Hang on a Minute

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In 1990, keeping viewers glued to the television set during commercial breaks was already a huge headache for advertisers, so Paris Barclay, then a spots and music video director who had lensed classic clips for LL Cool J, Janet Jackson, and the New Kids on the Block, drummed up an idea for MTV to keep its audience stuck on the station. Dubbed 60-Second Sagas, his "offensive weapons against zapping" were basically minifilms that told a story in a minute, divvied up into two or three parts that would unfold on the network over a span of programming time. "Each part ends with unanswered questions in varying degrees of urgency, questions that demand the viewer stay tuned until they are answered," went his proposal, dated Dec. 12, 1990. "The answer may come a minute later, or maybe at the beginning of the next show, or maybe not until later that same night. It's up to us."

But it wasn't up to him to run the idea, which ultimately got the thumbs-down. Not long ago, however, Barclay, now an Emmy-winning director/producer for NYPD Blue, ER and The West Wing and a TV/features developer, dusted off his brainchild to see how it would fly before the furrowed brows of television execs in this age of TiVo. He took the idea, now revamped in a proposal for 1MMs (one-minute movies), to TV executive producer John Wells, with whom he currently has a development deal. Sure enough, after just one meeting, Wells' folks bit. Together, they sold the idea to Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Entertainment and it will finally hit the screens on the network this fall.

Co-executive produced by Barclay and Wells, the films will run as interstitial programming during commercial breaks. There will be 10 segmented sagas, most of which will span a minute in total. The executive producers pulled directors and writers from all over the media map: there's a caper directed by Phillip Atwell, the music video maven who lensed Eminem's famed "Lose Yourself"; a doc-style piece conceived by The Sims videogame creator Will Wright; a clay-animated short featuring the voices of Tom Arnold and Michael Richards; and a musical spectacular starring Carmen Electra and a band of scantily-clad hotties, all shot on a moving train. Barclay dusted off his own directing shoes and staged "the world's shortest" game show, featuring actors Garcelle Beauvais-Nilon and Bill Bellamy.

For obvious reasons, the minute-long stage seems fertile ground for commercials talents, so it's not surprising that a director from the ad industry made the cut as well. Hungry Man's Hank Perlman, who got the gig through his agent at CAA, wrote and directed "Prodigy Bully" and even brought Ian MacKenzie from MacKenzie Cutler on board to edit the footage, shot entirely on DV. The film follows, in (surprise!) mock-doc style, the life of mean-spirited brainiac kid Henry Tammer, played by young thespian Josh Flitter, whom Perlman had cast in commercials for Toyota and the Ad Council. "Child prodigies are always funny to me - the idea of these kids playing the violin at 2-years-old," Perlman says. "They're always kind of nerdy, frail, dweeby kids and I thought it would be funny to have this genius who was also a bully. You'd never have that combination and it seemed like something people would write articles about or Dateline would do a piece on. It would also be hilarious to show things like how the other gifted children experienced his wrath. It was a really fertile idea." Perlman was originally set to direct just two minute-long segments, but he had so much material - four hours, in fact - that in the end he submitted more, apparently to NBC's delight. Reportedly, the network plans to run four minutes of "Bully."

According to Barclay, some of the 1MMs show promise for crossing over into full-blown television series, and at interview time he was scheduled to discuss the possibilities with NBC's Zucker. Whether or not Perlman's was in the mix is not known, as Barclay was zip-lipped on which were being considered. But if any of the films makes it, that might start the new wave for selling a TV show. "If they take off, they'd be the world's cheapest pilots," he laughs. It can cost from $3.5 to $6 million to produce a drama pilot he says, but the entire budget for the 10 shorts came in at only $1 million.

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