for Viacom’s Nickelodeon, TV Land and TNN cable network holdings.
“What’s unique about Tollin/Robbins is that they are involved in all forms of entertainment — be it reality series, comedy and drama series, motion pictures and talent management,” Mr. Hecht said. “I don’t know who else in the independent production arena has this kind of diversity of creative programming they work in.”
Die-hard sports fans
In fact, Mr. Hecht jokingly labels himself as Tollin and Robbins’ “godfather,” having introduced the two to each other during the production of a 1992 TV special, “Magic Johnson’s All-Star Slam ‘N Jam,” in Hawaii. Less than a year later, the pair formed Tollin/Robbins Productions.
At first blush, though, Mr. Tollin and Mr. Robbins could not have seemed more creatively disparate.
Mr. Tollin, 46, a longtime avid fan of his hometown Philadelphia 76ers basketball team and Philadelphia Phillies baseball club, found his early career roots in TV as the producer, writer and director of such sports fare as the 1980 syndicated series “The Baseball Bunch” and the 1988 documentary “The Final Season,” dealing with the demise of the USFL pro football league.
On the other hand, Mr. Robbins, 38, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native who moved to Los Angeles at age 14, dropped out of UCLA to pursue acting — most notably as cast regular Eric Mardian in ABC’s high school comedy “Head of the Class” (1986-91). He used his acting experience to segue into producing and directing.
“Mike is just one of those guys born with a baseball mitt on one hand and a basketball in the other,” related Mr. Goldman, who also noted Mr. Tollin’s and Mr. Robbins’ passion for weekend pickup basketball games at their family homes. “Both of them are die-hard sports enthusiasts and it is something that has just permeated through the entire company’s penchant for sports. Brian, because of his acting and directing background, also has this ability to help athletes understand the craft of acting and the opportunities after life on the field.”
Most notably, the world of sports laces its way through a lot of the creative and management decisions at Tollin/Robbins. In fact, it was when Mr. Goldman worked as a talent agent at International Creative Management that the pair approached him in 1994 to package the Peabody Award-winning motion picture documentary “Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream,” dealing with the life of the home run king. To mount the documentary, which was released in theaters — earning an Academy Award nomination — and also aired on Turner Network’s Superstation TBS, they had to convince actor Denzel Washington to narrate and use his leverage to get Mr. Aaron’s participation.
“We wanted an audience with Denzel, and Michael made that happen. And it wasn’t easy at the time because people were asking who the hell we were,” Mr. Tollin recalled. “We had one little piece of tape from a 45-minute documentary that hadn’t even aired yet. Michael bulldozed his way through to get us that meeting, and Denzel sat there and grilled us for two hours on, ‘Why should I want to do it with you?’ And then at the end, Denzel said, ‘All right, call Hank Aaron for me. I’m going to Atlanta to see him.'”
Their initial long-form sports specials, which included “Sports Theater with Shaquille O’Neal” on Nickelodeon, was a natural segue into developing adult-oriented sports programming, including, in 1996, “Arli$$,” currently the longest-running series on HBO. The critical recognition for “Arli$$” gained the attention of Bob Gutkowski, then chairman of The Marquee Group, and SFX Entertainment Chairman Robert Sillerman, who was in the process of acquiring The Marquee Group in late 1998. As Mr. Tollin recalled, Marquee and SFX put together an offer sheet to buy Tollin/Robbins Productions with an “open checkbook.” The actual number was $22 million, according to a company insider, and thus Tollin/Robbins became part of the SFX empire. “A lot of our shows still had a sports theme, so it felt like there was a natural connection there,” Mr. Tollin said. “It all made sense.”
Station group owner Clear Channel Communications later bought out SFX, giving Tollin/Robbins access to even deeper pockets and the promotional synergies of 1,200 radio stations, 7,000 billboards and 36 TV stations.
Those considerable media assets and financial backing from Clear Channel have kept Tollin/Robbins from being exposed to financial risk on the deficit financing of TV series. The burden of maintaining any kind of production deficits — a key concern for Tollin/Robbins — was further eased when Bruce Rosenblum, executive VP of Warner Bros. Television Group, lured the budding independent into an exclusive TV development and production pact with Warner Bros. Television.
The corporate ties with Clear Channel even had the group’s radio stations and outdoor media playing a hand in offering promotional support for Tollin/Robbins’ production and launch of The WB’s freshman hit “Smallville” last fall.
“We’re pretty autonomous, but the good news is that on occasion, like in the launch of ‘Smallville,’ they [Clear Channel] really supported the launch of the show,” Mr. Tollin said. “They gave us all the promotional time and all of the available promo inventory they had in excess to get it off with a bang. They provided a great deal of our on-air promotionl support and I’m sure The WB was somewhat grateful.”
“What’s interesting is that in the summer of 2000, Tollin/Robbins had been developing a script based on the young Bruce Wayne [of ‘Batman’ lore], but for a variety of encumbrances [with the movie division], we could not develop that property as a series,” Peter Roth, president of Warner Bros. Television, recalled. “Instead, Joe [Davola, chief of Tollin/Robbins TV production] and his development team came back with the concept of doing a show based on a young Clark Kent, and we teamed them up with Al Gough and Miles Millar. The rest is history. Their instincts are so good, but it is their sense of commerciality and what taps a vein with young people [that] makes them stand out.”
Even before “Smallville” launched last fall, Tollin/Robbins’ creative team tinkered
with a post-Bruce Wayne “Batman” concept for The WB’s upcoming fall drama “Birds of Prey,” which emphasizes female empowerment through the Catwoman and Batgirl characters of the comic book series. To give “Birds of Prey” a bit of its own historical nomenclature, Mr. Davola and Mr. Roth engaged Laeta Kalogridis (“Joan of Arc”) to pen the pilot episode, while Mr. Robbins jumped aboard as director.
Grooming talent
Buoyed by Tollin/Robbins’ handling of the storied DC Comics franchises, The WB also made a formal midseason 2003 pickup for the action-adventure “The Black Sash,” a martial arts series to be headlined by Russell Wong (“Romeo Must Die”). Tollin/Robbins’ management division also played a hand, with Mr. Goldman “discovering” 19-year-old Canadian actress Missy Peregrym and signing her to a long-term management deal.
“Missy is just one of those incredible talents who jumps off the screen, literally. She’s got a black belt and she’s a really stunning actress who can kick some ass,” Mr. Goldman said. “As a management company with production ties, [we can] craft a series and movie projects around actors’ talents and really focus on building star talents in a more focused way.”
Tollin/Robbins’ talent management unit has had its greatest success in grooming Amanda Bynes and Nick Cannon as rising stars. After introducing Ms. Bynes in “All That” and launching her into Nickelodeon’s “The Amanda Show,” Tollin/Robbins made her one of the centerpieces of The WB’s upcoming fall 2002 comedy “What I Like About You.” To get “What I Like About You” off the ground, Tollin/Robbins turned to client Dan Schneider — who penned the original story for “Big Fat Liar” co-starring Ms. Bynes — to co-write the pilot.
“Every working relationship finds a comfort zone, and certainly ours with Tollin/Robbins dates back in genesis to a phone call about Tollin/Robbins setting up a housekeeping deal at Warner Bros., one that fits right in our wheelhouse of finding and nurturing young talent,” said Jordan Levin, The WB’s president of entertainment. “The fact is that with the bulk of Tollin/Robbins business previously with Nickelodeon, we were, frankly, aware of Amanda for some time and begging them to bring her over.”
A bit of synergy also comes into Ms. Bynes’ debut on The WB, with sister division Warner Bros. Pictures just wrapping movie production in London on her theatrical film “American Girl.” Mr. Goldman suggested that Warner Bros. Pictures will likely buy “considerable” promotional time within the 8 p.m.-to-8:30 p.m. Friday airings of “What I Like About You” next spring. There has also been some talk of Ms. Bynes “hosting” interstitial wraparounds on an “American Girl”-themed evening on the network, he added.
“It’s kind of the perfect scenario,” Mr. Goldman said of Ms. Bynes being placed in starring platforms in two Warner Bros. vehicles. “What we try to do here is to create as much opportunity [as possible] for our client base, internally and externally. Ultimately, what this is going to lead to — if we are successful in our efforts — is creating more exposure for our clients and awareness for our production and management business here.”
Working with talent agents
At one point, when other management companies such as Michael Ovitz’s Artists Management Group and Keith Addis’ Industry Entertainment sprouted up, there was widespread concern from the five established talent agencies in town that the largely unregulated talent management boutiques would try to directly represent talent in series negotiations. While that did not necessarily pan out, especially in light of Mr. Ovitz’s recent sale of AMG (to another talent rep company called The Firm), Mr. Goldman said Tollin/Robbins consciously maintained a low profile and a policy of taking a 10 percent commission on the star’s front-end TV and movie salaries — on par with the state-regulated commissions for talent agencies.
“Tollin/Robbins’ mandate has been to work with talent agents rather than trying to compete with talent agencies,” said Jeremy Zimmer, a partner and board member of United Talent Agency and the person who represents Tollin/Robbins in TV and film ventures. “The talent management side of the company has had a truly agnostic approach to the business, where they may bring in their relationships and clientele to be combined with the other elements we bring in to packaging series deals. It’s really been a very symbiotic and collaborative relationship we’ve had in working with Tollin/Robbins.”
Mr. Goldman and other Tollin/Robbins executives said taking what he called “slow, organic steps” into growing the talent management side of the company will keep it from making the kinds of mistakes made by Mr. Ovitz, such as placing his clients in TV projects that he funded entirely through Artists Television Group, a TV production unit that was quickly awash in red ink and shut its doors late last year.
“They were the darlings of that development season two years ago, when they had something like five series pickups,” Mr. Davola said. “You know, a lot of companies — not just ATG — were out there throwing a lot of shows into the first-year [series] business because a lot of [network] people have a knack for wanting to get involved with new people. But if you can’t keep them on the air, it’s not worth it. So you’ve just wasted a lot money, which has gone down the drain, and you’re never going to recover from the [production] deficits. The important thing for us is to make these series that last and minimize our exposure to downside risks,” which is accomplished by getting series financing through Tollin/Robbins’ association with Warner Bros. Television.
One of the most logistically and financially ambitious projects to come out of Tollin/Robbins is “Slamball,” an “extreme” basketball league sport credited as coming from the fertile mind of onetime intern Mason Gordon. In getting “Slamball” on TNN’s Saturday prime-time schedule, where it debuted Aug. 3, Tollin/Robbins turned to Warner Bros.’ sister production unit Telepictures Productions to partner on the project.
Through a prior acquaintance with Philadelphia 76ers owner Pat Croce, Mr. Tollin — like a true Philly fan — got the often effusive hoops booster interested in taking an equity stake in “Slamball,” in addition to serving as high-profile front man for the new made-for-TV sport. Mr. Tollin elaborated that in addition to Mr. Croce’s investment and Telepictures’ financing on the first 13 episodes produced for TNN, Clear Channel’s broadcast and outdoor properties are again at work in providing promotional support.
The “extreme” nature of “Slamball,” a hybrid that melds basketball with the physical nature of hockey and volleyball (players can be checked into hockey boards and there are face-offs instead of foul shots), is what Mr. Tollin hopes will bring young viewers and the adults 18 to 49 demos from TNN’s lead-in wrestling programs. Mr. Gordon, the former intern, a strapping 6-foot-4 athlete in his own right, now doubles as executive producer and player for the Diablo “Slamball” club. Initially, six L.A.-based teams compete on “Slamball.”
“While this is still a developmental league in a number of ways, there could a multi-city league set up in a couple of years,” said Mr. Tollin, who noted that actor Cuba Gooding Jr. and his kids came to play on the “Slamball” set during shooting last spring. “With the falloff in viewing and participation in traditional sports, what we’re finding is the growing number of fans of action sports will take to our combining the team sports model with the individualism of action sports. Certainly, this is something that we think has long-term viability as a sports property.”
Behind Mr. Tollin, his office seems to be dominated by a pair of behemoth size-22 high-top gym shoes, replete with Shaquille O’Neal’s fluorescent signature. If sports is metaphor, one can’t escape the notion that Mr. Tollin and Mr. Robbins are clearly trying to fill Shaq’s shoes.
And, lo & behold, it looks as though these “overnight” successes might pull it off.