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Shrinking the Big Picture : Six TV Series Seek Hit Status of Their Feature Sources; It's a Proven Gamble

September 24, 1996|GREG BRAXTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Casablanca" crashed. "Born Free" died.

"A League of Their Own" struck out. "Starman" faded, "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" was down and out almost instantly, and "Working Girl" didn't. "Ferris Bueller" flunked and "Dirty Dancing" was buried.

True, these titles were all smash hits when they played in movie houses. But when they and numerous other films went from the big screen to the small screen after being turned into television series, they bombed.

The graveyard of television's past is crowded with the remains of failed television series that were spun off from successful motion pictures. Fans of many of the films were disappointed by the smaller-scale versions, especially when the original stars didn't reprise their roles or the premise was watered down for television.

Still, television executives continue to attempt to break the theater-to-tube jinx. Six TV series based on films are premiering this fall, and others are in development.

"There is something appealing to executives and producers about taking a feature concept that has proven hit potential and turning it into a series that they feel has the same potential," said Dana Walden, vice president of drama for Twentieth Television, the TV production division of 20th Century Fox.

ABC is trying it twice. The television version of "Dangerous Minds," developed from the fact-based film about Louanne Johnson, a former Marine who teaches troubled high school students, will be unveiled on Monday, with Annie Potts in the role originated by Michelle Pfeiffer. And the small-screen adaptation of "Clueless," the hit 1995 comedy about a high school girl in Beverly Hills that made a movie star out of music video vixen Alicia Silverstone, premiered last Friday. Rachel Blanchard took over the role of Cher while supporting cast members from the film returned for the series.

Fox has a movie transfer in "Party Girl," about an energetic party-goer/library clerk. The third episode aired Monday night. Christine Taylor, who played Marcia in "The Brady Bunch" films, has taken on the character of Mary, who was played in the film by Parker Posey.

Meanwhile, cable's USA Network last month premiered "The Big Easy," based on the 1987 film about a New Orleans homicide detective. And in syndication, "FX: The Series," a spinoff of the 1986 film about a special-effects expert, premiered last Friday on KCOP-TV Channel 13, while "All Dogs Go to Heaven: The Series" began Saturday on KTLA-TV Channel 5.

Twentieth Television is preparing an update of 1992's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" for the Warner Bros. Network for midseason, with Joss Whedon, the film's writer, involved. The Walt Disney Co. is looking at four or five of its films for possible development into series. And NBC is developing a series for next season based on last year's black comedy "Fargo."

The biggest reason that producers keep trying, despite the spotty track record in previous attempts, is that a successful movie may deliver a pre-sold audience to the series. A show may have more of a chance to get sampled if it is identified with a successful film.

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But the transitions have not always worked because producers often take for granted that the basic premise for a film will automatically make a viable series, or that the audience will accept a new actor in the role played by one of their favorite movie stars.

Ted Harbert, chairman of ABC Entertainment, said, "It's a given that making any television show is difficult, but making a show out of a movie has added difficulty. When an audience has fond memories of a theatrical film, they would come to a series with greater expectations, as opposed to coming to it fresh like a brand-new idea. If they are disappointed, then they won't watch."

David A. Neuman, president of Walt Disney Television, said that audiences are often attracted to a film by its story. But in a weekly TV series, the story often takes a back seat to the characters.

"The individual story is much less important," he said. "What matters is how much we like the characters. How interested are we in them that we would want to see them week after week?"

He added that there were obvious exceptions: "Hannibal Lecter in 'Silence of the Lambs' was fascinating to watch once, and maybe again. But I don't think there would be a huge turnout for a weekly series about Hannibal Lecter and cannibalism."

To be sure, some movie spinoffs have become long-running television series. "MASH" is better remembered as a critical hit that lasted 11 years than as a 1970 film. "The Odd Couple," "In the Heat of the Night" and "Alice," a sitcom version of "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," also scored with viewers.

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But for every successful transition, there are numerous flops. Among the failures, many of which lasted only a few weeks: "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles," "RoboCop: The Series," "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventures," "Parenthood" and "Shaft."

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