The WB’s Star Factory

Jun 23, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Go to the Web site of any Big 4 network and you will find predictably static program descriptions, network news and schedule information.
Now go The WB’s site. Different story. The WB’s site reads like a temple of fan worship crafted by die-hard viewers rather than the byproduct of a media conglomerate. There are biographies, interviews, discussion boards and extensive high-resolution photo galleries for nearly every performer on the network. There’s even a downloadable monthly calendar that looks like a spread for Tiger Beat, featuring hunky WB stars giving their best sultry stares.
Most networks, in other words, simply promote their shows. The WB focuses on promoting its unknown actors into youth idols.
And the difference has helped the network attract enviable demographics while launching a brand of young stars. Katie Holmes, James Van Der Beek, Amanda Bynes, Michael Rosenbaum and Jamie Kennedy have all gone from near-anonymity to WB fame to starring roles in recent feature films.
This fall, the network hopes to add a few more names to its list of success stories. Names like Travis Fimmel, who stars in a contemporized version of “Tarzan and Jane.” Anthony Anderson, who appears in the semi-autobiographical comedy “All About the Andersons.” And Rachel Leigh Cook, who plays an FBI agent with a unique mutation in “Fearless.”
The Casting Challenge
The first stage in the alchemy process of turning relative unknowns into Next Big Things is crafting roles that will appeal to The WB’s 12-to-34-with-a-female-skew demographic. The network has avoided procedural shows in the vein of “CSI” and “Law & Order,” and hasn’t pursued reality programming as aggressively as other nets. Instead, The WB broadcasts a mix of empowered females, brooding clean-cut males and lifestyles that provide audience wish-fulfillment over showcasing harsh urban realities.
“When we develop our dramas there’s a sexiness to them and there’s a youthful point of view,” said Maria Grasso, the net’s VP of drama development. “A lot of our shows are about firsts-first crush, first year at college, first loves.”
“Youthful,” “sexiness,” “firsts”-it should be no surprise the median age of a WB viewer is only 31. That’s younger than any other broadcast network. According to insiders, The WB’s demographics allow “Smallville” to command about the same ad rates as “60 Minutes.”
“The WB has been very successful. They’ve had a consistent vision about what they’ve wanted to do,” said Steve Sternberg, senior VP for the ad-buying firm Magna Global USA. “And you look at their median age, they’re still youngest, but they’ve also grown a bit and are no longer appealing to strictly a teen audience.”
Finding new, inexperienced actors who can stand alongside the iconic likes of Buffy and Superman isn’t easy, however. So when casting shows, what special qualities does The WB look for?
“Youth,” said Kathleen Letterie, The WB’s executive VP of talent and casting. “And, um …”
There’s long pause.
Then Ms. Letterie laughs. It’s difficult to think of a more defining criteria than youth for the WB casting process. Though Ms. Letterie did come up with another qualification: “We really look for actors that I like.”
Which is not mere boasting but a network fact. Ms. Letterie has been with The WB since its 1995 launch and is credited with discovering several of the net’s biggest names.
“Every year she is extremely smart about calling agents and managers and asking who they’ve got and who’s hot and up-and-coming,” said Jeff Morrone, manager of WB actors Gregory Smith and Rachel Leigh Cook. “She meets with them and brings them in several times before pilot season. Most networks try to do that, but she’s excellent about that.”
Choosing actors to audition for Ms. Letterie, however, can be a bit daunting.
“If somebody is not gorgeous, it’s very rare you send them in on a WB audition,” said Mr. Morrone. “They will say, `They’re not WB,’ and what that means is they’re not pretty enough.”
Ms. Letterie oversees casting for about 30 pilots each fall and doesn’t dispute that she values youth appeal and charisma above acting chops.
“I think if they’re really passionate about the role, then they will learn and grow,” Ms. Letterie said. “I’ve worked for other networks, and what works here is finding people that have longevity and are stars and have a certain likability.”
Unknowns are also less expensive than using name actors. Still, Ms. Letterie said, there’s an inherent risk in betting on performers who are less experienced.
“You never know for sure,” she said. “The challenge is taking a chance and then living with it.”
Ms. Letterie took one such gamble this fall when she cast Calvin Klein model Travis Fimmel as the lead in “Tarzan and Jane.”
The Right Fit
After Ms. Letterie saw dozens of actors for the Tarzan role (“Lots of muscly guys, lots of no-shirts”), she opted for Fimmel despite his lack of previous acting credits.
“You would think it would be easy to cast this in Hollywood because there are so many good-looking guys. But nobody besides Travis even came close,” Ms. Letterie said.
Another Letterie find is Chad Michael Murray, 21, whom she pushed for a lead role in the midseason replacement “One Tree Hill”-a serial teen drama attempting to fill the niche vacated by “Dawson’s Creek.”
Mr. Murray is an example of how Ms. Letterie will keep trying to find a good fit for actors deemed WB-worthy. He has appeared in four WB shows, including episodes of “Dawson’s Creek” and “Gilmore Girls” and a WB feature-length remake of “The Lone Ranger.”
“They’re like a family,” Mr. Murray said of The WB. “If they find an actor they believe in, they try to get you on all their pilots.”
Some insiders, however, are skeptical that The WB is an inherently superior destination for young actors than any other network.
“Pilot season is like Vegas,” said talent manager Erik Kritzer. “You can pick the best script, the best showrunners, the best network, and the pilot can still sit on the shelves. You look at the role, you don’t look at the network.”
Mr. Kritzer represents actress Sasha Barrese, 22, who appears in the new WB comedy “Run of the House.” Despite having a healthy skepticism of network promises, he admits he’s been impressed with The WB’s initial publicity efforts.
“When you get on a show on most networks, an actor has to start thinking of getting a publicist because the publicity department only cares about promoting the show and not the actor,” Mr. Kritzer said. “The WB does a beautiful mixture of both. As soon as Sasha got cast, the publicity team called us to take her out to lunch, and now they’re calling with certain ideas-and that’s a good sign.”
MIT advertising researcher Alex Chisholm noted that The WB’s serial teen dramas have managed to build audiences that are intensely committed to the shows and cited The WB’s promotion tactics as a key reason.
“They’re totally about the actors and the performances,” Mr. Chisholm said. “Even the way they do their teases, they use very face-based shots of actors in front of the WB logo.”
Other analysts contend that by virtue of skewing young, The WB has an unfair advantage for generating press.
“A lot of the popularity of the young stars has to do with the press obsession with young stars,” Mr. Sternberg noted. “How many stories do you see in the press about `Judging Amy’? And people see these stories and it carries over to the program.”
WB publicist Paul McGuire admits that eye-candy-casting can make a publicist’s job easier.
“Everybody is trying to do the same thing,” Mr. McGuire said. “But by virtue of it’s a 12 to 34 target, you’re much more likely to be in the wheelhouse of YM and Seventeen.”
Recognizing that an actor’s rising profile benefits the program, The WB also tries to accommodate actors who land roles in theatrical films.
“There’s huge crossover between our audience and the feature audience and we don’t try to pigeonhole them,” Ms. Grasso said. `
`Our viewers are used to seeing Katie Holmes, and they don’t care if it’s the small or big screen.”
Spoken like a true fan.