Making Pilots Fly


It's been a whirlwind first year for Danielle Gelber at Showtime Networks Inc. Gelber, an eight-year veteran of drama series development at Fox Broadcasting, most recently as the head of its Drama Development Department, joined Showtime in January 2002 as vice president of original programming.

In her new job, where she has responsibility for the development and creative oversight of new original series, Gelber is readying Out of Order, a limited series about a dissolving marriage, for air this June, and is working on three pilots that have been green-lighted for production.

"It was a real coup to be able to deepen our bench with someone who has been the head of development at a network," said Showtime Networks programming president Jerry Offsay. "She hasn't even worked a full year and she has a series, having done a superlative job on Out of Order. Right now, she also has half of our pilots for the next go-round."

In making the switch from broadcast to premium television, Gelber, who lives with her 4-year-old daughter and her husband Steve, an independent producer specializing in pilots, is reveling in Showtime's unfettered "No Limits" environment.

"During my eight years at Fox, which is still the most cutting-edge broadcast network, I had a lot of creative latitude," she said. "But I was really interested in going to the next level. Original programming on cable is hardly new, but it is still the frontier. You don't have to deal with the constraints of commercials and standards. With premium television, you can speak to the audience through a more sophisticated way of story-telling."

Gelber believes the medium and Showtime is the right match for Out of Order. "On a broadcast network, there would have been a lot of fear because it cuts very close to the bone. It's about a dysfunctional Hollywood couple, with infidelity at its core. There is an inherent frankness. It could not have been done in such a visceral, relatable way on broadcast."

Starring Eric Stoltz (Pulp Fiction), Felicity Huffman (Sports Night) and Kim Dickers (Hollow Man), Out of Order
is written and executive-produced by Donna and Wayne Powers (Deep Blue Sea
and the upcoming The Italian Job).

Showtime has ordered a two-hour premiere and four additional hours, leaving the door open for the possibility of more installments. Gelber—who while at Fox in 1997 read David Chase's first draft—noted that The Sopranos
also began life as a limited series.

"We think Out of Order
is going to strike some nerves. We think it is a show where people are going to say, 'That's so true,' " said Gelber.

Piloting ahead

She is also quite enthusiastic about the pilot trio of The Lifestyle, Huff
and The Game. The first centers around a young, married couple whose dot-com millions and jobs have imploded. They then relocate to Orange County.

"On the one hand, Orange County is this nice conservative enclave, but it's also the capital of swinging," Gelber said. "It's an Oz-like world of 'We're not in Silicon Valley anymore.' It's very funny. The wife character, in particular, is quite acerbic."

Gavin Polone (Curb Your Enthusiasm) and Jon Turtletaub (Panic Room) serve as executive producers, and the latter is attached to direct.

The Game
, executive-produced by Spike Lee, is written by Alex Tse, whom Gelber describes as "a real find. He's a young Asian who grew up around street gangs in San Francisco, but managed to avoid that life. He knows those people well and it lends authenticity."

A harsh look at young people on the streets, the pilot also juxtaposes them at home with their families and at a work. "This is about people who live and work among us. It's not just about violence, the image of somewhere like South Central," Gelber explained.

Written by Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral), Huff
is being pegged as a one-hour drama skein about a psychiatrist in the midst of a mid-life crisis. Gelber said there is also "a lot of humor. This is quite a ride. We're hopeful this will become identifiable for Showtime, with a signature character who will become part of the pop-culture lexicon."

Fox fare

She can only hope that Out of Order
and her pilot replicate the success of some of the series that she helped develop for Fox: Party of Five, Melrose Place, Beverly Hills: 90210
and Boston Public.

But she got the most gratification from two others. "I loved, loved, loved the
The X-Files. It was very exciting to read Chris Carter's 15-page draft," she said. "I read it alone on a Friday night and I was frightened to wit's end. I had to keep telling myself it was just a show."

Gelber had far less development input on another ground-breaking series. "David Kelly basically came in and said, 'Here's my idea; here's my show,'" she recalled. "It was great to watch Calista Flockhart—no one could even pronounce her name—walk in and become Ally McBeal."

On the horizon

Looking ahead, Offsay has high hopes for Gelber. "I expect as she gets to know our system better she'll get even more ideas through and bring some of the people she worked with at Fox to us," he said.

And as Showtime ramps up its commitment to series, there is an even greater emphasis on finding that major breakthrough.

"Not that I'm the Great White Hope, because it always come down to collaboration with the writers, talent and creative teams, but there is a sensibility to find that cultural zeitgeist," Gelber said. "There is motivation, pressure to get that big show. Hopefully, we can come up with magic."