Golden 'Oaks' pickup first big deal for Reilly

Fox nabs spec by scribe Schulner

In his first major development move since taking the reins at Fox Entertainment, Kevin Reilly has picked up the high-concept drama "The Oaks" with a rich series commitment and has tapped "The Shield" creator/executive producer Shawn Ryan to run it.

Fox snagged the spec by writer David Schulner, about the intertwined stories of three families living in the same house during different periods, after a heated bidding war with CBS.

Michael Cuesta has come on board to direct the pilot. Ryan and Cuesta are based at 20th Century Fox TV, which is producing the project with studio-based Little Engine (formerly Roundtable Entertainment). Schulner, Ryan and Cuesta will executive produce with Little Engine's Gina Matthews and Grant Scharbo.

It is understood that the penalty for the project is in the same range of $2 million that CBS recently paid for the Barry Sonnenfeld-directed fantasy drama "Kingdom" (HR 7/18). Additionally, the spec is said to have fetched a seven-figure fee from 20th TV.

Playwright/TV writer Schulner, who has worked on such series as ABC's "Desperate Housewives," WB's "Everwood" and most recently HBO's "Tell Me You Love Me," said he'd been thinking about writing a "suspenseful relationship drama" for years.

After he and his wife moved into their first house four years ago, Schulner began to wonder about the people who had lived there before them, and his original idea evolved into a drama about three families — a young couple who just lost a child in 1967, a family of four in 1987 and a pregnant couple in 2007 — who live in the same house and are haunted by a restless spirit. While the families are not related, they are interconnected.

"Each personal story, each small relationship story is tied to a larger ghost story," Schulner said. "I can't tell the story of one family without telling the story of another family that lived there."

Schulner sat down to write an outline for "Oaks" six weeks ago. Four weeks later, he had a finished script.

Schulner met with Matthews and Scharbo, who loved the script and immediately got him together with 20th TV's top drama execs, Jennifer Nicholson-Salke and Patrick Moran.

By then, word of Schulner's spec had spread, and three networks — ABC, CBS and Fox — were vying for it, each offering significant commitments and A-level auspices as collaborators. In dramatic fashion, things came down to the wire between Fox and CBS, and while he admits it was a heart-wrenching decision, Schulner went with Fox after meeting with the network's entertainment chairman, Peter Liguori, and Reilly.

"I went with my gut instinct where I saw this show," he said. "I saw it on Fox with Kevin Reilly and Peter Liguori."

Reilly said that "Oaks" immediately "jumped out of the stack."

"It's a rare script that has a singularity of voice and an original idea," he said. "It has a relationship drama at the core with this twist, and the fact that it cuts back and forth between three generations — I've never seen it executed so cleanly."

Reilly's first thought: "There is serendipity involved." Reading the script with a unique point of view by a relatively unknown young TV writer reminded him of reading another script with a distinct voice by a young TV writer years ago when he was entertainment president at FX. The script was Ryan's "The Shield."

Reilly approached Ryan, who is wrapping the final season of "Shield," and Cuesta, who directed the pilot for Showtime's buzzworthy drama "Dexter." Both immediately responded to the script and came on board.

Reilly is known for keeping relationships with creators he'd worked with at FX. One of the first deals he made after joining NBC as entertainment president in 2004 was with Robb and Mark Cullen, the duo behind "Lucky," another FX series Reilly had championed.

"Oaks" already is hiring writers to work on future episodes. Casting on the pilot is expected to begin shortly for filming in November.

If all goes according to plan, Reilly hopes for additional episodes to be shot at the beginning of next year.

Schulner, who began his TV career on ABC's "Once and Again," is repped by UTA and attorney David Fox.

Ryan, who also executive produces CBS' "The Unit," and Cuesta are repped by Endeavor.

Little Engine is repped by UTA.