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Jersey Films Tries Small Screen on for Size

Movies * New CBS series will feature a resilient woman's struggle for day-to-day survival a la 'Erin Brockovich.'

February 23, 2001|GREG BRAXTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There's something about Jersey Films and projects named after heroic women.

The powerhouse production company is in the throes of Oscar fever with "Erin Brockovich," which is up for best picture and could earn Julia Roberts an Academy Award for her portrayal of the feisty single mother.

On Saturday, the production company will unveil its television division's first offering, "Kate Brasher," a CBS drama about a single mother struggling to keep her head above water. Kate comes with her own personal struggles as well as a new job solving others' problems at a community action center.

On the company's development horizon is "Emma Brody," about a young woman working at the U.S. Embassy in London.

Despite the name game, John Landgraf, president of Jersey Television, wants to make it clear that there is more to Jersey's strategy than a name. His mission is to bring the film company's distinctive brand of topical and offbeat material developed by the Jersey Film partners--Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher--to the small screen.

Among the titles that have made Jersey Films a formidable player in the motion picture industry are "Pulp Fiction," "Get Shorty" "Living Out Loud," "Man on the Moon," "Out of Sight" and the upcoming "The Caveman's Valentine," about a homeless, mentally disturbed man who sets off to solve a murder.

"What we are trying to do with Jersey all has to do with the integrity of the brand, how we relate to talent, and developing material with honesty and straightforwardness," said Landgraf, who joined Jersey in 1999 after serving for five years as vice president of prime-time series for NBC. Jersey is partnered with 20th Century Fox Television.

His plan--as with the film division--is not to follow industry trends or determine what concepts or performers have "heat." He contends that the company will not always pursue the most obvious or commercial choice.

"We want to support writers who have integrity and vision," said Landgraf. "We don't want to cheapen the material. If we can really stick to the vision, I believe we can come up with some exceptional material. We define the concept, then try to sell it to the proper place."

Sher added: "If we aim high and miss, we can still keep our heads high."

Landgraf said that "Kate Brasher," while true to the company's philosophy, was not an easy sell at the networks. Jersey Films was initially unable to find a buyer for the series, which explores the life of a lower-middle-class woman trying to make ends meet. The series also examines social issues as well as spirituality, as Brasher and her teenage boys regularly seek inspiration from the Bible by randomly picking out verses.

"It's certainly not obvious," said Sher. "Of course, if you pitch 'Erin Brockovich,' it just sounds like your average TV movie. But we believe that a woman struggling through ordinary circumstances is a real unusual concept for TV."

Added Landgraf: "It's such a unique landscape for television, and it's very much like the kinds of projects we want to do." Involvement with 20th Century Fox Television helped give the project some additional juice at the networks, and the casting of Mary Stuart Masterson solidified the show's appeal.

In addition to the dramas, Jersey is developing several other projects ranging from an animated comedy for MTV about a time machine to a live sketch-comedy show to a romantic adventure set in the Silicon Valley.

"We're about stylish characters in character-driven shows," Landgraf said. "With the film company, we already have a great reputation with writers, and we're going strongly for that crossover. It's something we feel will really work."

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