Stephen Bulka | VP Original Movies
The Television Writers Vault is very pleased to welcome Mr. Stephen Bulka, Vice President of Original Movies for Lifetime Television, in a personal interview with Scott Manville for our continuing series of conversations with key Industry executives.
Mr. Bulka oversees the development and production of movies for Lifetime TV. Prior to Lifetime, he was Vice President of Movies & Mini-Series for NBC. He shares with us a rich and polarizing view of the process of movie development and production at the Network level. His experiences in bringing story to screen are vast, and invaluable for any writer or producer working in television today. He also shares with us the focus of his mandate for new projects, which is scouting true life stories and life story rights that key on social issues for adaptation as a movie.
We’re thrilled to share his experiences with our members at the TV Writers Vault.
Scott Manville: Thanks for taking the time with us, Stephen. I know there’s a lot of people (authors, publishers, agents, screenwriters, and others) including our members, who are very excited to hear some of your experiences, and perspectives on the process of movie making and the industry. Can you expand a bit on what that process entails… and what is most important as a Network executive carrying movies from pitch to production.
Stephen Bulka: It’s interesting to note that, despite the many profound changes that have taken place in our business over the last several years, the development process has pretty much remained the same. At the end of the day it’s still all about the storytelling–starting with a good idea, finding the right writer, and then rolling up your sleeves and doing the hard work of getting the script into shape for production. Sometimes the process is relatively fast and easy and other times it’s long and painful.
One difference between features and television movies is that in the TV movie world we generally don’t have the financial luxury of hiring multiple writers; if the initial writer doesn’t nail the project it often goes away, so all of us—the writer, the development executive, the producers—have a stake in making it work the first time around. While I enjoy the production process, I honestly think that the creative collaboration on the script is my favorite part of the job. Despite the inherent frustrations in the development process, there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing the evolution of a script from a rough first draft to a polished teleplay that attracts first-rate actors and results in a movie that we can all be proud of. Hopefully the writers I’ve tortured would say the same.
SM: What attracted you to the industry? What was the catalyst that sent you in the direction of program development?
SB: As a teenager in the 70’s I grew up watching and loving films like Chinatown, Nashville, Annie Hall, and all the other great films of that era. That motivated me to pursue a career in the film business and led me to a job as a story analyst at MGM and later at Fox. I soon discovered that I loved working with writers and developing scripts and was able to parlay that into a career as a feature development executive. Eventually I made the transition into the television movie business, first at NBC and now at Lifetime. The great thing about television movies is that the development process is much faster and the ratio of production to development is much higher than in features so you actually get to see your projects come to fruition.
SM: You’ve been successful at the Network level for quite some years, having your fingerprint on countless movies and mini-series… many of which are based on true life stories. What do you love most about producing them?
SB: One of the reasons I left the feature side of the business is that I lost my passion for the kinds of movies that were being made. While I understand the industry’s need to target teens and young adults, I personally wanted to make movies for grownups and fortunately the television movie world afforded me the opportunity to do that. As much as the media often makes fun of TV movies (based, I think, on a perception that’s out of date), we’re just about the only people in town still making films aimed at adults that deal with important issues and relatable true stories, as well as movies that entertain you without insulting your intelligence.
Just in the last couple of years, I’ve worked on films dealing with the broken foster care system in America, the suicide of a gay teenager estranged from his family, a cheerleader scandal in Texas, a woman reunited with her kidnapped child after five years of separation, and an alcoholic mother trying to heal her relationship with her estranged daughter.
SM: Its exciting to see many of the movie industry’s most talented actors and directors producing and operating in the TV realm. How has it been for you, in terms of searching out star talent for one of your productions, or perhaps taking on a passion project from an A-lister who could only get such a project done at a large cable net or Network?
SB: In the two and a half years that I’ve been at Lifetime I’ve seen an amazing evolution in the caliber of talent that wants to work with us at the network. We’ve had the privilege of working recently with such stars as Emily Watson, Andie MacDowell, Dermot Mulroney, Gretchen Moll, Jeremy Irons, Joan Allen and Sigourney Weaver. I think part of the attraction is simply the caliber of films that we’re making at the network. When you have a movie like “Prayers for Bobby” with an award-caliber role for an actress, it’s not hard to attract A-list talent, particularly at a time when great roles in the feature world for mature women are few and far between. And you’re right that often these are passion projects for the stars involved who simply want to see the movie get made. Joan Allen, for example, was committed to getting a movie made about the life of Georgia O’Keefe. The project was initially in development at HBO but when it was put into turnaround there Lifetime quickly snatched it up and in the process we not only got Joan Allen but also Jeremy Irons.
SM: What project, or projects, have been your most favorite to work on? And why?
SB: Of the dozens of movies I’ve made in my career (a few of which, I must admit, are not worthy of mention) I think the ones I’m most proud of are two of the films I developed at Lifetime—“Prayers for Bobby”, which starred Sigourney Weaver in the true story of a mother dealing with the suicide of her gay son, and “America”, a very hard-hitting film by director Yves Simoneau dealing with the broken foster care system in America. Both films were nominated for numerous awards and, more importantly, have helped create more awareness in this country of two very important social issues.
I think the film I had the most fun making was the musical version of “A Christmas Carol” at NBC, which we shot in Budapest and which starred Kelsey Grammer, Jason Alexander, Jane Krakowski and Jesse Martin. It was the first time I had ever worked on a musical and it was an amazing experience.
SM: When you’re scouting for a new project… whether it be based on a novel, news article, or life story rights for adaptation, what do you hope to see in any story? What components does a subject or property need to have to translate well into a movie?
SB: As a development executive for Lifetime it’s my job to find projects that fit our brand and will work well for our viewers. I’m pitched numerous projects that I think would make wonderful movies but unfortunately they’re not right for Lifetime. As a network for women, I’m looking for projects that usually are female driven and that will resonate with the women in our audience. That tends to be domestic dramas, biographies, inspirational true stories, movies that deal with contemporary social and family issues, as well as thrillers and true crime stories which our audience seems to embrace.
We like our movies to feel like “events” so we’re particularly drawn to projects based on bestselling books, marquee authors, true life stories, and events taken from the headlines that have a pre-established audience awareness that helps us market our movies. As a company that’s made hundreds of movies, it’s also important that the project feels somewhat fresh and not dealing with a subject matter that we’ve already covered numerous times.
SM: How many projects are you currently working on (from development to production), and can you share any exciting details?
SB: I’m about to start production on three films in the next several weeks, including a thriller based on a Jeffery Deaver novel and a story about a prostitution scandal in Texas starring Jennifer Love Hewitt in her first movie for Lifetime. I also have about 20 other projects in various stages of development that I’m hoping will eventually move forward to production. One project I’m very excited about is a dual biography of Betty Shabazz and Coretta Scott King, the widows respectively of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, which is being produced by (and hopefully will star) Mary J. Blige. This falls in the category of passion projects that we discussed earlier and could be a wonderful project for the network. I’m also developing a four-hour miniseries based on Carrie Fisher’s book “The Best Awful”, which is something of a sequel to “Postcards From The Edge” and has Meg Ryan attached to star.
SM: Can you share, in brief, what your duties are with respect to any specific project that’s moving toward production? I’d imagine you’re at the vortex of a LOT of meetings with writers and producers.
SB: Once a movie is greenlit my role quickly shifts from development executive to production executive. Although we’re generally still tinkering with the script, the focus quickly turns to hiring a director, casting the movie, working out a budget, finding the right location and other production concerns. In many cases there’s an airdate set that we have to meet so it’s usually a very fast and often stressful process with a lot of moving parts. Unlike development, which is a fairly contained process involving just the producers, the writer and myself, once a movie moves toward production every department in our company gets involved, from business affairs to casting to physical production to publicity, etc. and suddenly there are more phone calls, conversations and meetings than there are hours in the day.
But the great thing about my job is that I’m involved with the project from soup to nuts, from development through production and post-production as well as the publicity and marketing campaign as we get closer to broadcast. Obviously when you’re working on several movies at once it can get a little crazy, but it’s a high-class problem.
SM: What’s your favorite part of the process, from pitch to production?
SB: As I mentioned earlier, while it’s fun to be involved with all aspects of the process, the part of the job that I enjoy the most is the creative collaboration with the writer. I also enjoy the challenge of trying to find that next great movie project. I obviously hear a lot of pitches but it’s a bit frustrating sometimes when people come in to pitch a project who clearly aren’t familiar with our network or the kinds of movies we make here. I always recommend to anyone who’s hoping to pitch and/or write a project for any network or production company to make sure they’ve done their homework and are familiar with the content being developed and produced by that particular company.
SM: For a screenwriter who often does write on spec, what do you see as being a critical difference between writing for theatrical films, and writing films for television? Or do the differences have more to do with subject and story, than style and format?
SB: Television movies are rarely based on spec scripts so, with few exceptions, it’s probably not a great idea for a writer to invest a lot of time in writing a script on spec that specifically targets the television movie audience. Most of our movies are based on true stories, topical issues, ripped-from-the-headlines events, true crime, bestselling books and the like. We do sometimes acquire unsold feature scripts, primarily thrillers and other genre pieces, for our lower-budget sister network, Lifetime Movie Network, but it’s probably not something that a writer should be targeting.
In terms of the writer-for-hire process, there are probably more similarities than differences between features and television movies and the steps involved in developing the script are pretty much the same. One difference, however, is that while most feature writers develop their script using a traditional three-act structure, our movies at Lifetime have to be written in eight acts to allow for the commercial breaks, with each act ending with some sort of “button” (usually a big dramatic beat or cliffhanger) in order to make sure that audiences return after the commercial. It’s probably an annoyance for writers who aren’t used to it, but on the upside it does force the writer to constantly think about the structure of the film and the dramatic beats and incidents. And as I mentioned earlier, one other difference between features and TV movies is that we generally don’t replace our writers; we try to keep working with them until they either nail the script or the project is abandoned. Thus the writer often tends to be more invested in the project because they feel less expendable and like more of a creative partner in the process. And if the film gets made they generally get sole credit and know that it’s their work that’s on the screen.
SM: We all know that development can be hell… What is the longest that you’ve had a project teetering in development, but never pulling the trigger, for any variety of reasons. You do know the “Confederacy of Dunces” story, right?
SB: I am familiar with the long and tortured process of bringing “Confederacy” to the screen but while that may be an extreme example it’s not as unusual as you might think. There are countless movie projects that have made the rounds of virtually every studio and production company in town over the years, with various talent attachments, that are still languishing. Last year Lifetime made a wonderful movie called “Prayers for Bobby” starring Sigourney Weaver which had been in development at various networks, including NBC and Showtime, for twelve years. It was a wonderful script with a brilliant role for an actress and a very moving and compelling true story, yet it took twelve years to finally get a green light. I’m sure it would have been easier for the producers to just give up and move on but they had so much passion for the project that they refused to let it die and thankfully it finally got made. Ironically it was one of the most acclaimed and successful movies in Lifetime’s history, as I think it would have been wherever it got made.
SM: What does get a project green-lit? What factors come into play when a Network prioritizes certain projects to move to airing, and others to hold up on?
SB: There are really a multitude of factors that come into play in making that decision—our overall scheduling needs, our ability to market the movie, the budget of the film, our ability to cast it–but first and foremost for Lifetime is the script itself. There are projects that we love but simply can’t get the script right and that’s the primary reason movies don’t get made. It’s frustrating, of course, but sometimes you buy a book, for example, that you know is going to be a challenging adaptation but you love the property so you take a chance and ultimately aren’t able to crack it.
Sometimes the project’s timing is off—a movie that that seemed like a good fit a year or two ago when we put it into development no longer seems as relevant or as marketable or maybe another similar film got made in the interim. Obviously it’s frustrating for the producers when movies don’t get made, but even with a relatively low development-to-production ratio of about 3 to 1, we’re ultimately developing more movies that we need so some projects are invariably going to fall by the wayside.
SM: How do you feel the landscape of scripted programming has changed over the past decade, with the integration of reality-based television? Is there room for everyone?
SB: While the proliferation of reality programming has certainly reduced the volume of scripted series at the broadcast networks, at the same time there been a huge growth of scripted programming at the various cable networks, so to some extent I think it’s balanced out. Who would have thought four or five years ago that AMC would be in the scripted series business? So not only do I think there’s still a lot of opportunity for people who work in the traditional series business, but I also think the quality of the scripted series, particularly at the cable networks, is as good as it’s ever been.
SM: Clearly, you have the right instinct for story, and a volume of experience bringing them to fruition on television. Would you ever move back into the theatrical world, or do you prefer television?
SB: While I would never rule out returning to that end of the business, at the present time I’m very happy working in television. If I was going to work in features again ideally I’d like to work in the independent world or at one of the remaining specialty divisions like Fox Searchlight or Sony Classics. At this point in my life and career, I don’t think I could get very excited developing “Transformers 3”.
SM: Do you have a strict mandate for the types of projects your team will develop with Producers, or is it always evolving based on the properties you discover?
SB: While we do occasionally develop projects in house (and there are certain advantages to that) the majority of our movies are brought to us by outside producers. I very much enjoy the process of looking for movie ideas, checking out books, articles, true life stories and the like, but our department is so busy supervising the development and production of the 25 or so movies a year we make between our two networks it unfortunately doesn’t leave us a lot of time to generate our own projects. Hence we’re pretty dependent on the community of producers to bring us material. Interestingly, we get a lot of material brought to us by feature producers who want to be in a business where movies actually get made and also have projects they’re passionate about that are languishing in feature development and that they think might have a better chance of getting made as a television movie.
SM: How do you see the future of scripted programming at Lifetime? Any major shifts?
SB: Lifetime is and wants to continue to be a full-service television network, offering its viewers a diversity of programming including movies, scripted series and reality programs. With so many cable networks now doing original programming it’s obviously a much more competitive landscape than it was when Lifetime first came on the air. So the network has really stepped up these past few years in terms of bringing more original scripted programming like “Army Wives”, “Drop Dead Diva”, and “Sherri” to our network. We’re really the only network specifically targeted to women that’s doing original scripted series and I think you’re going to see a lot more of that over the next year or two.
SM: Thanks again for chatting with us, Stephen. Best of success in your career!
SB: Thanks for asking me.