Behind The Scenes Of Smallville
I sat down with a couple of executives at Tollin/Robbins Productions in Studio City November 7, 2001 - Chris Castallo, Director of Creative Affairs, and producer Shelley Zimmerman.
Dressed casually, we sprawl on the couches, chairs and tables of the production company's conference room and have a good chat about the television business.
Shelley: "I grew up in Los Angeles. I got my degree in Political Economy from UC Berkeley. In Berkeley that's just Marxism. Then I lived in New York City and worked in investment banking. But I knew I wanted to come back and work in this industry. I started in the mailroom at Endeavor Agency in 1995 and eventually became a TV/Lit agent for two years primarily handling writers for series television. I met Tollin/Robbins through that and came over here in the summer of 2000."
Chris: "I was a film student at the University of Buffalo and moved out here after school. I got a job working for producer Sara Colleton (Riding In Cars With Boys, Renaissance Man). I found working in features too slow. It seemed to me at the time that the stuff that was new and different and fresh was more in television than film. People were scaling back feature production at the time, and either making $15 million or $100 million movies with nothing in between. You could turn on TV, cable especially, and see all these interesting things people were doing. If you wanted to do stuff out of the box, television seemed the place.
"I worked as an assistant to executive Stephanie Levine at Touchstone TV for 18 months then moved here in December 1998. Our company is structured so that Mike Tollin, Brian Robbins and Joe Davola are the executive producers for everything we put on TV which at the time was a Nicklelodeon series called Cousin Skeeter.
"Our movie Varsity Blues was about to come out. And after it did, we went from producing mostly just cable stuff to a production venture with Warner Brothers Television network, producing material for primetime television. That first year we sold a bunch of pilot scripts to WB and Fox."
Shelley: "I've been working almost exclusively on developing television series. We do kids television and primetime. This past year we developed 13 episodes of The Nightmare Room for the kid's WB which runs Saturday morning. We developed a number of scripts which became two pilots we produced - Smallville and The Hype. The cycle of television begins all over again. Now we're developing again next fall's launch."
Chris: "We've put six shows on Nicklelodeon, three shows on the WB and Arliss is still on HBO after seven seasons."
Luke: "What's the story behind Smallville?"
Chris: "The concept was kicked around as a property within the company. It's based on the comic book Superman owned by Warner Brothers. We went to Peter Roth at Warner Brothers television studio in August 2000. Then we went to Fox. They were interested in buying the show. Then we went to WB because they're the home team. The WB stepped up in September, and because of Fox's interest, the WB had to make a bigger commitment than they normally would've. We had leverage. The WB gave us a 13 episode commitment to the show.
"We wrote up scripts and began casting last November. We shot the pilot in March, 2001."
Luke: "Unlike features, you didn't have to attach any talent to sell the project?"
Chris: "Most of the time in TV, you get a bigger commitment if you have talent attached. The network gets final approval of the cast. You bring several choices who read for the network producers and executives."
Shelley: "The networks have whole casting groups which specialize in who they want for their network."
Luke: "A few years ago, CBS was known as the old people's network. Does WB have a targeted audience?"
Shelley: "Yes, particularly in drama. They've had great success with younger viewers. When Fox became more staid, the WB picked up with Buffy and Dawson Creek, shows that were young skewing."
Chris: "These shows spoke to an audience that nobody at the time was speaking to. When Fox decided they wanted to be the number one network with adults 18-49, creating a vacuum for programming for people 12-34. Buffy was the first sci-fi franchise for the young generation. And Dawson's Creek became the next Beverly Hills 90210. The nighttime soap opera went from Dallas to Mel's Diner to 90210 (Fox) to Dawson's Creek, the WB's signature nighttime soap opera for the next generation that hadn't been exposed to that genre yet."
Luke: "Tell me who gets credited for producing Smallville, etc?"
Shelley: "Producers credits in television are different from features. Writers, as they work their way up through the system, become producers, co-producers on up to executive producers. Most of the names you see are writers who function on set as producers.
"Typically you shoot your pilot in the Spring and deliver it to the network, along with pilots of shows that have no episodic commitment. The network views all of it and decides its schedule in May and announces it to the advertisers. They get their advertising commitments. Then the shows hire their writers and start shooting episodes by August."
Luke: "The networks approve scripts?"
Chris: "Our writers come up with story areas and pitch them to the network. We all discuss them and then ask for ten page outlines. We read the outlines and give our thoughts. Then they go write the script. Then the head writers on the staff will start editing the script."
Luke: "This is a helluva collaborative effort. This is not one man's dream."
Chris: "There are five executive producers on Smallville and about six other producers."
Luke: "And you guys don't get any credits on the show?"
Chris: "Where is there room?"
Luke: "In this huge collaborative enterprise, where do you find your satisfaction?'
Chris: "Ratings. And watching the final product and feeling proud of the show, for its commercial success and because it's a great show, aesthetically pleasing and well produced. Last night's episode was a ratings success and a great hour of TV. We're shooting it eleven months a year."
Luke: "It's cheaper to shoot in Canada because of government subsidies?"
Shelley: "No, because of the exchange rate."
Chris: "All the writers and editors are here. All the post-production is done here. The script gets sent up. They shoot it and the film gets sent down."
Luke: "I know that sitcoms are shot in an evening. How many days does it take to shoot one episode of Smallville?"
Shelley: "Dramas are much more grueling and much more difficult on the actors. Typical is an eight day shoot. If it's an action shoot, it will be longer. It's standard to run 22 episodes in a year. To limit their exposure, networks will typically pick up 13 episodes and then there's the back nine.
"There's a lot of immediate response to TV. It takes one year to put something on the air. The projects we're working on now will or will not go in the next four months. That's satisfying. Every single casting choice and every choice does not linger around for years. You're not infinitely tweaking. These things become huge productions employing hundreds of people yet we have the pleasure to be there when it was four people in a room. It's in the old tradition of putting on a plane in your backyard. It starts with one idea, then people assemble and give their expertise."
Chris: "There's literally layer upon layer of studio and network executives and marketing executives and casting executives. And that's the downside until you become an icon in the business like a David Kelly or Steven Bochco. And even they probably have days where they have to justify what they want to do with the network president. And until you get to that point, you have to go through layers of stuff to get through and hope that your original vision of the project does not get mangled."
Shelley: "For business reasons, television has to be about home runs. Having a show run 40 episodes isn't a financial success. Traditionally, you've had to have done 100 shows to sell to syndication though now they're doing it before that. It's a game of odds and the odds are against you. Few TV shows make it year after year. One hit show finances 20 busts (similar to features)."
Chris: "A show might cost $2 million dollars for a one hour drama. The range is $1.5 to 4 million (The X-Files may be the most expensive). The studio might pay a million dollars and the production company will sell the foreign rights for a few hundred thousand dollars. But there's still a deficit that might build up to $100 million over 100 episodes until you get to syndication."
Shelley: "If you have a hit, you can renegotiate your licensing fee with the network. So instead of paying you a million dollars per episode, they will pay what you can get. But along the way, your actors have become famous and they want to renegotiate too. Foreign can be lucrative for some shows."
Chris: "Like the movie business, action adventure translates well. A bomb blowing up or a car going off a bridge translates in any language. A show about two people in a small town in Idaho probably won't. I'm sure ER sells foreign. Any show that has that franchise of doctors or lawyers or action, something that is universal.
"Say you've got 65 episodes in the can of a show and you've got $65 million invested in the show and the show falls apart and the network doesn't want it back. So what do you do with 65 episodes? It's not enough to sell into syndication. That's the nightmare scenario. Because the closer you get to the finish line, the bigger your deficit gets."
Shelley: "The financing for the type of shows we're talking about usually comes from the corporate parents of AOL Time Warner, ABC, etc... Obviously one way of reducing exposure is to own the network and the studio. Then they control everything. Because of the difficulty of these questions, almost every single TV studio is affiliated with a network. Two independents shut down this summer, Sony and AMG [owned in part by Michael Ovitz]."
Chris: "My wife works in the financing side of the business and she's always complaining about the salaries that creative executives and producers get. But every year we have to find new shows. We can't put out the same product every year and see a return on investment."