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Robert Greenblatt is getting serious for his next TV foray.
The limited series, which is currently in development at the Disney-backed streamer, is based on Caitlin Flanagan’s November 2017 feature in the Atlantic, Death at a Penn State Fraternity. The project, like Flanagan’s story, explores fraternity life and specifically tells the story of Tim Piazza who fought for his life for 12 hours before his Beta Theta Pi brothers called 911. By then it was too late. Joe Hortua (Better Things, Home Before Dark) is writing the script and will exec produce alongside author Flanagan and Greenblatt. The latter’s The Green Room partner Jon Wu will serve as a co-EP. Kevin Bray will also exec produce and direct, with The Atlantic also involved as an exec producer.
“We are grateful and fully supportive of Lionsgate and Hulu taking on this project related to our son’s tragic and very preventable death,” Jim and Evelyn Piazza said in a joint statement to THR. “Given the reckless and deplorable behavior of fraternity members and their advisors, the lack of oversight by the University and the National Fraternity and the ongoing criminal and civil proceedings that continue five plus years later, we feel this is a story that must be told to prevent similar incidents from happening to another young man (or woman) and their family.”
Greenblatt, in an interview with THR, said he was sent the Atlantic story several months ago and was shocked by the depth of the tragedy. “I thought this is a story that needs to be told and I knew immediately,” he said. “It’s a hard look at a terrible tragedy. Not only would this be a compelling drama but it could have some effect on the situation. I just started to think about how to do it sensitively and who we could sell it to, and it started there. That article knocked me out and Caitlin, who is one of the great journalists of our time, found a human way into this story that moved me.”
The Penn State limited series is Greenblatt’s second project to be announced under his deal with Lionsgate TV, with several more in the works. The Broadway lover who brought live musicals to broadcast has already set up a murder-mystery anthology series at Peacock whose first season is connected to Phantom of the Opera that has Andrew Lloyd Webber and Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist creator Austin Winsberg attached.
Greenblatt said he took out the Penn State projects to a few different outlets and received multiple bites but Hulu’s head of scripted Jordan Helman connected with the idea in a way that others did not. “He seemed to really zero in on what we were trying to say and emotionally got caught up in the story,” Greenblatt said. “Hulu has been telling some great stories over the past couple years and they have really found their game.”
Read on for more from Greenblatt about his return to producing after previously delivering Beverly Hills, 90210, Melrose Place, The X-Files and Six Feet Under ahead of his time in the executive suite, and, more recently, HBO’s The Gilded Age.
You worked with Lionsgate on Showtime’s Nurse Jackie and Weeds. Why was it there that you wanted to set up shop?
I am great old friends with these guys and have worked with them in many great situations. They were very excited about the idea of me coming and working with them. I know this is a double-edged sword, but I like that they’re an indie studio and still figured out to make deals with every buyer in town. I thought that was interesting way to go. They’re among the best in the business and have gotten so many shows on the air and they keep getting renewed. They keep on hitting home runs.
What was the impetus in returning to TV in this way after the way things went down with HBO Max, under its AT&T leadership?
For a certain amount of time, I was prevented from doing anything but that because there were still several years left on my deal there. I’m a producer at heart and was a producer with David Janollari [with whom he did Six Feet Under]. It seemed like a natural next evolution. The world now is really a great place for producers because there’s so much volume. I was excited to go back out into the world and put some really terrific things together that I care about and that speak to me. I know all these buyers too — they’re either friends or worked for me. And the idea of producing for one of them seemed like a great way to focus for these next few years.
What are you looking for in projects that you’ll be developing?
The first project is a musical with Andrew Lloyd Webber that involves Phantom of the Opera with Austin Winsberg at Peacock. I have very broad taste. I’ve had the good fortune to be associated with different kinds of shows, from dark premium stuff to network comedies. I like a lot of things. There won’t be any one thing I focus on except for writers who I’m excited about and concepts that are compelling. Things that speak to me, personally. And that’s a wide variety: comedies, dramas, limited series, those are all things that we’re working on. I have a number of things set up that I can’t get into yet but there’s going to be a whole eclectic variety of shows and it all and depends on the marketplace and buyers.
Do you have a dream project today? Something akin to the way Smash was when you were at Showtime in that you brought it with you to NBC?
It’s always fun to do something in the musical world. Austin and I go back to NBC’s The Sound of Music live but this project ins’t a serious musical. Only the first season of The Show Must Go On has a musical backdrop. Subsequent seasons would be other live events. The first thing I produced after leaving WarnerMedia was NBC’s Annie live. We’re about to open Some Like It Hot on Broadway, which I’m a producer with Neil Meron. Musicals are always close to my heart and I’ve got a lot of good ideas.
Do you think you’ll do more live musicals for NBC?
I don’t think so because we’ve gone through all the big family titles. Collectively, we’ve made eight to 10 of them over the past 10 years. Disney makes them based on their animated IP which is great and I’m happy they’re still doing them. But once you go through those big titles — Fox did Grease, for example — it’s hard to find titles that go that wide or shows you can get the rights to because there are often revivals being done. Everyone said to do West Side Story, but I’d be hard pressed to replicate that movie. It’s hard to zero in on a title that could be a big, broad hit whose rights are available. But maybe something will come up. Neil and I love doing them.
As a former network chief, how does selling work for you these days? Do you take things out yourself and make the calls directly or does Lionsgate take the lead?
It’s all the above. Mostly things go through Lionsgate because I do things in close step with them. Sometimes something crosses my desk and I’ll call one of the many buyers at platforms that I know well. In the case of this Penn State project, I reached out to Jordan [at Hulu] and said, “This article is powerful; why don’t you take a look at it and let’s have a conversation about it.” It was a low-key pitch. It wasn’t something like, “Here are the characters and here’s what the season is and here’s what every episode is.” It was zoning into the story based on the article and he responded to the article. Sometimes these pitches can be very big and a lot of people are on the call. This seemed like a more personal conversation needed to be had and that’s how it works best. If someone comes to me, that’s great. If I have an idea, I’m happy talk to [Amazon’s] Vernon Sanders or [former NBC exec] Jen Salke or Bela Bajaria [at Netflix, who headed Universal TV] or any friends of mine. But mostly I go through Lionsgate to places.
Would you go back in business with HBO Max? Did you offer this show to Casey?
I didn’t go there. It just landed at Hulu very quickly and I took the yes. But I would absolutely go back in business with them. I’m developing something on the HBO Max side with Sarah Aubrey and Joey Chavez and I’m an exec producer on HBO’s The Gilded Age. Nothing would make me happier than to be on the air with a new show over there.
Interview edited and condensed for clarity. Stay tuned to THR later this week for more from Greenblatt about the state of the TV industry and his insights about the recent executive changes.
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