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Alex Kurtzman hasn’t written a Star Trek feature film since 2013, but his new animated kids- and family-focused series, Prodigy — his fifth show in the Paramount+ version of the beloved franchise — could be the ticket that gets him back to the box office.
The captain of the Star Trek franchise — who inked a new, nine-figure deal with IP owner CBS Studios in August — has for years wanted to boldly go where Star Wars has gone before: to reach younger kids. “I go back to my childhood and Luke Skywalker, the [Star Wars] farm boy who looks out at the twin suns of Tatooine and imagines his future. Trek never gave me that,” Kurtzman told The Hollywood Reporter in early 2019, when he first revealed plans for what would become Star Trek: Prodigy. The animated series was originally developed for Nickelodeon and targets kids ages 6 to 11. It features a CG animation so impressive that Paramount Pictures CEO Brian Robbins — who bought the show as president of the aforementioned cable network — wishes it were launching in theaters.
“I can’t lie, when I sat there at Comic-Con, I wished it was,” Robbins recalls of watching Prodigy debut during his secret trip to New York Comic-Con earlier this month. “I just can’t help be excited about how this franchise will now be introduced in such a great way. As a parent, that gets me excited. I really wanted to see it play in a room and it was super cool — and it does really play like a movie.”
Prodigy will instead bow on Paramount+ with an hourlong episode Oct. 28, followed by weekly installments of its first 10 episodes. A run on Nickelodeon is also in the cards for a later date as Robbins, like his peers, prioritizes streaming over linear. Robbins — who continues to serve as president of Nickelodeon and oversees kids and family content at Paramount+ — believes Prodigy is a perfect fit with the platform’s popular Nickelodeon content and Kurtzman’s other Star Trek fare.
While the pricey show is only launching today, both Robbins and Kurtzman are already developing other big ideas such as a kids- and family-focused version of Prodigy that includes a feature film designed to bow theatrically as well as other live-action features that could live alongside the Paramount Pictures’ J.J. Abrams-produced mystery Star Trek movie.
“We’re working on several fronts and obviously Alex is the key for the franchise [on Paramount+]. J.J. has been the keeper of the franchise on the film side. We hope that as a company that we do what’s right for the franchise altogether,” Robbins says.
Prodigy is the fifth show in the Kurtzman Star Trek universe and joins Picard, adult-focused animated entry Lower Decks, flagship Discovery and the upcoming Strange New Worlds at Paramount+, the exclusive home of the franchise. Brothers Kevin and Dan Hageman (Hotel Transylvania, The Lego Movie) created the series that features the return of Kate Mulgrew’s Voyager character and follows a group of lawless teens searching for adventure.
Below, Robbins and Kurtzman reveal more about their grand plans for Prodigy (expect merchandising, spinoffs), how they hope to create new Trek fans from an early age while still engaging diehard fans and the strategy of the franchise for the next decade.
Alex, the first time that we talked about what would become Prodigy was in early 2019 when you mentioned your desire to create a Star Trek show for a younger audience who could, in success, stay with the franchise through adulthood. Was turning Trek into a four-quadrant franchise how you pitched what became Prodigy at the time?
Kurtzman: Yes. [CBS Studios president] David Stapf and I from the beginning laid out a five-year plan for Trek. The missing piece — and perhaps the most significant piece — was the kid component. We needed someone that knew how to specifically do children’s television. I worked on Transformers as an animated show, but I needed a partner who could guide us through it. David and I went to see Brian Robbins and [Nickelodeon animation head] Ramsey Naito when the company was still bifurcated. It was an instant connection. We felt comfortable given their vast knowledge of the children’s landscape but also the infrastructure that they have in Nickelodeon was so specific and we knew we needed that. Our great hope was that there would be a merger down the line and it would make things easier for everybody. We told Brian and Ramsey that we felt that it was important to make it a cinematic experience to make it special for kids. There was no hesitation on their part about that. The lack of a merger didn’t stop Brian from saying yes in that moment.
Robbins: There was a step before you came over, where I called David Nevins and said, “We should really try to do something with the franchise and Nickelodeon,” knowing that it had not really been explored before. Ramsey, who was a giant Trek fan as a kid and still is, had the conversation and Nevins said, “It’s funny that you’re saying this because Alex was just in here saying we need to do this.” You guys came over quickly after that and toured the studio and we were just off to the races.
Kurtzman: We felt that the key was to invest both in children and their parents in these characters and to take the time at a deeper level to get to know them, get to love them. The creators, Dan and Kevin Hageman, had this brilliant concept from the start, which was the idea that these children don’t understand each other for the first part of it. It wasn’t until they’re around a universal translator that they suddenly realize that all their preconceived notions about who they were, were all wrong. That is a core message of Star Trek. I don’t think the impact of that revelation would have worked if we hadn’t been able to take the time to set those characters up that way.
The Prodigy pilot is 45 minutes and has a cinematic feel to it. What’s the target demo of Prodigy, since most kids programming tends to have shorter episodic run times. And had you done a co-viewing show like this before with this kind of sizable budget?
Robbins: We knew it was going to be for our core 6 to 11 audience and parents. We were going into it as a co-viewing show and we had to get everybody to make it work. We definitely spent on the show, for sure. We’ve done some things in the past that are co-viewing and have done more of that since I’ve been there because there’s more co-viewing going on now than any other time. I have older sons and a younger daughter. When my older sons were young, they had TVs in their room. My daughter doesn’t have a TV in her room. That screen in the living room is really the screen for the whole family now. There’s just more co-viewing going on because of that.
Is the plan still to have part one of Prodigy air on linear before part two returns on the streamer?
Robbins: We will sneak the show on Nick, but it will live on Paramount+ in the first run and then cycle through to linear, to Nickelodeon. What we’ve been able to see with our content that’s premiered on Paramount+ first is that it’s doing really well there. Then when it comes to linear, it gets a boost. That flywheel seems to be working. It’s like one plus one is really making three.
How much do you hope that the Prodigy viewer checks out the other Trek library titles, or part of the Kurtzman Universe, after they’re done viewing Prodigy?
Kurtzman: We all believe more is more. We’ve built Star Trek to last and based on the premise that you need to feed a constant flow of material to viewers. For example, when the pandemic started, the numbers really spiked on Star Trek: Discovery because Picard had aired and people liked Picard and then it led them back to Discovery and vice versa. My hope is now that we will have five shows on the air, that once people get into the Star Trek universe and love it, it will lead them back and forth from show to show.
Robbins: That’s completely right. We’re seeing that same kind of consumption whether it’s Paw Patrol — the movie went on up on Paramount+ and the series on Paramount+ was up 40 percent or 50 percent since the movie landed there. People want more of what they love and they want it faster.
Brian, how do you still prioritize Nickelodeon when you’re going after the kids demo on Paramount+? Is the second window always going to be the plan for linear specifically when it comes to Star Trek?
Robbins: Yes. We’ve seen it with Kamp Koral, which we windowed that way. For this particular franchise, it’s the best way to window it. And we know that we’re getting more reach for it by doing it this way. That plays into the other plan of the show: This is a big opportunity for us to expand the consumer products business of the franchise with that reach and introduce things that you couldn’t do before because it wasn’t for this audience.
Right, and consumer products for successful kids programming is easily a billion-dollar business.
Robbins: All that stuff — products and marketing that comes with it — that all expands the universe too and brings more awareness and bigger audiences into the funnel.
How much more do you want to grow the Prodigy universe and expand into other younger-skewing animated fare? I’d imagine a Baby Spock show would probably do pretty well with a younger demo …
Kurtzman: I won’t spoil them, but we’ve talked about a bunch. If Prodigy is a success and works for everybody, then hopefully there will be lots of conversations about how to build it out from there, because it’s just going to make sense for the company.
Brian, how will you be measuring if Prodigy is a success? Are you looking at completion rate for kids? What’s the metric?
Robbins: The data is pretty obvious. We’re going to be patient because we think the show is fantastic and creatively just exceeds all expectations. I have no doubt that we’ll be doing more. Alex and I have talked about what the theatrical film version of this show is and the likes of that. We’re really excited. Ramsey and our Nick team could not be more thrilled to explore more.
So a Prodigy animated kids movie?
Robbins: I wouldn’t say kids. My bet would be that that’s a four-quadrant family movie.
For an animated Star Trek film?
Kurtzman: Potentially, yes. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is still one of the best movies over the past decade, animated or not. It’s just an unbelievable piece of artistry. I went with my whole family and another family and we all sat there with our jaws on the floor. Ultimately, Star Trek is about family, it’s about these giant universal themes. Getting to tell a story like that, especially given the level of cinema we’ve already brought to the television show, is a wonderful opportunity. It would thrill me to do that.
Robbins: Me as well. I had a similar experience with Spider-Verse where my daughter, who was 6 or 7 at the time, my late-teen sons and my wife and I all saw that movie together. That was the first experience of any film where we were all in.
Brian, part of your plans for Paramount+ is building out a movie slate that’s exclusive for the streamer and now you’re also running the Paramount film studio. Would a hypothetical Star Trek animated film be a theatrical release or a Paramount+ debut?
Robbins: To be honest, we’ve talked about it as a theatrical movie. I can’t lie, when I sat there at Comic-Con, I wished it was.
Brian, now that you’re also running Paramount Pictures, how does the knowledge of what’s working on Paramount+ translate to Star Trek? What are you looking at in terms of growth potential and where this franchise goes next?
Robbins: Where we go with the franchise next theatrically is crucial to the health of the overall franchise. There’s no doubt that big theatrical movies are the beacon that ignite franchises. We’re in it and I don’t really have anything to say because I’m waiting for the development to be delivered. I can’t wait to get going on it; we’re not there yet, but we need to get there soon.
Are you speaking specifically about the animated feature?
Robbins: I’m talking about what could be the next live-action movie.
Is that something that would involve Alex or is that a J.J. Abrams thing?
Robbins: We don’t know enough yet. We’re working on several fronts and obviously Alex is the key for the franchise [on Paramount+]. J.J. has been the keeper of the franchise on the film side. We hope that as a company that we do what’s right for the franchise altogether.
Are you getting scripts for a live-action feature from both camps?
Robbins: There’s a lot going on and I’m just going to leave it at that.
How does the data you have from Paramount+ impact what you want to do next with Trek?
Robbins: The idea is what do we do next for the franchise that’s going to work for the next five and 10 years, not just one movie at a time like Alex has talked about. That’s what we really have to figure out.
Kurtzman: That’s the ball game. It’s not just about the one thing that comes next. It’s about laying out a strategy for the next decade.
How far along are in planning are you?
Robbins: Well, I’ve been in a job for seven minutes, so not that far. (Laughs.)
Brian, does your streaming-first mentality compare with your theatrical vision?
Robbins: They’re not mutually exclusive. From Paramount Pictures’ point of view, if you look at our slate for the next 18 months, it’s just big theatrical movie after big theatrical movie, after big theatrical movie. Whether that’s Top Gun or Transformers or Mission Impossible or the Quiet Place sequel or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that’s coming the following year. Those are movies that are meant for a big theatrical experience and I have no doubt that people are going to be lined up to see those movies. That said, there’s going to be other movies that we make for streaming directly. That’s OK because we all know that not every consumer is going to see every movie they want to see in the theater, nor is every consumer going to watch everything they want to see on streaming. At the end of the day, I think what the consumer really wants is choice and we’re going to listen to them and figure out what’s the best window for each piece of content.
As you look at that larger strategy, will you similarly experiment when it comes to theatrical windowing? Do you still want a movie like Mission Impossible 8 in theaters exclusively?
Robbins: Yes, 100 percent. It’s where you should have that experience, absolutely. Now, if you don’t go, eventually it’s going to come downstream and get to you on your couch, if that’s what you choose to do. Probably those windows are much quicker than they were several years ago.
Interview edited and condensed for clarity.
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