Drama Behind 'Terra Nova'
Too little footage, too many producers: Why Fox delayed its hot dino series.
In January, Fox executives gave TV critics gathered for their winter meeting an upbeat appraisal of the network's costly and ambitious sci-fi series Terra Nova. With Steven Spielberg lending the project his dinosaur cred, Terra Nova had already attracted lots of interest on the Internet, with fans panting to get a look at a two-hour preview set for May.
But even then, key players on the project suspected that the chances of delivering that preview were not good. And though Fox promoted the series during the Super Bowl in February, the network acknowledged weeks later that it would not launch until fall because its visual effects "require more time to be realized."
But sources involved with the project say the situation was more complicated than that. With more than a dozen executive producers credited on the pilot and an array of writers coming and going, the series returned from its shoot in Australia in December without enough footage to create the promised two-hour opener. "There was a massive underestimation of what they had and how it would cut together," says a source with firsthand knowledge.
A Fox spokesman acknowledges that the production returned without sufficient footage, but he says this sort of problem is not unusual on a show with extensive action sequences. The bigger issue was that the dinosaur effects would not have been finished until a day or two before the scheduled broadcast. Sending out incomplete press screeners "was not the way to build excitement for this show in which we all have a significant investment," he tells THR.
Accounting on the project makes it tricky to calculate the cost of the pilot, but various reports have pinned it anywhere between $10 million and $20 million, which could make Terra Nova the most expensive broadcast pilot to date (rivaling or even passing the Lost pilot, which cost more than $10 million in 2004). Fox denies that and says the bulk of the cost was for building sets, which, amortized over 13 episodes, reduces the amount attributable to the pilot.
Terra Nova follows a family that travels from the 22nd century to the prehistoric era as part of an attempt to save the human race. It's what network executives call "a big swing," and despite the many challenges of making it, sources involved say it has the potential to be a big hit.
But the launch has been pushed back twice. Fox initially set the series as a midseason replacement in 2010. In August, the network instead announced a preview in May 2011 and a fall launch -- a tactic Fox used with Glee.
Terra Nova started as a three-page treatment from British writer Kelly Marcel. Former William Morris agent Aaron Kaplan brought the material to WME, which took it to Fox. Craig Silverstein (Bones) was then brought in to develop a script. Based on that version, Fox asked Spielberg and former News Corp. president and COO Peter Chernin to come aboard as executive producers, with the promise that Terra Nova would be greenlighted straight to series if they said yes. As Fox network chief Peter Rice later explained, building a new world just for a traditional pilot would have been "prohibitively expensive," but amortizing the cost over 13 episodes was feasible.
But Silverstein had developed the series Nikita for the CW, and when that project was picked up last spring, he departed, leaving Terra Nova without a writer. Fox brought in 24 veteran Brannon Braga, who hired fellow 24 alums David Fury and Jon Cassar (though by September, Fury was out because of creative differences). Screenwriter Allan Loeb was then brought in to do a rewrite.
Just about all of these individuals -- Kaplan, Marcel, Silverstein, Braga and Cassar -- had been given credit as executive producers, plus Chernin, Spielberg and a clutch of their associates: Katherine Pope, Justin Falvey and Darryl Frank. The tally was 10 and counting.
As production drew near, Fox was still weighing how long the pilot should be. The initial script had been too lengthy to fit into an hour, so the question was whether to cut it down or build it up. Sources say no decision had been made even a month before filming started in November. But two episodes could be sold overseas as a movie -- a Spielberg fantasy, no less -- and TV veterans say that would command big dollars. (A top executive at a rival network says such a movie might sell for as much as $8 million.)
Once the network decided to go for it, much of the regular writing staff was laid off because series production would have to wait until the two hours were in the can. With production getting under way in November, Fox brought in yet another executive producer, veteran showrunner Rene Echevarria.
At this point, the series was starting to sound almost biblical in terms of begetting exec producers. Final tally: 11, but only if you don't count director Alex Graves and Fury, both credited on the pilot.
Then another seemingly biblical problem arose in Australia: rain. "It never stopped," Graves recalled this month at Wonder-Con. "There were days where we would have to not go to location."
Graves and his team returned from Australia in mid-December. In January, Fox entertainment president Kevin Reilly told TV critics that the Terra Nova footage looked "fantastic" and praised Graves for braving rough conditions to create the two-hour pilot for May.
But when it turned out there wasn't enough material to make two strong hours, some involved faulted Graves. "Creatively, he bumped heads with everybody," says one talent representative with ties to the production. "He shot what he wanted to shoot."
Fox, citing the difficulty of timing action sequences, splits the blame between Graves and Braga. "Brannon misjudged it at the script stage, and Alex and his script supervisor misjudged it as it was being shot," a spokesman says. (The spokesman acknowledges that Echevarria was actually the showrunner and says it's impossible to parse responsibility between him and Braga.)
Braga and Echevarria declined comment. Graves and his representatives also declined comment, but several industry insiders say his reputation is impeccable and reject the idea that he could be at fault. "Usually the director is the last one to make those kinds of mistakes," says a high-level executive at a rival network. "Maybe the problem is that there are so many cooks in the kitchen -- all the producers on the project, along with the network and the studio."
In fact, several sources say the scramble to expand the script was a source of trouble. "To say that this was a challenging situation would be a gross understatement," one says. Another individual concludes that three elements combined into a recipe for trouble: the many voices on the project, story issues that had not been completely worked out and efforts to contain costs that might have gone too far.
"You start trimming here and there, and you have no margin for error," this person says. When sequences turned out short, there was no extra material to use. "This is really a feature idea," this observer adds. "You should have $100 million to make the thing, and they're making it for a fraction of that. There is no one person who is to blame -- it's a combination of circumstances with a really complex production."
Fox has brought in editor Ken Horton (The X-Files) to help pull the pilot together. Sources say the first hour looks much improved, but Horton had to fill it out with material borrowed from the second episode, which was already short.
And all the focus on the pilot raises questions about the rest of the series, which has yet to be created. "These two hours could be great," an insider says, "and then they have to deliver every week."
At this point, the regular series is set to go into production in June; the scripts for those episodes have yet to be finished.