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A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Another year, another batch of potential breakouts looking to lure the mix of viewers and buzz that NBC’s The Blacklist generated a season earlier. Garnering early attention among the 2014-15 season’s two dozen new offerings is the Shonda Rhimes-produced How to Get Away With Murder (ABC), telenovela Jane the Virgin (The CW) and genre plays Gotham (Fox) and The Flash (The CW).
There are recognizable works — comic adaptations, romantic comedies and, in the case of ABC, diversity — and a new cadre of film stars, led by Viola Davis (Murder) and Octavia Spencer (Red Band Society) making the leap to TV. “I’ve never been the show before and with this, I was the show … what was there to refuse?” Davis says of TV’s appeal.
But if history is any indication, stars don’t guarantee viewers — and second-season renewals are hard to come by. Not that cancellation scars have stopped talent from attempting new hits — the fastest rebounder of late being Dylan McDermott, who is returning to CBS with psychological thriller Stalker only a few months after the same network axed his 2013 starrer Hostages.
The Hollywood Reporter quizzed the producers behind several of the new fall offerings to find out how they pitched their series — as well as the stories behind the show titles and how they netted their stars.
See more Faces of Fall 2014
Jeff Lowell, Manhattan Love Story (ABC)
The original title was My Thoughts Exactly. ABC never loved the title, so during pilot production it was “Untitled Jeff Lowell Project.” It was great for my ego to walk around for weeks hearing everyone say my name, until one day I saw them towing away cars on a street we were shooting on, and I realized there were a dozen fliers with my name on them that some very angry drivers were about to find. ABC came up with Manhattan Love Story, and it was one of three finalists. … The thing that put it over the top was them commissioning artwork showing how they’d use the title to sell the show. It was tonally perfect — I immediately signed off, and that artwork is the main title card for our show.
Peter Nowalk, How to Get Away With Murder (ABC)
A show that takes place in law school doesn’t sound like the most exciting premise, so I knew the name Professor Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) gave to her class had to be sexy and attention-grabbing. How to Get Away With Murder worked on all levels. It gives you a great first impression of Annalise as a character — that she’s bold, irreverent and controversial — and also describes the fun, dark, twisted tone of the show.
Jennie Snyder Urman, Jane the Virgin (CW)
Jane the Virgin came with the show when I was asked to adapt the format from the Venezuelan telenovela Juana La Virgen. I didn’t think too much about the title at the time; I was focused more on the question: “How on Earth does a virgin get accidentally inseminated?!” Then, once the show was picked up, I started to hear that the title was a little controversial, which honestly I didn’t get at first — especially because Jane, as a character, is such a role model. Then, my 4-year-old son asked me what my new show was called. I started to answer: “Jane the …” I hesitated. Sucked it up. “Jane the Virgin.” He looked at me, confused, and asked me what a “vermin” was. So, I told him the truth. It’s a small pest.
Daniel Cerrone, Constantine (NBC)
The only other option for the title of Constantine was Hellblazer, which was the name of the character’s comic book series for nearly 30 years. But TV is about characters. We felt Constantine had the most appeal for horror fans who already know the character, as well as nonfans who might be intrigued by the name. And we might get lucky pulling in the occasional history buff expecting a documentary on Byzantine emperors.
Andrew Kreisberg, The Flash (CW)
The cover of the worldwide best-selling comic book told us to do it!
David Caspe, Marry Me (NBC)
I landed on Marry Me pretty early and then thought maybe we should find another one. People might think it’s a about just planning a wedding, but it immediately becomes a show about a couple, their parents and friends. A more general title might have been better, but Marry Me has a certain ring to it.
Kenya Barris, Black-ish (ABC)
Instead of calling it “The Burbs” or “New Rules” or something like that, we wanted to reflect that this is the world we are living in. I feel like my kids are a little bit of a lesser version of what I remember the ideology of what black was. At the same time, all of their friends — who are mostly nonblack kids — are a little bit more black than I remember. They’re sort of black-ish, all their little friends, and my kids are sort of black-ish. We’re living in a world where Asian culture has influenced us and Latino culture has influenced us, and youth culture is so homogenized to a point where, if you look from our main character’s point of view, he sees the world as sort of black-ish — everyone is a little bit of a layering of each other.
Nick Santora, Scorpion (CBS)
The title already existed. Walter O’Brien has a real company of genius problem-solvers called Scorpion. At first I thought it was a great name for a company but maybe not a great name for a show because you can’t really tell what the show is about from the title. But then I thought, “You don’t know what the heck Breaking Bad means and that show was amazing.” It grew on me. Truth is, it’s a cool name — it was Walter’s online hacking nickname from when he was a kid.
Ben Queen, A to Z (NBC)
A to Z was something I’d always thought would be a good little organizational structure for a television show about a relationship. I’d written it down a few years back and always knew I’d do something with it. It seemed to have a light, rom-com feel to it. I built the story out around that. The title is such a big part of the show — the proof of concept — that we made sure to take the time and effort to get a title sequence made just for the pilot presentation. The idea being that you saw the entire alphabet in the titles and inside each letter you’d see a snapshot of their relationship: the ups and downs, highs and lows.
Jeff Rake, Mysteries of Laura (NBC)
I had a big advantage because Mysteries of Laura is a format from Spain and the original pilot is excellent. In the pitch, I started by showing a trailer from the original that instantly conveyed the unique tone of the show and got people laughing. Then I basically did a 10-minute stand-up routine about my wife, who is my “Laura.” While you don’t always lay out the pilot beats in a pitch, I did because the bones of the original are so smart — it’s a premise pilot but you don’t realize it until the last five minutes of the episode. We had a great reaction at a few places, but at NBC they followed us into the parking lot to buy it, so we would have been dummies not to land there — and we did.
Kevin Hench, Cristela (ABC)
The show is largely autobiographical so calling it Cristela made sense, and was infinitely easier than trying to come up with one of those long, wacky titles that try to convey what the whole series is about.
Barbara Hall, Madam Secretary (CBS)
I heard the title before I heard anything else. I understood it right away, which, of course, is its main appeal. Nothing else was suggested, nothing was scrapped. So the funny part of the story is that the title made it from original pitch to air, which rarely happens.
Emily Kapnek, Selfie (ABC)
It was Tim Goodman‘s idea. I wasn’t sure, but he was so emphatic. I remember being like, “Are you sure, Tim?” And Tim was jumping up and down, like yes. Yes! This is it! (Just kidding, Tim hates the title.) We knew reaction to the title would be polarizing, but Selfie fit the show. It described more than just the act of picture-taking, it also summed up the syndrome afflicting our main characters. I think people judging the show based on title alone will be surprised when they see how the show is evolving.
Gary Glasberg, NCIS: New Orleans (CBS)
Ha! There’s not a lot of title give-and-take when it comes to a new addition to the NCIS franchise. The title starts with the four letters N-C-I-S … we knew the city name would follow.
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