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Big Film Producers Make the Small Scene

October 01, 2000|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If television is seen by many as the less-glamorous kid sister of the feature-film business, it hasn't stopped those associated with the latter from trying to crash little sister's party.

Several new programs this season feature big-name feature film pedigrees, among them Fox's "Dark Angel," whose production team includes James Cameron, the writer-director responsible for such movies as "The Terminator" and all-time box-office champ "Titanic."

Other programs coming from producers associated with big-screen blockbusters include CBS' "The Fugitive," from Arnold Kopelson, who produced the 1993 movie starring Harrison Ford and its sequel; "C.S.I.," a CBS show about crime-scene investigators from "Armageddon" and "Top Gun" producer Jerry Bruckheimer; and "Freedom," a futuristic UPN show in which a group skilled in the martial arts rebels against a military force that has taken over America, hoping to recall the action producer Joel Silver served up in the theatrical smash "The Matrix."

Fox is also promoting a new macabre drama, "FreakyLinks," as being from the producers of "The Blair Witch Project," who actually will have little to do with the show itself but were involved with the concept and a related Web site. The low-budget "Blair Witch," of course, parlayed a savvy Internet marketing campaign into a whopping $250 million in worldwide box office.

While feature film names have been associated with their share of failures on television--including two canceled series from Silver last year, Fox's "Action" and UPN's "The Strip," as well as Bruckheimer's earlier adaptation of the movie "Dangerous Minds" into an ABC drama--there are success stories as well.

Popular franchises "The West Wing" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" come from feature writers Aaron Sorkin and Joss Whedon, respectively, while "ER's" producers include director Steven Spielberg and series creator Michael Crichton.

Of course, there are frequent charges these feature film names are just that--producers in name only. When Spielberg's big sci-fi concept "seaQuest DSV" premiered in 1993, one executive behind ABC's competing "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman" suggested wryly that the acclaimed director--who was occupied that year directing eventual Oscar winner "Schindler's List"--had yet to see the show himself.

It is sometimes difficult to get such talent to focus on television, as demonstrated by Crichton's proposed series for Fox, which was scheduled to make its debut in January and has been delayed while the network waits for the prolific novelist to deliver a script.

So what keeps attracting networks and studios to such projects?

"There's clearly a benefit on the promotional front," says Dana Walden, president of 20th Century Fox Television, which is responsible for "Dark Angel" and "FreakyLinks" as well as such shows as "Buffy" and its spinoff "Angel." "Someone like James Cameron has an incredible marquee name. ... [With] all the shows premiering in October and November, how do you stand out? Being in business with someone like Jim Cameron is clearly one of the ways you do that."

Indeed, most of the series mentioned lack well-known stars ("The Fugitive's" Tim Daly, a veteran of "Wings," would be one exception), relying mostly on youthful casts they hope will blossom into household names, a la "ER" or "Friends." In a sense, then, the producer becomes the star, at least from a promotional standpoint in the initial stages.

Although networks and studios clearly relish promoting the connection to a Silver or Crichton--allowing them to bill a project as being "from the producer of 'The Matrix' " or "the

creator of 'Jurassic Park' "--they say that's not the only reason for ordering such projects. The other is the creative input someone like Cameron or Bruckheimer brings to the table.

"The networks are very savvy about filmmakers' commitment [to a project], or lack thereof," Walden says. "The promotional side of this is only one reason why you make a deal with someone like Jim."

Yet movie producers and directors of that magnitude are seldom on the front lines in producing TV series on a daily basis. In the case of "The Fugitive," for example, John McNamara (most recently on ABC's "Vengeance Unlimited") is overseeing production of the show, while Cameron has teamed on "Dark Angel" with Charles Eglee, whose credits include such Steven Bochco productions as "Murder One" and "The Byrds of Paradise."

For his part, Eglee says he has no problem with seeing Cameron's name in lights. "In a universe of branding, he's a big brand name," the producer says. "This represents a real amalgamation of our sensibilities."

Understanding why film producers want to dabble in television isn't hard to fathom. The distinction between the two media has blurred as people increasingly view entertainment as "content," to be delivered through all kinds of distribution apparatus.

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