Are the world's money woes good for 'The Philanthropist'?
Movie studios may still have enough dough to run full-page ads for a special tribute in Variety honoring the trade paper's venerable Peter Bart, but it's become pretty obvious that most of Hollywood is in the grip of a deep recession. When I showed up for lunch yesterday at the Peninsula Hotel, the hotel's swank Belvedere restaurant--normally buzzing with agents, producers and aging TV actors--was practically deserted. When I found my lunch date, producer Charlie Corwin, we had our pick of any booth in the place. (It's like this everywhere--a friend in New York says the restaurants and theaters there are empty as well.)
Corwin made his money from the Internet, but for the past few years he's quietly become an intriguing player in Hollywood. The company he co-founded, Original Media, has been involved with everything from hip indie films ("The Squid and the Whale" and "Half Nelson") to edgy reality TV shows like "LA Ink," "Miami Ink" and "Storm Chasers." He's now producing one of NBC's most ambitious new shows, "The Philanthropist," which is due early next year, starring James Purefoy as a maverick billionaire who uses his clout and connections to help people in need around the world.
Corwin doesn't need much help when it comes to clout and connections. One of his good pals is NBC's Ben Silverman, who greenlit "The Philanthropist" after hearing Corwin's pitch over drinks one night at the Chateau Marmont. Another good buddy is Sting, who was a producer on "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints," another one of Corwin's indie pictures. The money man for "Saints" was yet another good pal, Bobby Sager, a former corporate raider from Boston who's now ... a maverick billionaire who uses his clout and connections to help people in need around the world.
In other words, Sager's the role model for "The Philanthropist." It's quite a nice little circle. When Silverman, who'd been Corwin's agent at William Morris, wanted to see a maverick billionaire in action, Corwin took him to Las Vegas to meet Sager and go to one of Sting's Police reunion shows. Corwin insists that Sager is the real deal. "He's devoted his life to changing the world," he told me. "He's a hands on, boots on the ground kind of guy. His beat is Palestine, Pakistan, Rwanda and Iraq."
To hear Corwin tell it, a TV show about Sager would be like going globe-trotting to every hot spot around the world with a swashbuckling do-gooder as your guide. "One week he's in the West Bank, then he's in Iraq, then he's in Tibet with the Dalai Lama," Corwin says. "Bobby also goes to Rwanda, where he created a business that makes scarves, made by the women whose husbands were murdered during the genocide there, working alongside the women whose husbands had been in jail for murdering them."
It could be totally cheesy, but it could also be guilty-pleasure-style Feel Good TV: following a guy who cuts through the red tape, writes the checks, can get the U.N. ambassador or CIA station chief on the phone in the middle of the night. So why has "The Philanthropist" had such a rocky start?
Corwin recruited YET another good friend, writer-producer Tom Fontana, best known for his work on "Oz" and "Homicide," to run the show. Corwin says Silverman loved Fontana's treatment so much he agreed to put the show on the air without seeing a pilot. "It was a good lesson," says Corwin. "When things seem too easy, they probably are." First, the writers strike happened, delaying the show. After the strike ended, Fontana went back to work and started to turn in scripts for subsequent episodes. Suddenly the network suits began to grumble that Fontana's take on the Sager-inspired character--known in the show as Teddy Rist--wasn't quite working.
"They decided the scripts were going to too dark of a place," says Corwin. "Our character was supposed to have a dark side--he has a dead son, so he has something of a hole in his soul--but I guess Tom went into too dark of a place." Corwin refused to put any blame for the ousting of Fontana, who had given the show its biggest boost of credibility, on Silverman. "Look, NBC understands its audience and who it wants to talk to better than I do," he says. "So I have to defer to them when it comes to a course correction."
The network brought in "Battlestar Galactica's" David Eick to run the show and has hired Peter Horton to direct the first episode, which has been filming in London, South Africa and the Czech Republic. Corwin's most intriguing idea for the show involves a new kind of higher-consciousness corporate branding for the program. The network has already been recruiting companies like Lexus and Anheuser-Busch for product placement opportunities, but Corwin imagines a different kind of brand integration.
"We're still trying to make it happen," he says. "But we'd like to integrate different corporations' philanthropic initiatives into the stories we're telling on the show. Google funds a lot of nonprofit tech-based medical research, so--and this is obviously hypothetical--if they came up with a cure for a disease in Africa, Teddy Rist would utilize their product in the show. It would be a way for a company to make their image the product they're selling."
The key question: With the world's economy in a shambles, is this actually a timely moment for a show about a rich guy who cures ills? Are we eager to see a member of the wealthy leisure class as a hero? Or are we looking for feisty blue-collar Joe the Plumber types? Sitting in an empty restaurant of a posh Beverly Hills hotel, Corwin is convinced that the show has an especially resonant message.
"This is about a guy who chooses to move away from the bottom line of business toward the bottom line of humanity," he says. "I think the world is desperate for a transcendent moment. We need to connect with each other. I don't want to politicize the show--it's supposed to be an entertainment--but to me, this is a story about people going through fundamental change. Obviously, that same kind of change is a hallmark of the Obama campaign. So that's a definite point of commonality. We've had a wake-up call that we need to do something to help the world, which is definitely what you'll see every week on this show."
Forget about Sting. If it's about helping the world, surely "The Philanthropist" will make room for a guest spot by Bono.
Photo of James Purefoy by Claudio Onorati / EPA