Like so many other screenwriters and directors, Alex Kurtzman grew up admiring film.
But it’s adaptable – and that’s a very lucrative trait in the streaming era.
Mr. Kurtzman, the former screenwriter of the “Transformers” films and the director of the film “The Mummy” from 2017, recently renegotiated his deal with CBS Studios to make him one of the richest there. As part of the $ 160 million and five and a half year agreement, he will continue to oversee the growing television universe “Star Trek” for ViacomCBS’s Paramount + streaming platform.
He will also create shows including a limited series based on “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” which he will direct for Showtime, and the long-awaited adaptation of Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer-winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier & tone. ” This limited series is likely to be sold to an outside streaming service.
Mr Kurtzman’s deal is the latest in a line designed to give prolific producers like Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy for Netflix and Jordan Peele a free hand with Amazon Studios to create content that will satisfy the insatiable appetite of consumers, and hopefully the subscriptions for streaming. He puts the ambitions of CBS Studios – the production arm for the networks and channels under the umbrella of ViacomCBS – directly in the hands of 47-year-old Mr. Kurtzman.
“From the first meeting I had with Alex, I knew he was our future,” said George Cheeks, President and CEO of CBS Entertainment Group, in an interview. “The guy can develop for broadcasting. It can develop for premium streaming, wide streaming. He understands the business. He has enormous empathy. He is creatively agile.
“When you make these investments,” continued Mr. Cheeks, “you need to know that this talent can actually do multiple projects on multiple platforms at the same time.”
The road ahead will not be easy for ViacomCBS. His fledgling Paramount + was a late entry into streaming and is essentially a rebranded and expanded version of CBS All Access. The company promotes the service’s news and live sports, including National Football League games, as well as “a mountain of movies.” (“A Quiet Place 2” then debuted on July 13th). However, when combined with a smaller Showtime streaming offering, Paramount + only had 36 million subscribers in May.
While hoping to reach 65 to 75 million subscribers globally by 2024, that’s still a long way from Netflix’s global total of nearly 210 million and Disney +’s nearly 104 million. Even NBCUniversal announced Thursday that it has 54 million subscribers to its Peacock streaming service thanks to an Olympic push.
And given the consolidation craze that is consuming Hollywood, many analysts are not confident that ViacomCBS can continue to compete with the bigger companies on its own.
“I think it’s hard to imagine any one of these companies going it alone; I think they’re all too small, ”said Richard Greenfield, an analyst at LightShed Partners. “The challenge, whether it’s Peacock, Paramount +, Disney +, or Hulu, is that all of these companies are still divided on what to put on linear television, what to put in a movie theater, and what to put on streaming.
“Netflix, Amazon and Apple don’t have this debate every day,” he added. “All of your assets flow into one cause. This is where they have to balance themselves out, and that makes all of their streaming services suboptimal. “
These business considerations do not seem to bother Mr. Kurtzman. Rather than lamenting the films’ poor condition or complaining about the lack of viable buyers as the market shrinks, he said he finds the current climate creatively invigorating and remarkably fluid.
“I think the line between film and television is gone now and this is a huge opportunity for me,” he said in an interview. “For me and for showrunners like me, we can tell stories in new ways. We’re not limited to the narrow definition of how to tell a story – something has to be told in 10 hours, or something has to be told in two hours. “
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July 30, 2021, 7:43 p.m. ET
Mr. Kurtzman started working with CBS in 2009 when he and his former writing partner, Roberto Orci, were developing the reboot of Hawaii Five-0. In 2017, he began reinventing the “Star Trek” universe for the company, building on his familiarity with the franchise after co-writing the two JJ Abrams-directed “Star Trek” films a few years earlier.
Since then, he has produced five shows in the universe that Gene Roddenberry originally presented in the 1960s, and all of them will be featured on Paramount +. You are “Star Trek: Discovery”; “Star Trek: Picard”; “Star Trek: Lower Decks”; “Star Trek: Prodigy,” which will debut this fall; and Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, slated for release in 2022. ViacomCBS says “Star Trek: Discovery” and “Star Trek: Picard” are among the most viewed original series on Paramount +.
We are also working on “Section 31” with Michelle Yeoh and a show around the “Starfleet Academy” that is aimed at a younger audience.
But how much “Star Trek” does a planet need?
“I think we’re just getting started,” said Mr. Kurtzman. “There is just so much more to be had.”
He recently completed four months of shooting in London for the first half of The Man Who Fell to Earth, a 10-episode series based on the 1976 David Bowie film. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a new alien character who arrives on earth at a turning point in human evolution.
Mr Kurtzman said he loved the experience working on the series carried by the fact that the pandemic gave him and his writing partner Jenny Lumet the opportunity to complete all episodes before production started.
“I wouldn’t do anything differently if we did this as a film,” he said. “I work with film stars in three different countries, shoot sequences that are certainly not typical TV sequences, which I can only do based on my experience with films.”
Ms. Lumet met Mr. Kurtzman in 2015. He asked to meet after seeing the movie Rachel Getting Married, which she wrote. Ms. Lumet said she was surprised that this “science fiction robot in khakis” was interested in meeting her in the first place.
“All he wanted to do was talk about tiny moments, tiny real moments in movies and tiny moments on TV shows, and he was so gentle and ready to listen,” she said. “Usually the robot boys aren’t ready to listen to anything, and that’s all he wanted to do. It was really cool. “
The two have worked on everything from “Star Trek: Discovery” and “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” to the short-lived “Clarice” and “The Man Who Fell to Earth”. Next they plan to tackle the story of Ms. Lumet’s grandmother Lena Horne in a limited series for Showtime.
The people around Mr. Kurtzman attribute his early television experience (“Alias”, “Fringe”, “Sleepy Hollow”) to the fact that he was able to manage several projects at the same time without appearing overwhelmed. “He has an almost supernatural ability to keep separate train tracks in his head, this show, this show and this show, and he can jump from one to the other,” said Ms. Lumet. “He’s one of the few people who can keep all trains running.”
His work as a screenwriter began in 2005 with Michael Bay’s film “The Island”. Soon he and Mr. Orci were being labeled “Hollywood’s Secret Weapons” for cracking scripts on lucrative existing properties that others couldn’t (like “Transformers”). This led him to view “Star Trek” in the same broad terms that Marvel Studios sees its cinematic universe. It’s a strategy that CBS Studios fully supports.
David Stapf, President of CBS Studios, named “Star Trek: Prodigy” as an example. One of the first “Star Trek” animated shows for children, the animated show will debut on Paramount + this fall before moving to Nickelodeon.
“It obviously creates fans with a much younger generation, which helps with consumer products,” said Mr. Stapf. “But it’s also a clever way of building a whole universe.”
For Mr. Stapf, who has headed CBS Studios since 2004, the “marvelization” of “Star Trek” can mean a lot.
“Anything goes as long as it fits into the Star Trek ethos of inspiration, optimism and the general idea that humanity is good,” he said. “So comedy, adult animation, children’s animation – you name the genre, and there is probably a ‘Star Trek’ version of it.”
That’s good news for Mr. Kurtzman, who is looking to get even crazier with the franchise celebrating its 55th birthday this year. He points to a pitch by Graham Wagner (“Portlandia”, “Silicon Valley”), which revolves around the character Worf and which he calls “incredibly funny, moving and touching”.
“If it were up to me, I would be pushing the boundaries a lot further than I think most people want,” he said. “I think we could get there. Marvel actually proved you can. But you have to build some foundation to get there, and we’re still building our foundation. “