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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2
   

On The Job: Lost in Hollywood

Thom Sherman, Warren, ’88
By Karla DeVries, ’04

 
     

Thom Sherman spent two and half years as a producer and president of Bad Robot Productions, the company that produced the hit show Lost. Since September 2006, he has been the head of drama development at The CW.

Television shows may come and go faster than Hollywood diets, but changes in the major networks are rare. So when the CBS and Time Warner corporations created a new joint entity called The CW in September 2006, Thom Sherman, Warren ’88, welcomed the opportunity to be in at the birth of a network.

“It seemed like a kind of fun thing to be on the ground floor of a brand new network and see what we can do,” says Sherman, executive vice president of drama development at The CW.

For Sherman, this is a return to a network executive position after two and a half years as a producer and president of Bad Robot Productions, the company founded by JJ Abrams that produced the hit show Lost. As a head of development, Sherman is responsible for anticipating the future tastes of the network audience. He recruits the creative talent necessary to put together a successful project—writers, producers, directors— and shepherds them through the process.

Typically, it takes a little more than a year to create the pilot episode of a television show. Early in the summer, the network contacts the literary agencies that represent screenwriters. “Basically, you have the same conversation with everybody, and if you boil it down, we want hit shows,” says Sherman.

From June through October, Sherman hears nearly 300 pitches for dramas. Sherman, along with his team of junior executives, determines if a project would be right for their network. For The CW, this is partly a matter of demographics and target audiences. “We are 18 to 34 and that’s it. That’s all we are focusing on, that’s our target,” Sherman says.

The CW found that a common characteristic of this wide age-range is what Sherman calls “firsts.” This is when most people go through major touchstones in their lives: moving out on their own, falling in love for the first time, scoring the first job, getting married, having children. “That’s something we think about in the pitches,” says Sherman. “We are trying to capture what it feels like to go through these things.”

In the fall, Sherman is actively involved with guiding the writing of the pilot script. The writer develops a story idea for the pilot episode, then a detailed outline and finally a draft of the script. Throughout this process, the development team responds with “notes”—comments and suggestions for improvement. The final script is completed between December and January, and the most viable projects are presented to the president of the network.

The shows are filmed in March and April and once the “rough cuts” of the episode are received, the development team smoothes out these first edits, for delivery to the network in May.

The president of the network and the senior level executives then meet to decide which pilots will be ordered. Typically, a network has 40 to 50 drama pilots created for review each year. Fewer than a third of those will ever reach our television screens. Far fewer will make it beyond their first year.

“The shows will premiere in the fall and [the audience] decides whether they are any good or not,” says Sherman.

One of the latest shows to face the audience test will be Gossip Girl, set in a posh New York City prep school. Also premiering is Reaper, a cross between an action comic book and a comedy, about a young slacker who finds out his parents sold his soul to the Devil before he was born. Another is Life is Wild, a story about a dysfunctional family that drops everything in their lives to move to South Africa and live on a game reserve.

The focus for this fall’s lineup was on creating a more definitive identity for the network. “I feel really strongly that we did that with the new shows,” Sherman says, “so we are cautiously optimistic about the fall season.”

Despite his successes in production, being behind the scenes was not Sherman’s plan. The Warren College theater major was originally an actor, performing in campus productions such as Hamlet and Volpone. He moved to Hollywood after graduation to pursue acting, but his career did not take off as he had hoped.

“I wasn’t working in the business at all; I was working at a rental car company as my day job and doing theater at night,” Sherman says. “I realized I was really far removed from the business and I didn’t know anybody.”

Then in 1990, a friend from UCSD happened into his rental car office and mentioned to Sherman that their mutual friend Helen Douglas, Marshall ’87, was working at a production company. Sherman reconnected with Douglas and she suggested he apply for a production assistant position on a new show.

“That was my first job in the business, on a show called Life Stories. It lasted about two months,” says Sherman. “I was literally driving around L.A. delivering scripts to people, delivering packages, recycling paper, making copies. It was a nothing job, but while working on that show I realized there are a lot of people in this business who make a nice living doing things other than acting.”

Sherman asked the producer, David Peckinpah, to help him explore the different fields in the business. “I told him, I can’t just be an assistant. I want to learn, so I’m asking you to mentor me and teach me how to produce,” says Sherman. “I basically shadowed him in everything he did.”

After that apprenticeship, Sherman found a job in 1995, working for the head of Creative Affairs at NBC Productions, a studio that developed shows for the network. That was followed by a job as a junior executive in the drama department at ABC where, over the next few years, he moved up to become the senior vice president of drama development. However, not all the new shows he developed were as well received as he anticipated.

“I had full faith that dramas such as Line of Fire, Karen Sisco, MDs, Push, Nevada, Philly, Thieves, Gideon’s Crossing, Cupid and others would become hits that America would want to watch. Time and time again, however, I’ve been disappointed,” Sherman said in an interview on MediaXchange.com last year.

However, Sherman was excited for the 2004 development season, hoping for good reception for what he described as “a funny, dark soap opera called Desperate Housewives and a light medical drama called Grey’s Anatomy.” Those shows were major successes, boosting ABC’s slumping ratings. They remain the top shows for the network in their third seasons. In that same year, Sherman became involved with another smash hit—Lost.

The basic concept for the show was suggested at a corporate retreat by Lloyd Braun, then chairman of the ABC network. The idea was taken to the literary agencies, and a writer with a similar idea was hired to write a pilot script. However, after several drafts, it lacked the pop they were hoping for. “So I thought basically the project is dead. It was late January. There’s a schedule. If you pick up a pilot to turn in on May 1, you only have so many weeks to get stuff done,” says Sherman. “If you are too late you are just not going to make those deadlines. It can’t happen.”

But since Braun was passionate about the show, JJ Abrams, the creator of ABC’s show Alias, was called in to help salvage the idea. Together with a young writer, Damon Lindelof, they put together an outline of the show in four days.
“ So we read it that night, Lloyd and I, and we loved it. We called and said, we’re ordering it to pilot. Which is unheard of, you never order a pilot off an outline. You wait to see the script,” says Sherman.

Later that week, Braun told Sherman that Abrams was looking to start his own production company, and both he and Abrams thought Sherman should run it. “So it was like serendipity,” says Sherman. “Within about 10 days I had left ABC and was going to work with JJ. We had one meeting, it was a lovefest—we said we should do this, and that was it.”

Sherman was intimately involved in getting Lost produced, guiding it through a hectic production schedule and massive casting sessions (there are about 15 principal characters in the pilot), all with the knowledge from his years in development that this project was far from a sure thing.

“That was really hard, to think you’ve poured your blood and sweat and tears into these projects,” says Sherman. “Because you do work on them night and day, and all that hard work could be for naught, based on the whim of an executive.”

Fortunately for the series and its legions of fans, the executives did take a chance on the show. Lost was a major success, even winning the Emmy for Best Drama. During its third season, Lost remained in the top 10 in the Nielsen ratings with more than 18 million viewers each week.

In a business where success is rarely permanent, Sherman sees the new network as his chance to make an impact. “We had a good run at Bad Robot, we did some good stuff together. And now I’m back on the dark side,” he says. “If I develop shows that become successful on The CW, I will be part of that team that created something out of nothing, and that’s exciting—the possibility to make a mark.”

With rare Hollywood humility he adds, “If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, but that’s the goal.”

Karla DeVries, Muir ’04, is a freelance writer living in New York City.

RELATED LINKS

The CW TV Network

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"Typically, a network has 40 to 50 drama pilots created for review each year. Fewer than a third of those will ever reach our television screens."