|A savvy businessman with an uncompromising vision, Dick Wolf laid down the 'Law' on television -- and is still reaping the benefits|
In the TV business, there are executives who write every script, sit in on every shooting day and micromanage every ratings point. Dick Wolf is not that kind of TV executive.
"On the 'Special Victims Unit' pilot, Dick came up to me and said, 'I think I've only given you one acting note in 12 years. Now, I want to give you the second one: Back off and underplay that scene,'" recalls Dann Florek, who appeared full-time on Wolf's NBC drama "Law & Order" as Capt. Don Cragen for its first three seasons (1990-92) and began reprising the role full time on the peacock network's "SVU" in 1999. "I didn't necessarily see his point right in the moment but just let it percolate. After the next take, he gave me a thumbs-up."
Two notes in 12 years could be a sign of a producer who doesn't know what to do or has lost interest in his show, but not when it comes to Wolf. Notes Sam Waterston, who has played Executive Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy on "L&O" since 1994: "If things are fine, we don't see him. He only gets involved when it's wobbly."
Fortunately, little wobbles in the ever-expanding universe of Wolf -- who receives a star today on the Hollywood Walk of Fame -- and his team at Wolf Films. Over the past 30 years, Wolf has honed his balancing expertise as he progressed from adman to scriptwriter to show creator to executive producer. And along the way, he's come up with a very simple set of rules: First, hire the best. Second, let them do their jobs with as little interference as possible. (As he told The Hollywood Reporter in 2004, "If there are major adjustments necessary, it probably means you're looking for a new (person).") And third, shine a spotlight on your staff, trusting that everyone knows who pulls the strings in the background.
As "SVU" executive producer Neal Baer recalls, when he was hired in 2000, "Dick said, 'I'm going to throw you into the deep end to see if you sink or swim.'" The show, at the time, was on Day 4 of prep -- without a script. "Dick told me, 'I guess you'll be busy writing this weekend.'''
Wolf's combination of TV evolutionary prescience, diplomacy and producing skills has earned him one of the most powerful positions in the industry as creator/executive producer of the long-running "L&O" franchise (the 1997 Emmy-winning "mothership" show is now in its 17th season; "SVU" is in its eighth; "Criminal Intent" in its sixth) and given him the freedom to wander all over Hollywood's creative map. Yes, the franchise might have stumbled a bit when a fourth installment -- 2005's "Trial by Jury" -- was canned before the end of its first season, but Wolf can count any number of other success stories, including a best documentary short Oscar for 2003's "Twin Towers." And he's always looking to branch out, as with his upcoming HBO film "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee."
Wolf's business acumen also has earned him an employee loyalty almost unheard-of elsewhere in the business. Many of his highest-ranking showrunners, directors and producers -- plus his publicity staff and cast members -- have worked on one or more of his productions for decades, not mere seasons. Whether with him now or currently on hiatus from the Wolf pack, producer-writers such as Rene Balcer, Walon Green and Constantine "Gus" Makris routinely pop up in show credits like members of his family.
"Why I keep coming back is I think Dick has created the best storytelling vehicle that's on television," says Michael Chernuchin, who has worked on and off with "L&O" since its inception as executive producer and showrunner. "Seventeen years ago, we started teaching America about the law. And when it's done well, nothing's better." Explains Wolf Films president Peter Jankowski, who has been involved with the brand since 1996: "I hold down the fort. Dick and I talk about union issues, scripts, budgets, and I fill the gaps. I simplify his life."
Even cast members have a hard time shaking off the "L&O" dust once they've been given the boot or left of their own accord. Florek, for one, was jettisoned from the "L&O" cast in 1992 when NBC insisted on more female cast members (as was Richard Brooks, who played Assistant District Attorney Paul Robinette). Chris Noth left "L&O" in 1995 in an acrimonious dispute, then returned 10 years later to co-star in "Criminal Intent." That all three returned to their roles speaks volumes about the kind of boss that Wolf is. "Dick is a true visionary," NBC Universal president and CEO Jeff Zucker says. Echoes NBC Entertainment president Kevin Reilly, "Dick casts a big shadow."
That shadow was still faint in the 1980s. Early shots at producing and writing several series (usually crime-based) such as 1990's "Nasty Boys" and 1992's "Mann & Machine" (which featured S. Epatha Merkerson, who has since starred on "L&O" since Season 4 following a first-season guest appearance) proved short-lived. But one concept he began working on while still writing for "Miami Vice" had some staying power. It was an idea for a new strip series, one that would feature a half-hour of cops and a half-hour of lawyers -- an easy sell to syndication because it could be cut in half to sell like sitcoms.
Everyone loved the idea of "Law & Order," until they decided they couldn't possibly make it work. Wolf recalled in 2004 that Fox Television creator Barry Diller "bought 13 episodes in the room," then had buyer's remorse and canceled two days later. "When he bought the Universal TV ads (later on)," added Wolf, "we had lunch, and he said, 'Aren't you lucky because it never would have been on (today) if it had been on Fox. I did you a huge favor.'
I said, 'Thank you, Barry.'"Eventually, NBC's Brandon Tartikoff saw "L&O's" potential, though even he told Wolf, "You can't do this every week." Wolf told him they could and proved the show's mettle with six scripts.
"The show is Dick's stroke of genius," says Matthew Penn, one of "L&O's" executive producers and director (his father, Arthur, executive produced 12 "L&O" episodes in 2000-01). "It's an unusual combination: The prurient interest of a whodunit in the first half, then you peel back the onion skin and there's a real social, moral and legal conundrum in the second half."
Regarding the series' distinctive visual techniques, co-executive producer and editor Arthur Forney, Wolf Films postproduction head and a colleague since 1988, says, "'Law & Order' brought the hand-held camera, rough, edgy look to television, when no one else was doing that. People suggested to him that 16mm would look crummy. Dick said, 'I want it to look crummy and real.' He stuck to his guns."
Although the show had an early champion in Tartikoff, its relationship to NBC took longer to develop, particularly after advertisers pulled support when an episode featured an abortion clinic bombing.
"Everybody at NBC hated it," Wolf recalled. "Not mildly disliked it. Hated it. For the first five years, it was the chief topic of the first day of scheduling every year: What do we have to replace 'Law & Order'?"
A reconciliation came only after numbers began to rise, and that only happened after the network sold reairing rights to A&E for -- as Wolf recalled -- $159,000 per episode. "It was a very bad deal," he remembered, "that made the show."
It also got Wolf thinking about branding and keeping his show healthier on its home network by letting it out of the house more frequently. Timeshifting by audiences was just beginning to come into vogue, which meant the more often "L&O" was on, the more often it could be watched. Viewers found the show on one of A&E's numerous daily airings, then came to NBC, and ratings shot up. When "SVU" went to USA Network, Wolf noted that it was "the first time a network had ever given up a dual-window or cable run within two weeks of the original run."
That repurposing was born on the way to "L&O's" 200th episode party at Elaine's in New York. Wolf was on the phone with Diller (then at USA), telling him he had to close the deal before the party started "because every major television press person in the country is going to be at this party, and this is where you want to announce it."
Creating a show everyone wanted to kill off and supporting it in its earliest days meant Wolf was in a unique position once it became the anchor of a franchise of which NBC couldn't get enough.
Today, NBC Universal Television Studio president Angela Bromstad asserts that "L&O" is up 20% in its primetime slot over the same 2006 period; Zucker adds that more than 100 million viewers -- one in three Americans -- per month watch one of 709 episodes from the franchise shows on either the network or a cable network: TNT (for "L&O"), USA ("SVU") or Bravo ("Criminal Intent"). TNT alone paid Studios USA $250,000 per episode for the first 181 "L&Os" in 1999; the second batch jumped to $700,000 per episode, and the network retains exclusive rights to the series for 10 years once the windows opened.
TNT doesn't feel it got the raw end of the deal, either: "'Law & Order' is TV nicotine," Turner Entertainment Networks president Steve Koonin says. "Nobody helps us illuminate our TNT brand -- 'We Know Drama' -- better than Dick Wolf. As long as he keeps making 'em, we'll keep showing 'em."Suggests Reilly, "These series have become an essential part of people's lives, like doing the Sunday crossword puzzle."
Success has proved him right, but Wolf was uniquely qualified to sell his shows to the world -- he spent seven years as an advertising copywriter in New York before relocating to California and having an epiphany while reading a newspaper article about skateboarding. The resulting 1977 film, "Skateboard," was his first, but certainly not last, ripped-from-the-headlines production, an idea he would carry over to "L&O" some 10 years later. He wrote the script for the feature "School Ties" in 1981, but it took 11 years to get to the screen, and wanting to access a faster script-to-screen arc, Wolf embraced television. He compiled a resume of increasingly gritty scripts that included 1980s gigs at "Hill Street Blues" and "Miami Vice." Wolf Films launched in 1988.
"Dick has obviously figured out a magic formula that works well with the network and in basic cable repeats," notes Wolf's attorney, Cliff Gilbert-Lurie. Plus, the show hit at an opportune time, says Reilly. "Drama seemed washed up on TV (in the early 1990s)," he says. "NBC was on a downward spiral. But this show had authenticity and specificity."
And as a writer at heart -- whether it's ad copy or spare, sharp cop lingo -- Wolf insists that the writers on his shows are the real key to their success. Notes NBC Universal Television executive vp programming Charles Engel, "In his office, there's an English Tudor desk with one thing on it -- a leather sign that reads, 'It's the writing, stupid.'"
It's also the selling. Wolf acknowledges that his early days writing ad copy are why there are three "L&O" shows -- different flavors appeal to different tastes. "I learned branding from Procter & Gamble," he explained. "The one rule on brand extensions is there's no such thing as a bad brand extension except one that doesn't work. If 'SVU' had turned out to be a flop, it would have negatively affected 'Law & Order.' It's a huge risk, but a pretty good reward -- if it works."
Taking those risks is one of the reasons Wolf remains so successful. While continuing to nurture the brand that's made his name -- "Criminal Intent" scripts have been sold to French producers for $150,000 each, to be translated and culturally transformed to suit the Gallic marketplace, and the Russians aren't far behind -- Wolf doesn't shy away from projects that interest him, like his upcoming HBO film. Driving both engines takes an industry savvy few producers, whether micro- or macro-managers, can assert but which Wolf has in abundance.