While networks and showrunners were convening in New York this past week for the Upfronts (where broadcast networks present their pitches to advertisers to secure their ad dollars for the coming season), Box Office Insider contributor, Nicole Hansen, sat down with Gregory J. Bonann in Beverly Hills. If you’ve never heard of Greg you’ve definitely heard of one of his shows - which he co-created: the television phenomenon, “BAYWATCH”. I asked Greg about his past success and about his new indie-produced show, “SAF 3”, starring Dolf Lungren.
NH: CAN YOU EXPLAIN TO
OUR READERS HOW INDIE-TV PRODUCTIONS DIFFER FROM BROADCAST PRODUCTIONS?
GB: So where the network has to spend a lot of money, let’s just talk about “Crises” (NBC); it’s a good example because they just canceled it. It’s a show where they put together a bunch of really great actors and a really expensive production, with a huge network investment. They advertised the hell out of it and now it’s gone and I think it’s “Believe” that’s gone too because network TV is so competitive, and their advertisers want to be on their hit shows.
Our show is not like that. We have a 52-week commitment guaranteed, 20 episodes on the air -- that’s the model. You buy 20 episodes; you put them on the air for 52 weeks. So I’m not worried about being cancelled. No one can cancel the show. We’re on Sunday nights, 7:00 for 52 weeks. Now when that happens year after year after year like “Baywatch” did for 12 years -- pretty soon people go, “Oh, it must be good.” Well maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s just spinach. But you’ve acquired a taste. Nothing is objectionable. There’s no sex, its romance. There’s no violence, its action. So you can appeal to a broad, worldwide audience in any timeslot. Noon in Japan is the toughest place because it’s family programming. 5:45 pm in the UK, you want to be there, and here, primetime Sunday night, 7:00. It’s tough; you can’t be too violent. You’ve got to be the right thing. So after you’re on the air for two or three years, product integration starts to come into play big because they see 52 weeks per year, you’re not going to get cancelled.
But now, nobody knows what “SAF 3” is, because we haven’t come out looking for money. And when people realize it’s been on the air since September, pretty soon they’ll realize it’s the only thing left they haven’t seen and everything else they have seen is reruns -- so that’s when the audience comes to us.
NH: WELL THAT BECOMES A PRETTY GOOD MARKETING TOOL. YOU HAVE DISTRIBUTION AND YOU HAVE EYEBALLS AND PRETTY SOON THE ADVERTISERS KNOW THEIR PRODUCTS WILL BE SEEN.
GB: Yes. It’s the only way to compete, and when they hear we’re doing a second year -- just on that -- they go, “Well it must be good”, and the truth is, it doesn’t have to be good, it just has to stay on the air. There are a lot of really good shows that are canceled a lot because they don’t have a chance to pick up an audience or the right time-slots.
NH: SO HOW DIFFERENT ARE YOU FROM PRODUCERS WHO MUST SHOOT PILOTS FOR THE NETWORKS?
GB: We’re not spending any money on the pilot. We don’t make the pilot. The pilots have killed themselves really, because they spend arguably at least five times the money that they would spend on an episode. Now there are a lot of reasons why it costs more, but admittedly they spend three times more, the reason being is they’re hiring people one-off instead of for multiple episodes. So you’re building a set for one time, one show, instead of building the same set for 20 episodes and dividing the costs by 20.
So a pilot costs more for that reason, but it’s also that one person has written it (“SAF3”) who has maybe written it for a year, so we’ve got someone who’s been writing the scripts for 6 months, so the scripts aren’t going to compare. The director who does a network pilot is never going to direct another episode, and all the scripts are being written by a staff on a network show, and you lose your location since the pilot is never shot in the same location where you are going to end up shooting the series...so it’s a whole bad idea.
If you want an indication of what the series is going to look like, do what I do: I give you the first 10 scripts, here are the casts, here’s the production crew and here’s the executive who’s going to do it, here’s the schedule we are going to do it on. A smart executive is going to look at all that stuff and know at least as much after reading it all than he will after seeing a pilot that’s not going to resemble the series anyway.
NH: IS THIS THE SAME MODEL YOU USED WHEN YOU DID “BAYWATCH”?
GB: Not this advanced, but yes. Baywatch was easier because we did an NBC year. We were cancelled. So I had 22 episodes off of NBC. The most famous cancelation in history and we came back and did eleven more years. But I had 22 episodes to show people.
NH: AND YOU GOT TO KEEP THE RIGHTS?
GB: I bought the rights back for $10 from Grant Tinker. Grant was my mentor and he had started a big company called GTG. He had just finished five years of running NBC. He had the one of the biggest companies, MTM, (you know, with Mary Tyler Moore)? They did “Lou Grant”, “Rhoda”, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”; the shows he did were spectacular. Then he went to run NBC, then he went to his own company and that’s when I went to work with him.
He did “Baywatch”; he was like the “studio”. It was canceled, and even though he lost a lot of money, he didn’t like that it was canceled either. So unknown to me at the time, he was going out of business. I didn’t know it but he loved that I might be able to get it back together. So when I asked him for the show back, I expected to have to pay millions of dollars, because I know how much he had lost. And he said, “I can’t give you the show back, you have to buy it from me. Write me a check right now for $10 and you can have it back.”
So I wrote him the check, which, by the way, he gave me back about ten years later; he’d never cashed it. He’d had it framed and gave it back to me on the 250th episode anniversary of “Baywatch”. So he was a wonderful guy. And then we took those 22 episodes around the world and people had their “notes” and told me, “We like this, we don’t like that” or “If we buy it, will you do this?” and I said, “Yeah, if you like this and buy it I will” and then they asked, “Well, don’t you have to check with somebody?” and I said, “I don’t think so. There’s no network, there’s no studio, I’m going to do this myself.” And they said, “Oh, okay and you’ll deliver these episodes? “And I said, “Yes”, so I needed to bond it and get a bank. You see the studio is the bank and the network is the distributor. That’s really all they are, they’re really no more than that so if you can do your own banking -- which I do at City National Bank -- and you can do your own distribution, which I can do through independent distributors, what do you need to gamble with a studio for?
NH: AND THEN YOU GET TO RETAIN THE RIGHTS TO YOUR PROGRAM?
GB: Yes! I only have me, so it’s a great model. But you can see how hard it is. So if I label myself as the “David against the Goliath” it really is a true concept. But “Baywatch” did not make all that much money. It just did not cost that much money because we didn’t have to pay anybody off. So the net proceeds to us were more than any show in history, because we owed no one any money. So when it was all over, we realized that’s what this model is built on. If we actually fail in this model, no one will lose money. If we succeed in this model, a lot of people will make money because I don’t own it all, but I give pieces away to a lot of people. Because why not?
So that’s the way I get people to come onboard and work for less money. Or, I give them opportunity. Like our best editor is one of the best editors in Hollywood; he does all the pilots, he does everything but he can’t get anybody to give him a chance to direct. Nobody. So he’s a director and he’s spectacular, and I just do the same thing now with a lot of people who want a shot because I can’t afford to go buy really expensive people so I look for young talent or older talent that wants to move on and grow. So that’s how you can compete with the networks; you don’t have to pay somebody an enormous amount if you’re giving them an opportunity that they’ve been dying to get for a really, really long time, and you treat them fair with respect and you’re done. Even if we end up in South Africa.
NH: DID I READ THAT YOU’RE SHOOTING “SAF3” IN SOUTH AFRICA? I HAD HEARD THAT YOU WERE GOING TO SHOOT IN NORTH CAROLINA.
GB: Here’s a good lesson. Maybe this is the business lesson for us all. I’m an American born and bred. I've taken a lot of shows all around the world. I spent 10 years in documentaries and I''ve been making shows in North Africa and Saudi Arabia. I've been everywhere. "Baywatch" was the first thing that I’ve done here and I really liked it. So when I couldn't afford to keep it ("SAF3") in L.A. because of the unions -- the Writers Guild the Directors Guild the Screen Actors Guild the IA and the teamsters -- I don’t want to leave anybody out, they’re all at fault, equally at fault...
When I realized that it was an absolutely ridiculous scenario here, I went to North Carolina, and North Carolina has a rebate and a bunch of really great people. Great people here (in L.A.) too. Just not willing to change. And they have to change. You have to look it up but there were 28 pilots shot last year and there was something like only two of them shot here in L.A. Something’s wrong.
NH: DO YOU THINK THE NEW PROPOSED TAX INCENTIVES WILL HELP AT ALL IF THEY PASS THEM IN SACRAMENTO?
GB: No. It’s a joke. It’s the wrong bill. If they want to pass a bill in California, just go use North Carolina’s or Florida’s or Alabama's or Louisiana’s or New York’s or Minnesota's. They’re all great bills. Read our bill and read their bills, HUGE difference.
NH: NEW YORK OBVIOUSLY HAS A LOT OF UNIONS AND YET THEY’RE STILL GETTING A LOT OF PRODUCTION THERE SO THEY MUST BE DOING SOMETHING THAT’S MAKING IT AFFORDABLE.
GB: Yes! The two bills that California and New York have don’t even resemble each other. One is black and one is white. One is smart and one is dumb.
NH: BUT YOU CAN’T SHOOT A BEACH SHOW IN NEW YORK. SO WHAT HAPPENED IN NORTH CAROLINA WITH YOUR SHOW?
GB: Well we were all ready to shoot in North Carolina and they were all ready to help, but the unions there were pretty strong in flexing their muscles. And when I left town I got a letter from one of the unions stating, "We understand that you’re getting a rebate for coming here -- 25% -- it’s very well known, but we want half of your rebate back." So I just couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t afford to do it. And, they were flexing their muscles and no network, no studio small fry guy who was in town there. They basically kicked me out. So I went to South Africa. I had met a really great bunch of guys in North Carolina who were doing another show there, and they were helping me out and showing me the ropes and how they do things, and we’re all from L.A. but were working in North Carolina. Well those guys ended up moving to South Africa this year. Guess which show they’re on? “Homeland”. So “Homeland” is now moving from North Carolina to South Africa. So it’s very simple math; you look around and see how far your dollar goes.
I don’t think anybody likes spending more money than they have to spend. Even if it’s in America. So we went to South Africa and this is the lesson: they’re spectacular. The crews are as good or better than Americans. They’re as smart or smarter than Americans. So it’s not like we’re losing anything. We might even be upping a little.
NH: DO YOU THINK IT’S BECAUSE THEY’RE MORE MOTIVATED?
GB: Absolutely. We are entitled here. We think we deserve the business. They don’t think they’ll be as good in South Africa. But guess what? I’ll probably never be back. So the lesson is, "Don’t let business go because that business may never be back." And other people may follow that person that left and you may end up with a whole business model that it turns out is now basically gone. Now I find that fascinating just from a raw business point of view.
NH: DO YOU VIEW YOUR SHOWS AS BEING BROADCAST/CABLE OR WILL THEY SOMEDAY BE STREAMED?
GB: Oh yeah, they could end up being on Netflix. Yes that’s a real wave of the future. And I know that content is important so producing shows that have value to see over and over again will always have significant value. That’s an absolute area that we are open to for sale.
NH: MY LAST QUESTION: DID I HEAR THAT THERE IS GOING TO BE A NEW “BAYWATCH” MOVIE?
GB: A movie is in the works but you can scoop this, there will probably be another series. You’re the first person I’ve told that to. We’re probably going to do another series, before the movie. Which would most likely take that movie off the table, because nobody wants to do the movie when a series is already on the table...which for streaming would make the old “Baywatch” series way more valuable.
Nicole Hansen, President of Green Galaxy Pictures
Independent Film Producer, TV Branding Producer
Member of the Producers Guild of America and Screen Actors Guild