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Production ‘Pods’ Profitable

Jun 2, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Just over one-third of the new scripted series on the broadcast networks’ fall schedule were born out of studio deals with nonwriting producers.

Those deals have been widely referred to as “pod deals,” but each studio has its own definition for them and the terms vary.

Regardless of semantics, studios have found these associations with production companies to be a financially sound model that has been producing solid results for the studios in recent years. These deals came into vogue when the writers market changed and studios realized that paying writers millions of dollars for an overall deal wasn’t paying off in successful shows.

“It’s financially beneficial upfront because most of these deals rely on one-shot pieces of development, not overalls,” said Dana Walden, co-president of 20th Century Fox Television. “Typically, you’re not paying a big guarantee to these production companies. You’re paying their overhead on the television side and then you’re funding their development.”

She said the pod deals add an extra layer of cost into producing the shows, compared with shows that come strictly out of 20th development, but “it is a very efficient form of development.”

At 20th Century Fox Television, a “pod” is considered a company that works as a separate production entity with its own development executives who create shows for the studio. Twentieth’s production pods include Original Television, Imagine Television and Brad Grey Television.

Warner Bros. doesn’t consider any of its producer deals to be pods because all of them are under the umbrella of Warner Bros. Television, reporting to Warner Bros. Television President Peter Roth. Deals with nonwriting producers are similar to those with writing producers. Jerry Bruckheimer Television, The Tannenbaum Co. and John Wells Productions are all in Warner Bros.’ production stable. Some of the companies have their own development executives on staff and others do not. It depends on the volume of the companies’ work.

NBC Entertainment considers it a pod deal when NBC provides overhead and resources to a nonwriting producer to develop projects for the broadcast network. Gavin Polone’s Pariah and DreamWorks Television have pod deals with NBC. However, Pariah reports to NBC network executives, while DreamWorks reports through NBC Studios.

Creative Benefits

Pod deals have both creative and financial, benefits. Marc Graboff, executive VP of NBC West Coast, likens pod deals to the music industry, where one record company has several labels.

“It enables a diversity of creative viewpoints to be incubated so that the buyers at our network aren’t just listening to viewpoints that are coming from one set of creative executives at our studio,” he said.

Ms. Walden agreed, saying it is a way to make sure that they don’t “homogenize the product” coming out of the studio.

Producers in pod deals are often seasoned TV network or studio executives who bring that skill set to the studio and allow studios to broaden their executive ranks without much more overhead cost. A writer in an overall deal can usually write only one or two scripts, whereas an experienced executive can oversee more projects at one time.

“They get a little more bang for their buck when people like us can do four pilots and get three series on the air,” said Eric Tannenbaum, who runs a production company with his wife, Kim, that is housed at Warner Bros. “One single writer or team of writers couldn’t do that.”

Mr. Tannenbaum received three series pickups for fall-Two and a Half Men for CBS, The Mullets for UPN and Run of the House for The WB.

Marty Adelstein, whose company Original TV is parked at 20th, said production pods make sense for major studios. “To have an extra set of eyes and ears of people that they have a relationship with and trust makes them much more able to handle the volume,” he said.

Fox picked up two Original TV series, Tru Calling for fall and Still Life for midseason.

Executives at pod production companies often bring another valuable commodity to the table-talent.

“They [studios] get access to people they may not have had relationships with before,” Mr. Adelstein said, pointing out that his company has relationships with a lot of feature film actors, writers and producers who can be called on for TV projects. Studios also use pods to help find newer writing and acting talent that the mainstream studio system may have overlooked.

Pod production companies keep the atmosphere of an independent company, yet they benefit from the major studios’ resources, such as production expertise, business affairs, casting and other back-office services.

While each deal is different, most studios give production companies seed money to develop new shows, as well as production credits, fees and parts of the backend if a series is picked up.

“They get to maintain their own autonomy when they are out in the marketplace talking to writers and agents,” Ms. Walden said. “Up to a certain dollar level, each of them can make their own decisions about who they want to be in business with.”

Studios can be good partners to have in other respects as well. “These guys have tremendous leverage with Friends, ER, West Wing and hit shows on every network,” Mr. Tannenbaum said. “Ultimately, someone does have to spend the money to do all these things, and these guys are one of the few that really do step up and support their people and shows. We couldn’t be where we are today without them.”

However, with more hands stirring the same pot, who has ultimate creative control over a TV series?

Most executives and producers say there is usually contractual language giving the studio final creative control, but that the studio and production company usually work together creatively.

“We have business control and we share creative involvement,” Ms. Walden said. “It’s misleading to suggest that anyone other than the creator has creative control. It is a creative partnership.”

Joint Decisions

For shows created by production pods at NBC, creative decisions are made jointly, but the network always has the final say if the show is on the NBC network, Mr. Graboff said.

Mr. Adelstein, who was producer David E. Kelley’s longtime agent, said, “He’s the only person I know who has final creative control.”

Mr. Kelley’s production company has long been set up at 20th Century Fox, but Ms. Walden said it isn’t considered a pod deal because he is in the unique situation of being a writer and creator of shows, unlike the studios’ other pod deals.

High-profile producers often end up with more creative control because studios and networks want to maintain good relationships with them and not be known as meddlesome.

Mr. Kelley, who had a very public dispute with ABC over the network’s decision to move The Practice to a less favorable time period, made headlines again last week when he fired six members of the cast of The Practice, including star Dylan McDermott. He cited his lowered budget to produce the show since ABC cut the show’s license fee in half upon renewal, leading him to dump high-salaried actors. Several of the fired actors were paraded onstage during ABC’s upfront presentation in New York two weeks ago. ABC Entertainment Chairman Lloyd Braun would not say whether ABC knew most of the cast would be departing when it renewed the show.

Most studios are in the business of producing shows for all of the networks, so shows from their production pods could end up on any network.

Since NBC’s goal with production pods is to develop for its own network, it works a little differently.

If NBC passes on a Pariah or DreamWorks project and the production company wants to shop it around, NBC’s involvement in the project ends immediately, Mr. Graboff said. “We didn’t want to be in business of financing deficits on shows that are on other networks,” he said.