Universal Cable Prods. is in growth mode, striking separate pod deals with production banners run by Steve Carell and Jessica Biel.
The pacts with Carell’s Carousel Television and Biel’s Iron Ocean Prods. come as NBCUniversal’s cable production studio is revving up development and production activity under the leadership of Jeff Wachtel, prexy-chief content officer NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment Group.
Wachtel, the former USA Network co-prexy who segued to the studio role last fall, last month recruited veteran producer Dawn Parouse Olmstead, who joined UCP last month as exec VP of development. Together the pair is focused on building an entreprenuerial operation that is able to move quickly to feed the voracious appetite for original programming among cable and digital outlets.
Olmstead wasn’t actively looking for an exec job, but she was too intrigued by Watchtel’s pitch to turn it down. UCP has a broad canvas of NBCU cablers — from USA and Syfy to Bravo and E! — to work with on top of pitching to non-Peacock outlets.
“Jeff wants to create a studio that is entrepreneurial and nimble enough to capitalize what’s happening creatively in the world of television,” Olmstead said. “The bar in comedy and drama has risen so high. We’re in a good position here to attract the highest level of creative talent, and focus on finding the the best place to be in business for (any) particular show.”
The deals with Carousel and Iron Ocean were in the works before Olmstead’s arrival, but she coincidentally has experience working with development execs at both shops through her travels as a producer of shows ranging from Fox’s “Prison Break” to TeenNick’s “Gigantic.” Just after she took the job at UCP, Bravo gave its first-ever scripted series order to a project Olmstead birthed with writer Marti Noxon, “The Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce.”
Among the projects in the pipeline for Carousel TV, headed by Campbell Smith, and UCP is a drama about Hollywood in its infancy, revolving around real events and showbiz figures dating back 100 years. Separate from UCP, Carousel is fielding two pilots for TBS and “Slide Show,” a gameshow set to air on Fox later this year.
“Carousel is thrilled to be in this new deal with UCP. They share our vision, and they’re great kissers,” Carell quipped.
Iron Ocean, headed by Biel and Michelle Purple, is working on two projects to start. Dramedy “Pop Culture,” from writer Melissa Hilfers, centers on a high-living New York City bachelor who changes his lifestyle — and hires an actress to play his wife — after babysitting his nephew. “Royal Pains” scribe Michael Rauch is on board as an exec producer.
Feature scribes Geoff Moore and David Posamentier are developing “Moguls,” a half-hour workplace laffer about about 20-somethings employed at a family-owned Colorado ski resort that is shaken up when the mountain it sits on is purchased by a corporate behemoth.
“It’s been great to find a home at UCP,” Biel said.
Four weeks into the job, Olmstead said her focus is less on volume of projects than it is on buzzworthy material — or what she calls “search-worthy shows.”
“When I think about the stuff we’re putting in development, we’re always thinking about whether the property or the (star) has the potential to be something that someone out there would seek out — would someone be motivated to search that name or the title of the show in a (TV listings) search box,” Olmstead said. “The bar is high for that right now because there is so much content out there.”
Part of being entrepreneurial is to develop a lot of in-house ideas, and to be open to non-traditional development processes — whether that means accepting shorter episode orders or being open to shorter holding periods for talent. Being able to craft new deal templates to serve the needs of emerging outlets will be a competitive advantage for UCP, with program buyers and with talent.
Among the initiatives that Olmstead is eager to experiment with is a plan to offer talent a strong creative vision seed money of $100,000-$300,000 to do their own development long before a project is shopped to buyers. “Parks and Recreation” hyphenate Amy Poehler is working with UCP on such a project at present.
“There are lots of projects that we will self-fund pilots or presentations for a small amount of money and give our talent a lot of creative freedom,” Olmstead said. “Even people who are used to working with millions and millions of dollars get really excited when you say ‘Here’s some money. Go and do your thing.’ ”
Given her wealth of experience in assembling shows, Olmstead and Wachtel intend to be proactive in nurturing ideas and concepts that they hope will pique the interest of writers. She’s been on an “optioning frenzy” since she started the job.
“We’re trying to run like a producing team, but on a grander scale,” Olmstead said. “We’re never going to be waiting for something to come through the door. We want to put the creative onus on ourselves to find great things. We want people to see us a scrappy place with undeniably good ideas.”