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This story first appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Two decades ago, Justin Falvey and Darryl Frank independently decided, within weeks of each other, to leave their respective TV jobs and join a fledgling production company. That company, co-founded by Steven Spielberg, was DreamWorks, and the pair has remained there ever since. As co-presidents of the TV division, Amblin, which runs separately from the company’s film side and without funding from India-based Reliance, Falvey, 47, and Frank, 45, have been actively bulking up a portfolio that once housed Undeclared, Spin City and NBC’s Smash. Today, Amblin has four broadcast series, including CBS’ recently renewed summer entries Under the Dome and Halle Berry’s Extant, and three more on cable, led by FX’s The Americans. There are many more in development, including a female-led Minority Report spinoff. The Amblin strategy: remain untethered to a major studio, and attempt to sell everywhere.
The men, both married fathers of two, are best friends (they were featured on THR‘s Next Gen list in 2001) who often finish each other’s sentences. “People say, ‘We don’t know who’s good cop and who’s bad cop anymore,’ ” says Los Angeles-bred Frank, whose father once served as president of Paramount TV and Walt Disney TV. Falvey, a Boston native whose wife, Samie, runs comedy development for ABC, jokes, “That’s the idea.” Seated in their offices on the Universal lot, where they oversee a lean team of nine, the executives talked about Spielberg’s influence, former Turner chief Michael Wright’s new DreamWorks gig and the perks (and drawbacks) of remaining independent.
What defines an Amblin show?
FALVEY The one common denominator is that they’re distinctive and original in that there’s not a fastball cop, lawyer, hospital show down the middle. If it’s a hospital show, it’s a Red Band Society [Fox]. And it goes all the way back to Freaks and Geeks and Rescue Me. They’re shows that may not be the easiest to pitch. Honestly, it’s why we end up having a lot of spec [script] sales, because they’re hard to sell until somebody can look at it on the page and see the potential.
How involved is Spielberg, especially when he’s off shooting a film?
FRANK He looks at every outline, every script, watches every cut, signs off on every production designer, cinematographer and visual effects artist.
FALVEY He’s directing this Tom Hanks feature now, and two days before he began principal photography on that, he was giving notes on an outline of season five of Falling Skies [TNT]. And then two days into shooting, we sent him conceptual art for a new alien, and within two hours he’s responded.
His name is not on every one of your shows. How is that decision made?
FRANK It depends on what other business he has going on. The only show his name is not on right now is The Americans, and that has to do with a lot of factors, some of which were what other projects he had going on at the time. [It’s important to] not overexpose his time or name.
FALVEY The Borgias was the same predicament. It came at a time where he had two films.
You have unique writer deals. How do they work?
FRANK We don’t even have a business affairs exec. We have lawyers, but we just develop the shows with the writers. What we always say is, “We’re working for free and you’re working for free until it sells.” Once it sells, the writer is the one getting paid, not us, until it gets made.
You don’t have a roster of writers, so where do the bulk of these projects begin?
FRANK A lot of them are generated either from an idea of Steven’s or ours, or from a property, book or format. Because we don’t make overall deals, our currency is our ideas and then the properties we control, so we tend to go to a lot of writers with different ideas.
Do you foresee having to alter that strategy as more and more studios and networks lock up writers?
FALVEY When we started here, we were in the deficit financing business, and we had overall deals. It’s a very different business model, and we’ve become, as Steven likes to describe us, a smaller, guerrilla type of company. We’re not set up, financially or otherwise, to house overall deals. This is a model that’s worked for us.
Any drawbacks of not being in that business?
FALVEY It’s certainly harder to find comedy writers. The majority of those people have deals at places, and that’s been a challenge for us. But we don’t have the means, and we don’t feel like we really need to go out and make big deals. The way we’re set up as an independent production company — Steven finances our business by choice — allows us to partner with any of those people at [their respective studios]. So whether it’s through Warner Bros. or Sony or we sell a show directly to the network and then lay it off at an in-house studio, we can approach any writer with a deal at any one of those studios, if we’ve got their blessing and it makes sense. That’s unique.
FRANK We wouldn’t have shows at so many different networks if we had a deal somewhere. And it allows us to get the networks invested.
When you look at your portfolio, what’s missing?
FRANK Ted Sarandos, if you’re listening, we would love to have a Netflix show.
FALVEY And more comedy. It’s the hardest thing to crack, conceptually and creatively, but it’s something that we all want to do, Steven included. Every year, we talk about it.
Former Turner executive Michael Wright is replacing Stacey Snider and will run the film studio here. How involved were you two in his hire?
FALVEY Michael is one of our closest friends, and we’ve worked with him for a long time at TNT. But [DreamWorks] is a separate entity from us. It’s financed by Reliance, and he will not be doing TV. But what’s great about these two companies is that there has always been a great synergy, and we do pick each other’s brains.
FRANK There are tons of people who work on series for us, and Steven says, “Hey, I love that person; have them do a rewrite on this [film] script.” So while the two companies are totally separate, we have a common goal, which is to grow, nurture and protect the Spielberg brand.
Extant fell shy of ratings expectations. How will you try to broaden that audience for season two?
FALVEY The conversation we’re having is, how do we open this up? How do we bring in an audience and let the show grow? And like anything, most of that is character and story; it’s not about the mythology and the genre part of it.
FRANK The key with Extant and [Under the] Dome is to not get niche, where it feels like a sci-fi show. It has to feel like a character show with sci-fi elements, and that’s what we’re constantly trying to balance.
With hindsight, do you think Red Band Society would have been a better fit for cable?
FRANK There’s a definite barrier to entry with the concept [set in a hospital’s pediatric ward], but we felt if we could get past that, it could be this big, broad-appeal show. And Fox was always clear to us that they were going to be patient with us, and they have been. It’s the only show that I do that my teenage daughter thinks is cool, so it better stay on. (Laughs.)
Reboots are big this season. Anything from your own library that you’re dying to adapt?
FALVEY Every year we try to convince Paul [Feig] and Judd [Apatow] to bring back Freaks and Geeks. It’ll never happen.
FRANK And every year people come to us to make Jaws, the TV series. We have no interest.
FALVEY Minority Report‘s a great example of something that should be [rebooted] because there’s a way to produce that as a series that is not stepping on the film. Our way into it [for Fox] takes place after the film, in terms of the time frame. It’s a great title and property, and there’s a great procedural engine that drives it.
How did you each get here 19 years ago?
FALVEY I moved out [from Boston] and knew two people in the business, one of whom worked at ICM, and he introduced me to Ari Emanuel, who became my first boss. Nothing would stop him. He was 24/7. Now he’s got a couple of assistants. It would’ve been great to have somebody helping me out! (Laughs.)
FRANK I got a call from [Jeffrey] Katzenberg, whom my dad had worked with at Disney. He said, “We’re starting up this company and we want young, aggressive people.” When I started, there wasn’t even an office for me. Justin was nice enough to share his office.
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