Starz on a 'Crash' course

Key players aboard for series based on Oscar winner

Starz is making its biggest statement to date in the original programming arena by greenlighting "Crash" as its first original drama series.

Based on the Oscar-winning feature, the 13-episode series, co-produced with Lionsgate TV, is slated to debut on the John Malone-backed pay cabler this year.

Key members of the team behind the gritty, racially charged film are on board for the series, including director/co-writer/producer Paul Haggis, co-writer and producer Bobby Moresco, producer Bob Yari, producer Don Cheadle, producer Mark R. Harris and executive producer Tom Nunan.

If his schedule allows, Cheadle might reprise his role on the series as well as direct.

" 'Crash' introduced a whole range of fascinating characters and engrossing, intertwined stories that are ideally suited for developing into a TV series," Starz exec vp programming Stephan Shelanski said. "Starz is the premium channel for movies, so it's appropriate that this best picture winner is providing the basis for our first dramatic series."

The order for "Crash" follows the recent launch of Starz's first original series — the comedies "Head Case" and "Hollywood Residential." While Starz brass had stated plans to develop lower-cost original series as a complement to the channel's movie packages, that won't be the case with "Crash."

"We will be paying the higher end of the going rate for any drama series," Starz vp original programming Michael Ruggiero said. "The quality of the series will match that of a theatrical experience."

Despite its strong foray into original series with "Crash," Starz won't follow in the footsteps of fellow pay cable channels HBO and Showtime, which tapped into their movie acquisition budgets to do more original series, Ruggiero said.

"(Theatrical movies) will continue to be the core of our business," he said. Starz recently inked several movie package deals worth $1 billion (HR 1/24).

The idea for "Crash" stems from a real-life carjacking that happened to Haggis and his wife 12 years ago in front of a video store in Los Angeles. The crime is re-created in an opening scene of the movie by Sandra Bullock and Brendan Fraser.

Several years later, Haggis woke up one night with the idea for "Crash" and soon penned 40 pages. Because of his pedigree as a TV writer on such series as "thirtysomething" and "Family Law," he envisioned the project as a series while also pursuing it as a feature.

But in 2001, when reality was red-hot and taking over drama series' one-hour time slots, no networks were interested. So Haggis called his friend Moresco, and the two finished the script as a feature.

When the film was released in 2005, Haggis, Moresco and Lionsgate TV inked a deal with FX to develop a series based on it.

The project went through a couple of scripts, with the most recent one, written by Caleb Kane last year, getting high marks from the producers and FX. However, because of limited shelf space at the cable network in light of its renewals of "The Riches" and "Dirt," the project had to stay in development for another year before possibly getting a pilot order. Lionsgate TV instead asked for a release, which FX granted, and the producers began talks with Starz.

The two sides inked a deal in the first days of the writers strike but opted to delay the announcement until Lionsgate inked an interim agreement with the WGA, which was announced last week (HR 1/25).

Work on the series already is under way; the first order of business is finding a writing showrunner.

Doing the search three months into the strike has opened up great opportunities, Lionsgate TV president Kevin Beggs said.

"People are really anxious to get back to work, and we find ourselves with some great choices that might have not been available to us," he said.

The "Crash" feature has spawned a series of lawsuits, including one filed by Yari against producer Cathy Schulman, one filed by Schulman and Nunan and, most recently, one by Haggis and Moresco against Yari. However, the litigation won't affect the series because it only involves the feature and Lionsgate is not a part in any of the complaints, Beggs said.

Lionsgate will retain international distribution to the series, while Starz Media's Anchor Bay Entertainment will hold the U.S. distribution rights, including home entertainment.