'Empire' in a Winery? 5 Hot Trends of TV's Development Season
TV's breakout hit is influencing pilot pitches as reboots and family comedies dominate and networks chase a 'Serial'-style crime thriller.
This story first appeared in the Oct. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
"Think Empire …" That is how dozens of pitches for new TV shows have begun this development season. "You name it, we've probably heard it," jokes one network exec, who rattles off examples including a "Latina Empire" and "Empire set at a winery." But the deluge of Empire offshoots isn't the only theme to emerge this season, which is off to another late start as networks still are vying for several projects well into the fall. As the broadcast nets look to populate their pipelines with projects that can cut through in an increasingly crowded landscape, This American Life's popular Serial podcast has supplanted Homeland as the frequently touted thriller archtype being pitched around town. Not unlike their film studio counterparts, network execs also are relying heavily on big stars, big titles and a seemingly never-ending string of reboots. With the annual buying season heading into its final stretch and sellers looking to wrap up their business before the end of October, here are five of the bigger trends.
1. The Empire Effect
Ever since Lee Daniels and Danny Strong's hip-hop take on Dynasty became broadcast's biggest hit earlier this year, the Big Four have been looking to put a soapy spin on, well, pretty much anything. "On a creative level, the drama headline is 'Soaps, Soaps and More Soaps,' " confirms Universal Television president Bela Bajaria. "Buyers really wanted to buy in that genre, and a lot of writers wanted to write it." Among the projects in development: CBS' Genes, a high-concept medical soap from an unproduced screenplay by the late Michael Crichton (ER); NBC's funeral home musical soap from Jason Katims (Parenthood), Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (Smash); and ABC's Baghdad-circa-2004-set soap produced by Shonda Rhimes.
2. More High-Concept Comedies
Fox's big swing on Will Forte's The Last Man on Earth drew critical raves and a large enough audience earlier this year, prompting a wave of similarly high-concept comedies now in development. "Everyone wants their version of that," notes one lit agent. Proof: Fox and ABC found themselves in a heated bidding war that required personal outreach from ABC's Paul Lee and Fox's Dana Walden for a comedy about a talking dog (ABC won the project, Downward Dog).
3. All About the Family
The search is on for the next great family series, with divorce comedies like Nicholas Sparks' ABC effort The Next Chapter in particularly high demand. Broadcasters have snapped up half-hours from proven producers including Rhimes, Mike Schur, Amy Poehler and Suburgatory's Emily Kapnek. "We're all trying to figure out the family dynamic that's not currently on the air," explains ABC Studios executive vp Patrick Moran, who says his studio is looking for diverse voices, particularly Latino. Jonathan Davis, president of creative affairs at Empire home 20th Century Fox Television, is high on an Indian family comedy it has in the works. Says Davis: "People want to see reflections of themselves in something new."
4. The Serial Draw
Crime and military thrillers have been in high demand as broadcasters look for the kind of compelling cliff-hangers that got viewers to tune in each week for ABC breakout How to Get Away With Murder and the Sarah Koenig-hosted podcast Serial. While Phil Lord, Christopher Miller and Fox 21 TV Studios already have scooped up rights to the latter for cable, broadcast nets are looking for their way in: CBS has a CIA drama inspired by the lives of the MythBusters co-hosts, for instance, and NBC went straight to series with a Taken reboot. Adds an agent, "People are trying to get the rights to other true-crime stories and podcasts."
5. What's Old Is New Again
Failed reboots including the since-scrapped Coach and Fox's low-rated Minority Report are doing little to taper broadcasters' appetite for the familiar. In fact, Fox is readying adaptations of the films Lethal Weapon, Fatal Attraction, Urban Cowboy, Training Day and Behind Enemy Lines, while CBS is targeting new versions of Nancy Drew, MacGyver and H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau. "There has to be a reason [with IP] to do it," says Davis, who stresses patience on Minority Report. "It rarely works, so we're gut-checking ourselves. We have to be really sure it feels contemporary and a show that should be on now."