Gail Berman on 'Dig' Buzz, Why She and Lloyd Braun Split and Dreams of Reviving 'Buffy'
The Jackal Group's chairman and CEO — and also the only woman to run a TV network and a film studio — sits down to discuss the fraught relationship between Hollywood and Silicon Valley and the one thing she can't scrub from her Wikipedia page.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
It's been six months since Gail Berman signed a lucrative deal with the Fox Networks Group to launch The Jackal Group, and the company's 5,500-square-foot Santa Monica office space, much like its slate of TV, film and live theater productions, remains a work in progress. The insignia for Jackal — a combination of her college-aged twins' names, Jacob and Alix — has yet to be hung outside the building, and rooms are still covered by tarp.
Working amid the construction is a team of eight (and counting), who will draw upon Berman's experience. The married New York native got her start as a Broadway producer before segueing to TV (Malcolm in the Middle, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and becoming the first woman to run both a broadcast network (Fox, 2000 to 2005) and a film studio (Paramount, 2005 to 2007). The former — Fox went from No. 4 to No. 1 under her watch, launching 24, American Idol and Bones — proved more successful than the latter; she left after only 18 months. More recently, Berman spent seven years at BermanBraun, where she and co-founder Lloyd Braun saw the bulk of their success in the digital realm with sites including Wonderwall and Glo, before she sold her stake in early 2014.
Berman's desk is lined with toys her kids have given her over the years.
With Jackal's first project — Dig, a Da Vinci Code-style thriller from Tim Kring and Gideon Raff, set to premiere March 5 on USA — and a new first-look film deal at Fox 2000, Berman, 57, sat down to discuss the many hats she's worn, the fraught relationship between Hollywood and Silicon Valley and the one thing she can't scrub from her Wikipedia.
What will differentiate a Jackal project?
I want to do things that I find interesting and funny. I think there's a tremendous opportunity in the comedy area right now, so a lot of what Peter [Rice] and I have talked about is focusing on that, though not at the dismissal of drama. I've had personal success with the form in the past, and I really felt like I might be able to find a good voice, and I think we have in Jay Lacopo [who's writing Fox pilot Cooper Barrett's Guide to Surviving Life]. As far as a business model is concerned, broadcast comedy is an excellent opportunity, and I think there's space in the syndication market for a successful one.
A shot from the day Elizabeth Taylor came to see 'Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.'
You were successful in digital at BermanBraun. What does Hollywood tend to get wrong there?
It's not so much what Hollywood gets wrong, but there are some fundamentals that you have to accept in the space that are different from the way we do business in traditional media. I've been quoted as saying, "Viral is not a business plan," and I don't mean to be flippant about it. The point that I try to make is that just the same way you need to have a business plan for distribution in traditional media, you need to understand what that is in digital media. There are certain people who get it and are moving it forward, like Peter Chernin, my mentor, and George Strompolos of FullScreen, and then there are a lot of other people who aren't interested in it at all. It's a disruption to their business model, and they don't quite see how it'll get them to the promised land. I see people every day who go, "That's on someone else's watch, that's the next guy's problem."
Why did you leave BermanBraun?
Sometimes life presents you an opportunity, and you're like, "OK, I'm going to take it." I haven't looked back one day. In Silicon Valley circles, it's very common for people to build a business, sell a business and move on, so when I'm talking to those folks, they get it. Down here, it's much more complicated. (Laughs.) Sometimes things just have a life cycle, a partnership has a life cycle, and when it's over, that part is over. But to be able to sell that thing that had value? Boy, as a female entrepreneur, that's an awesome thing.
You've encouraged other women, in particular, to be entrepreneurial. Why?
Because I have seen a lot of frustration in many fabulous women over the years who have lives inside major corporations, and some of them with amazing success stories. But what I see in entrepreneurship is the ability for people who don't necessarily appreciate their value within a large organization to be able to step out. It's a hard thing to do, I get that, but the reward is so fulfilling. And I just think often times we don't look at entrepreneurship in this business as an opportunity that's valuable, and I know in lots of other pockets of California people are doing it and looking at it in a much different way.
Queen Gail was a gift from Steve Martin.
You took over Fox when it was in last place, much as Gary Newman and Dana Walden did this summer. Is it harder to turn a network around today?
Oh, it's so much harder to galvanize an audience now. It was definitely in the dumps [when I arrived], and it was tough. But we had some great success stories, and over a five-year period, we were able to turn it around. But that's the important thing: It was over five years. You don't find yourself in this situation overnight and you can't fix it overnight. I think Dana and Gary are off to a great start.
When you bought Idol, did you ever imagine we'd still be talking about it today?
There are so many versions of the Idol story, and I'm always amused. We wanted summer programming — we were talking about year-round even then — and we knew we had something in Simon [Cowell]. But did we think it was going to change the entire business? No way, but sometimes you just get that chemistry. And, in a philosophical way, it was a post-9/11 world and I think we were all looking for something to galvanize around. Even the title, American Idol, might have influenced it. People don't remember the time we were in.
Shows you worked on — 24, Arrested Development and The X-Files — now are being rebooted. Depressing or exciting?
It doesn't depress me at all. I watched the 24 miniseries, and I was hooked. If it's not creatively bankrupt, go for it. I love the idea of rebooting The X-Files. I don't know what their plan is, but I can tell you I'd be on board to see it.
If you could reboot any show on your résumé, which would you choose?
Buffy. It was so much a part of my success story, and the idea of female empowerment and what that meant at the time for me and the TV world was so amazing. Let me put it to you this way: If and when Joss [Whedon] was ever really ready to talk about [a revival of any kind], I'd be wherever he wanted to be.
Despite all of your credits, why does your Wikipedia page devote the most ink to your decision to cancel Firefly?
There was a time when my kids would try very hard to change my Wikipedia page, so once a week they'd put things on there to try to remove this besmirchment of Firefly, but no matter what, it comes back. I get no credit for having put it on the air, mind you! (Laughs.)
What did you learn at Paramount about the differences between film and TV cultures?
In life, sometimes your moment is not right with the situation, and you've got to take the best you can out of it and move along — you can't get mired in it and have it destroy you or your career or your mental health. If you look at that moment in time and what I thought I was trying to do, I was a little early for the moment. All of the things that I was talking about, it all happened. I was the canary in the coal mine. (Mimes a crashing bird.) So, was it a drag? Yeah, of course it was. But it led to the next thing, and the takeaway is that you have to have your own self-confidence and wherewithal to move forward.
"The pillow was given to me by my head of reality [Mike Darnell] at Fox," says Berman. "When I came and he pitched me a bunch of wild ideas, I said to him, 'No one dies on my watch.' "
TV executives have struggled to move to film. Why?
That's a timing thing. It's a business clinging on to the last moments of it being one way. The transition is taking place, and every day here I meet with film executives who are looking to try to transition to television, some looking for advice, some looking for jobs. It's going to sound insincere, but the fact is: How lucky am I? There isn't another gal out there [who has run both a TV network and film studio]. It wasn't my best moment, but I'm glad I did it, and I learned a lot about a business I really wasn't familiar with.
Your name continually comes up for broadcast jobs. Would you consider going back to run a network?
I don't think so. But then I'd never say never because I don't think that's smart. I had a glorious experience at Fox, and it would be pretty tough to beat that.
Your first big project at Jackal is Dig. How did you get involved?
I got a call from Rick Rosen [at WME] that said Giddy had an original idea from Avi [Nir of Kashet]. Giddy came in with a paragraph idea, and we put him together with Tim Kring and developed the script internally. We didn't take it out to a network first or pitch it, we just had them write it. We thought it was a cable show, and likely a premium cable show, and in this case it wound up being USA because Jeff Wachtel and Bonnie Hammer read the script and they went crazy for it. It was in the moment that they were beginning to look at broadening out their model as a cable company, and it all fit together. So, they came back in an incredibly aggressive way; where others were offering pilots, they were offering episodes.
Dig had to relocate from Israel amid the unrest last summer. What kind of challenge was that?
We wound up shooting the pilot in and around Jerusalem, and then we were scheduled to have a three-week break. Obviously tensions were rising, and we relocated to Croatia and Albuquerque. It was painful to leave because we were all so excited about doing the season there, but, I'm paraphrasing Casablanca, the problems of a Hollywood film crew seem to be terribly insignificant when the world is having real problems.
Two bowls Chernin had made for Berman when she left Fox for Paramount.
You were just out of college when you went after the rights to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which later earned seven Tony nominations. How'd you do it?
Susan Rose was a friend of mine, and she'd seen Joseph at the summer theater at Catholic University, and she called me to tell me how amazing it was. Robert Stigwood owned the rights — he was the biggest producer anywhere, and we were kids working out of our moms' kitchens. We would call and say (in a professional voice), "I'd like to speak with Mr. Stigwood." I like to tell the story of Maudie, who was Mr. Stigwood's assistant at the time. We'd call a lot and she'd say, "He's not going to get on the phone with you today," but she was very nice to us and eventually she put us in touch with people who would ultimately be able to carry the ball forward for us. So when the show finally opened on Broadway, we made sure Maudie had the best seat in the house. Fifth row, center! But it was a journey. We had to raise $150,000, and we didn't even know where to start to raise that kind of money. I remember we used the Xerox machine in my dad's office, and we went to the library and looked up what a limited partnership agreement would look like. Eventually, a man named Melvyn J. Estrin came in with $75,000, which was a miracle, and he became our partner. He was an early believer in the Berman thing.
And you haven't lost that tenacity …
Oh, I still fight for every single project. I was writing to my friends at CBS to get my pilot ordered at CBS, sending them little missives, and they wrote me back, "Indomitable!" (Laughs.) But that's the job, and people put their trust in you. In that case it was [Andrew] Reich and [Ted] Cohen, and so I have to do everything I can do to get that show picked up. In that case, it was not successful; in the case of Jay's show, it was. Look, I'm wildly competitive. It's really sick. You'd think, "Let it go, girl," but I just can't. I want this company to do well. I want it really badly.