Davies Disney deal

Here's a sweet deal: Start your own company but have someone underwrite all the costs of doing business. That's what Disney is doing for Michael Davies, executive producer of the hit game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

That happens a lot in Hollywood, both for executives who get the boot and a face-saving independent-production deal and for producers who have a knack for picking successful shows.

With Davies, obviously, it's the latter. The financing deal is his reward for bringing various Disney program units a handful of successful shows during his tenure as a development executive for ABC and, before that, Buena Vista Television. Disney is funding his new company, Diplomatic. He has also been named executive producer for life of Millionaire.

And Davies has big plans. He says he has close to 20 projects in various stages of development, most of which he believes will be picked up for air by this time next year. "I intend to operate on a volume basis," he says.

Disney, of course, isn't just rewarding Davies for past successes. For its investment in Diplomatic, Disney will also get a big piece of any Diplomatic hits. The Millionaire
producer confirms that, while he'll own 100% of Diplomatic, Disney will own the underlying rights to the individual shows that come out of his company. The company also gets a first look at all broadcast syndication and network prime time projects coming out of the new company.

Nevertheless, Davies says, in success, "there will be plenty of money to go around for everybody."

Nonfiction shows will be the bread-and-butter projects for his company. Even so, he says, "I'm truly desperate to break out of the game-show business. I'd love to make some dramas," as well as documentaries and feature films.

Last week brought good news on a second front for the 34-year-old producer. ESPN renewed the sports-trivia game show he developed for the network, called ESPN's 2-minute Drill.
Unlike Millionaire, 2-Minute Drill
was created by Davies and is the model for what he hopes will be a slew of projects coming out of his new company. "That's really the first Diplomatic show," he notes. "It's low budget, high quality, and the audience is growing. We'll be coming out with online and interactive [TV] games [for 2-Minute Drill] in the new year, and we'll start marketing it around the world. It's a great template for the rest of the business that we're trying to do."

Among other projects in the works is The People Versus.
As with Millionaire,
Davies acquired the rights to it from Celador Productions. The People Versus
is an interactive game in which viewers at home quiz contestants on the program. Currently, Celador is re-shooting the pilot, Davies said last week. But it could be ready for airing on ABC by the summer, he says. As with Millionaire, Davies' rights for The People Versus
extend through North America but not to the rest of the world.

Another game show, Mastermind, licensed from the BBC will likely end up on cable in the U.S., says Davies.

Diplomatic will be based in New York, although Davies plans to open offices in London and Los Angeles.

The London office makes sense. Davies is British and has numerous contacts in the British production community. And he's working with several of them on upcoming projects. "I'm trying to help them crack the American market," he explains, "but I'm also working with people over here who are trying" to crack UK market.

Davies broke into the U.S. entertainment business as a tour guide at Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla., in 1989. He joined Buena Vista Television in 1992, where he developed Win Ben Stein's Money
and Bill Nye the Science Guy
for syndication. He then moved to ABC, where he developed Drew Carey spin-off Who's Line Is It Anyway?
and a series of specials that included Millionaire.

In August '99, he left the ABC development post to produce Millionaire
full time.

Davies is constantly on the lookout for the Next Big Thing. When he first brought Millionaire
to ABC, he says, "they thought I was crazy. Often the shows that are successful are the last thing that people are looking for."