How Lorimar, the Company Behind 'Dallas' and 'Falcon Crest,' Bred Hollywood's Ruling Executive Class
The industry's major players -- Leslie Moonves, Bruce Rosenblum and Nina Tassler -- along with co-founder Merv Adelson look back (and tell all) about the hit factory that spawned iconic series like "The Waltons" and "Full House," plus a few box-office misfires, on its 45th anniversary.
Still, Adelson had held on to that dream of making Lorimar a successful movie studio. In 1987, he tapped manager Bernie Brillstein as chairman of the film division after acquiring his company the previous year. Brillstein hired a promising executive from Showtime by the name of Peter Chernin as his president of production. The pair were soon joined by a team of creative executives, which included Robert Greenblatt and Bert Salke.
ROBERT GREENBLATT, story editor: Bernie stepped away from this lucrative management company for the opportunity to become a studio head. Unfortunately, he began his tenure at Lorimar while in a famous feud with Michael Ovitz, then head of CAA, which made packaging films with A-list talent very difficult.
BERT SALKE, director of production: [CAA's] dominance was such, at the time, that it almost shut down the studio. It was over a Brillstein-Ovitz issue regarding mutual client Jim Henson. It's something that could never happen in the Hollywood we live in today.
STAPF: I remember we had a town hall meeting, probably 500 people gathered on this giant soundstage. They were going on and on about the film division and how they were going to revolutionize the business. They said the big tentpole they were going out with was Action Jackson [starring Carl Weathers]. I remember the entire room going, "Huh?"
SALKE: It was the beginning of the spec script auction insanity. They allowed me, a 25-year-old kid, to buy one of the first specs that sold for a million dollars [Next of Kin]. The movie went almost immediately into production, something that would take two years now.
GREENBLATT: We made one exceptional film, Dangerous Liaisons ; one great but little-seen one called The Witches , starring Anjelica Huston; and about a dozen more spotty ones like Action Jackson , Dead Bang , starring Don Johnson and Next of Kin , starring Patrick Swayze and Liam Neeson. But we were out of business after only two years.
ADELSON: We didn't get over the hump with movies and we had to decide whether we wanted to plow more money into movies or take a lot of money from somebody else.
Part 3: The Billion-Dollar Takeover
Though Lorimar was the leading primetime producer in 1989, with nine network shows, the company was in trouble. It had taken a $52 million write-down on the scandal-plagued Karl Home Video, the 1987 recession had eroded its first-run syndication business and losses at the film division continued to escalate. That year, Adelson engineered a deal for Warner Communications to acquire Lorimar-Telepictures in a stock transaction valued at $1.2 billion. Adelson became vice chairman of the Warner board. (Years later, a series of bad investments forced the man once worth $300 million into bankruptcy.) By 1990, Moonves had stepped into the role of Lorimar Television president and the lucrative unit, along with the team he had assembled, continued to operate independently from Warner Bros. TV until the two competing divisions were consolidated in 1993.
BARRY MEYER, executive vp Warner Bros.: When we first began looking at [Lorimar-Telepictures], they were a company at the top of their game in traditional primetime TV production, at the cutting edge of new forms of first-run production and distribution, with a young, deep and aggressive management team that we felt would fit perfectly into Warner Bros. It also was a company that had overextended itself and was desperately in need of a bear hug.
SCHLESINGER: I remember being at the Cannes Film Festival with our theatrical group. We were making all the money in TV and they were losing all the money in theatrical. They were camped out at the Majestic Hotel in this enormous suite -- very luxurious with champagne and great food and they were entertaining their buyers. I came in and said, "OK, I'm here to sell some TV and home video. Where can I work?" They looked around and went, "I think we can fit you in at a little desk in that room over there where all our videocassettes are stored and where the two assistants type the contracts." Halfway through the market, we got a call that Warner Bros. had bought Lorimar and that Lorimar Television was taking over the combined entity and Lorimar Pictures was going away. So I picked up my material, walked into the living room, sat down on the couch and said, "I think I'll have all the rest of my meetings right here."
MOONVES: At that point, Disney recruited me to come run television. I had a meeting with Jeffrey Katzenberg at 7 a.m. at a Jack in the Box in Burbank. The only other people in the place where two homeless guys in the corner. I was leaving that day to go on vacation to the South of France, and I said, "We'll talk when I get back." Then, in typical Disney style, I'm off in France and my lawyer, Ernie Del, calls me to say, "Michael Eisner wants to meet with you and he's in Paris building Euro Disney." So, sure enough, I stop in Paris. Michael has a phenomenal apartment, and we met there for an hour and a half. We had a terrific meeting, and then I get on a plane to London. By the time I land, my lawyer calls: "They've made an offer." We approached Bob Daly and Barry Meyer and said, "Hey guys, Warner Bros. already has a TV division, so I'm going to save you guys a lot of money and go to Disney." And Bob said, "I'm sorry, you have a contract for another year and a half and I'm not letting you out of it. But don't worry, it's all going to work out."
NINA TASSLER, director of TV movies and miniseries: I started at Lorimar in movies of the week [in 1990]. Leslie's background, like mine, was in theater, so he had a lot of playwrights under contract. He was about bringing in the best writers, directors and actors and then nurturing them. I mean, he kept George Clooney under contract for I don't know how many years until he finally did ER.
DAVID JANOLLARI, vp comedy development: I was working at Fox as director of comedy development when Les said, "Come on over to Lorimar and help amp up our comedy division." At the time, they had all the Miller-Boyett TGIF shows [Full House, Family Matters], which were huge hits, but comedy was burgeoning. I'd never run a department and was thrown into it -- probably a little in over my head, to be honest. One of the longest relationships I had had was with Marta Kauffman and David Crane back from their playwright days in New York. They were one of the first calls I made, and we made a big deal with them. Three years into the deal, Friends emerged.
In 1993, Lorimar TV was absorbed into Warner Bros. Television. But just as Daly had intimated to Moonves years earlier, he had nothing to worry about. Moonves became the president of Warner Bros. TV, and his team, led by Tassler in drama and Janollari in comedy, remained intact.
JANOLLARI: I don't remember one piece of fallout. We had the same offices. A couple of people from the Warner Bros. side ended up joining us, but essentially we just kept doing what we were doing.
TASSLER: I remember when we were over at NBC casting the Dr. Peter Benton role on ER, which ultimately went to Eriq La Salle. The network had signed off on another actor; I think it was Isaiah Washington. Leslie said, "No, that's not going to work for me." Eriq was doing a show for us called Under Suspicion at CBS at the time, and Leslie said, "We're going to push production on ER, so Eriq can wrap Under Suspicion." It was unheard of for a studio to say that to a network.
SCHLESINGER: In 1994, I was working out a deal with Channel 4 in the U.K., who desperately wanted to buy ER, and I said, "There's another show you're going to have to take with that. It's called Friends." They didn't want it, but I said, "No, no. You're going to have to take it." Finally they agreed. I was asking them to pay $25,000 a half-hour, and I said, "Not only do you have to take it but you have to buy the life of the series at 10 percent increase per year." So, 10 years later, I might have been making about $62,000 from it. They said absolutely not and ended up buying two years at $25,000 with a 10 percent increase in the second year. You can only imagine how many million of dollars we made at Warner Bros. because Channel 4 refused to buy the life of this series. It was the best negotiation I ever lost.
MOONVES: I'm sure that when Warner Bros. came to take us over, they were really nervous. Warner Bros. had Murphy Brown and one other show and we had, like, 14. It was funny because the Warner Bros. guys said, "Oh, we're taking you over," but within a couple of years we know what really happened: The Lorimar guys took over Warner Bros. Television.
Part 4: The End of the Line
The Lorimar ethos and executive corps drove Warner Bros. TV to great heights -- yielding juggernauts like Friends, ER and The Drew Carey Show -- but the fragile chemistry fell apart once Moonves departed for CBS in 1995 and began drafting his former colleagues. The Lorimar name was long gone, but now the soul was as well.
MOONVES: It was that Lorimar team that had that phenomenal run. Then I came over to CBS. By the way, Bob Daly wouldn't let me take anybody for 18 months. There was a no-raid contract, which we honored -- but then I brought Nancy over and Nina over. The whole gang came over. We've all been together basically since then.
ROSENBLUM: Lee and Merv had created a culture that was extremely entrepreneurial, and then Leslie came along. Leslie and the guys hired very well. Leslie had an eye for not only creative talent but also for executive talent.
MOONVES: We had a great team. We liked working together. We liked winning. We liked being the best. We liked being considered the best. And I think it's fair to say Lorimar was the last great independent television production company. This is the last group of people that did this. They don't make them like this anymore.
Additional reporting by Kim Masters and Bryn Elise Sandberg