'Community' Revival: Sony Exec Talks Studio Persistence, Movie Odds
Sony Pictures Television president of programming and production Zack Van Amburg talks with THR about reviving Dan Harmon's cult comedy: Who's returning, how much it will cost and if they'll get the movie after season six.
Sony Pictures Television continues to be the biggest champion of its original programming after the studio reached a landmark deal to revive NBC's canceled cult comedy Community for a sixth season — at Yahoo.
The deal came after weeks of discussions with everyone from former home NBC to Hulu and other suitors, with Yahoo seeing out the Joel McHale-starrer from executive producer Dan Harmon while SPT was already in deep negotiations with fellow streaming service Hulu, which retains online streaming rights to the first five seasons of the show.
Here, Sony Pictures Television president of programming and production Zack Van Amburg talks with The Hollywood Reporter about shopping the series, why Yahoo is a good fit and if the critical darling but ratings-challenged series could continue beyond its upcoming sixth season. (You know, after the first half of #SixSeasonsAndAMovie comes to pass.)
How did this deal come together?
The easiest way to say it is we never give up. We try so hard and have a pretty decent record now of saving and/or rescuing some of our favorite shows, whether it's Damages or Unforgettable. Certainly, Community is right in there in a passion project and it's got a storied past. Dan Harmon was gone; we invited Dan back; Dan came back; [NBC Entertainment chairman] Bob [Greenblatt] picking up the show every year — it was a weird pickup we had last year, where he was sort of apologizing to himself and to the audience for picking it up again [laughs] and was bowing under social pressure to do so. When the news came down that we weren't going to be back on NBC for another year, it wasn't surprising news but it was disappointing for sure. Usually at other studios, that means the end of the road. Once the network says, "We've spoken," unless you're Sony and you just think that's an initial reaction, everywhere else it's sort of final. We had a series of conversations with NBC and finally Bob, as nicely as he could, said, "Stop f—ing calling me about Community!" [Laughs.] We pushed that one too much and we started to reach out to some of our other partners and networks. I saw it speculated in the press that there was decent interest from Hulu. That was true. We had a pretty advanced conversation. They have been an amazing partner; the show has done great things for them and their support has been beyond appreciated. It made sense that between Hulu and Comedy Central — who both currently carry the show — that maybe that was going to be our savior. We were in pretty advanced conversations with Hulu and we had made a half-dozen or so phone calls to other places. Then out of the blue — and this never happens — I got the best phone call in the world from Yahoo selling us on why Yahoo would be great destination [for Community]. To be honest, we were so far down the path with Hulu that, hopefully not arrogant but [we were], maybe a little bit dismissive of their overture, which made them that much more committed to explaining to us and to Joel McHale and Dan Harmon why this was going to be a cornerstone of the new Yahoo that they're about to unveil to the world. They really want to be close to their users and viewers and wanted it to be a safe destination for creators. It was an excellent and articulate speech.
Yahoo is slowly starting to get into originals, following the likes of Amazon, Hulu, Microsoft and Netflix. What kind of concerns do you have that Community will find an audience here vs. on a more established streaming platform?
Here's the good news: For most of the big services, including cable networks that preexisted, it really just takes one show. I think we've proven that we have a built-in fan base. I'm less concerned about finding audience on Yahoo than I was at 8 p.m. on NBC. We had no lead-ins because we were kicking off the night. And when you take a look at the ratings on NBC, we did better than everything that followed us and preceded us at 8 on Thursday night. The show has a rabid fan base that I think will come to it no matter where it is. More importantly, we have a younger, very savvy audience that understands shows exist in alternative places. There will be strong online appeal. There's going to be a groundswell of support. The Yahoo people said something very interesting: They're looking to create shows and content for people that didn't know that that's what they wanted. Meaning they're very encouraging on the fact that strong word-of-mouth and good buzz is going to bring an audience. But they also believe they have a real plan to intro Community to a whole new audience that may not have heard of it yet. All those marketing plans are going to be forthcoming, but they were pretty savvy about what their new plan is. In terms of their slow rollout, in our history as a studio, The Shield went to FX at a time when nobody really knew what FX was. Breaking Bad went to AMC at a time where nobody knew what AMC was because we sold that and Mad Men hadn't been on the air yet and there was no original strategy there. We've been in early on the Netflix side of things and are very encouraged. I have nothing but genuine high hopes for Yahoo, particularly when you talk to the management there. They're really savvy and part of why you haven't seen a lot come from them is because they want to be very strategic and specific about how to be successful. We certainly liked what we were hearing from them.
When we spoke in May during upfronts, you mentioned you were receiving multiple calls about finding the show a new home. Who was part of that first wave of suitors? I'd imagine your first hope was another broadcast or cable network.
I always think the easiest thing to do when a show gets canceled is to convince its home network that they were wrong in their cancellation. The truth about the upfronts is that people are pressured to make decisions, and you try to make the best decision with the information that's in front of you. But I often think what doesn't happen is taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture. We're always hopeful that we can keep a show — as we did with CBS' Unforgettable. I got a nice note this morning from Nina Tassler saying the show is fantastic and she's happy to have it. That was canceled a few years ago and, out of the rush of May, she looked up and said it made sense to keep it. The hope is always to try your best to keep the show on the originating network. That wasn't in the cards. The conversations were as wide as you could imagine. We called other broadcast networks. There wasn't a lot of room on the schedule and it was a strange comedy year for the other broadcast networks. We had targeted conversations cable-wise and most aggressively with Hulu. They made a significant offer on the show, but it was Yahoo that surprised us all and came in so aggressively and positively.
How will Yahoo's deal impact Hulu's streaming pact? Will the first five seasons remain there?
That sixth season is an entirely different streaming pact. The Community that was will continue to be on Hulu. The Community that will be will be on Yahoo.
What are the prospects for Community beyond season six? Is this a final season? Could it hit seven seasons?
I don't know, let's see how our movie does! Isn't that our plan? There's no way we're not making the movie now! I think once we make the movie, let's look up and decide how much more Community the world wants. We promised six seasons and a movie, how much more do you want?! [Laughs.] … I'd be lying if I told you that we have not had some very early and preliminary conversations that are very exciting about what a potential movie could be and who might direct it. It's early but it's completely in our thought process.
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Could the movie stream on Yahoo or are you looking for a theatrical release?
I don't know; that's the part that is preliminary. It was not part of our Yahoo conversation. We were singularly focused on getting the series picked up but I think anything is possible.
Is the entire cast returning?
That's our plan, yes. Today we're sending notices to everybody only because we have a separate deal both with Joel McHale and Jim Rash; we've been having lots of conversations with them and Joel has been fantastic. The hope is that the whole cast is coming back.
How does the per-episode budget for Yahoo compare with NBC?
We will not cut any money from what we were doing on the broadcast version of the show. No low-cost digital whatever; Yahoo was spectacular with that and told us how much they stand for quality. You haven't seen a whole slew of announcements out of them but when they make announcements, they want them to be loud and to stand for something. They really were beyond supportive with understanding the production demands of a sixth-year show. They are fully supporting it in their deal and beyond; it's pretty historic.
How big of a role did Harmon play in resurrecting Community?
Dan puts so much of himself into these things. The last thing you want if you're Dan Harmon is a delusional studio executive calling you up saying, "Here's the weather report and here's how we're shopping it." We were mindful of the fact that we had tried to do [the show] without Dan at a time and going forward we wanted to do it with him. We gave him a gentle heads-up that we were going to be having conversations without specifics. When it got down to the final moments of making the deal, Dan was front and center and had a great conversation with Yahoo and had a lot of very thoughtful questions about protecting his baby and how they were going to nurture it along. He was intimately involved in the finals steps. He was not involved in getting us to that place just because it's too hard to mourn the loss of something more than once and he has done that when Bob made the initial call. We didn't want to prolong the pain.
Community's sixth season will debut in the fall on Yahoo.