Combine David Katzenberg with writer Seth Grahame-Smith and the bizarre hybrid creation is KatzSmith Productions, a company grabbing attention in Hollywood for imaginative mash-up ideas and a love of all things genre. The duo likes to mix-and-match history and horror, fuse crime sagas with ghost stories, and they love the idea of assassins avenging Wall Street malfeasance. Oh yeah, they also want to make a Beetlejuice sequel that die-hard fans will love.
They’re also developing a sick sense of humor animated comedy they describe as Married… With Children with Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist Stephen Hawking (if that isn’t bizarre enough to keep you reading, I don’t know what is) and a high school fantasy series they describe as a superhero version of The Breakfast Club.
Here’s a look at what they have in the works:
Grahame-Smith, 35, is best known for penning the books Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (a Jane Austen spoof being developed as a movie by Lionsgate), and the Civil War bloodsucker-fantasy Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (which Tim Burton is producing into a feature film at Fox). He also co-wrote the screenplay for Burton and Johnny Depp’s big-screen vampire soap-opera Dark Shadows (out next May). Meanwhile Katzenberg, 28 (son of DreamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey), a former reality producer on shows such as Survivor, has shifted toward directing in recent years with MTV’s The Hard Times of RJ Berger and Awkward and is soon to take on his first feature film.
The pair recently raised industry eyebrows by landing the kind of high-profile production deal at Warner Bros. that is increasingly rare among cost-conscious and commitment-phobic studios. Now they’re feeling the pressure.
“We like to take ordinary stories, the kind that have already been told, and turn them on their ears,” says Katzenberg, sitting in their offices – decorated with original posters from The Shining, E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial, Taxi Driver, and (a shared guilty pleasure) MacGruber.
“We’re not the guys making a straight-forward drama,” adds Grahame-Smith. “If there’s a different way into it, we’ll take that. The easy way to describe it is mash-up. We’re very interested in genre, and tilting genre.”
The two, who met five years ago working on Internet comedy videos with Michael Cera and Clark Duke, have the rapport of brothers, often hassling each other. Katzenberg is sitting with a cast on one wounded arm – the result of a recent minor accident. (They celebrated the WB deal by becoming “motorcycle enthusiasts.”) Grahame-Smith vows to flee the scene if his pal has a more serious accident, out of fear of his famously intense father’s wrath. “I don’t want to be the guy who was with David when he hurts himself on his motorcycle. It’s already happened, and I’ve already gotten a lecture from his dad. I will tell you, the Katzenbergs have treated me like family, but I am still pissing-my-pants afraid of those moments when Jeffrey – or as we like to call him, The Boss – sits you down and tells you what’s what.”
Papa mogul may have a lot to say about safety, but their professional necks are their own to protect. KatzSmith built a relationship with Warner Bros. executives through Burton, who is doing Dark Shadows for the studio, and one of the projects they’re developing is that sequel to Burton’s 1988 supernatural weird-fest Beetlejuice. They’re also pitching an ambitious slate of original stories. “We have this deal. Now we just need to execute,” Katzenberg says.
Here are the movies and TV shows they have in the pipeline:
Murders and Acquisitions, an original script by Jonathan Stokes, tapping rage at the greedy 1 percent.
SETH GRAHAME-SMITH: It’s a Boiler Room-type movie, mixed with an assassin movie. It’s about a corporate raider, high-finance guy who raids one company too many and the ousted CEO hires assassins to kill him. It’s highly skilled assassins versus highly skilled financial assassins. With Occupy Wall Street, it seems very timely right now.
Rolling With Dad, an animated series they’re developing for Adult Swim, described as Married… With Children starring a Stephen Hawking-esque character. (They admit it’s dark humor, but Hawking has poked fun at himself as an animated character on The Simpsons, as seen in this photo.) The show would be featuring the voices of Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation), Nick Swardson (Comedy Central’s Pretend Time), and Hayden Panettiere (Heroes).
SGS: We’re not saying he’s Stephen Hawking, obviously, but he’s based on him. He has a debilitating accident and loses everything, loses his career, and is stuck in a wheelchair relying on his idiot family for the first time in his life.
DAVID KATZENBERG: It came from Seth and I driving around town, taking meetings and just talking like Stephen Hawking.
SGS: I do the Dad voice. I speak in that voice and they filter it and put it through a little speaker box. He’s a telemarketer to make money. The problem is he doesn’t do very well because everyone always thinks it’s a robo-call.
From Mia With Love, a coming-of-age film the pair co-wrote with two other writers, about awkward teen boys who purchase a Russian mail-order bride. (Katzenberg hopes to direct it for Fox.)
SGS: It’s Weird Science for the modern age.
DK: Everyone is pushing the rated-R comedy, but we thought we would take a stab at the John Hughes-y PG-13. A little more heart than fart.
Beetlejuice sequel, an update on “the ghost with the most” that’s still in the concept phase.
DK: We’re not remaking Beetlejuice. People have been very angry about that.
SGS: When Warner Bros. came to us about it, we said the only way we’d do it if we got Tim [Burton’s] blessing and involvement, and we got that, and the star of the movie has to be Michael Keaton as Beetlejuice, and it’s a true continuation 26 years later. Not just throwing him in as a cameo going, “Hey, it’s me. I endorse this movie.” We’re not there yet [with Keaton] because we don’t have a film to present to him.
Unholy Night, based on a recently finished novel by Grahame-Smith (formerly titled We Three Kings) that focuses on the wandering wise men and puts an action-adventure twist on the original Christmas story.
SGS: That is a huge swords and sandals epic, and very dark, and very expensive. We’re going to have to partner with another big producer to get it off the ground, but that’s something we hope to get going. We have a big pitch on that Nov. 1. If Warner Bros. sparks to Unholy Night and really wants to do it, I’ll probably end up writing that very quickly. That one could be a prime candidate to film sometime next year.
Night of the Living, another project they’re pitching with Burton in mind. This would be a stop-motion animation story about monsters who suffer an invasion of (shudder) normal people.
SGS: Night of the Living is all of the topes of horror movies, but turned on their head from the monster’s point-of-view.
Fire Teddy, an Office Space-type workplace comedy about a professional downsizer and a particular pathetic employee about to be laid-off.
DK: It’s a modest, low-budget character-driven comedy about a young man whose sole job is to fire Teddy, who has every issue in the books, and he just can’t fire him.
Alive in Necropolis, based on a supernatural crime novel by Doug Dorst, set in the real-life city of Colma,Calif., which has 1,600 living citizens, and 1.6 million bodies buried in its surrounding cemeteries.
SGS: When people in San Francisco [in the 1920s] realized they were running out of real estate, they exhumed all the bodies and graveyard markers and moved them to this town, making it basically a kind of city of the dead. The book is about a murder mystery, told through the eyes of a young detective who may or may not be going crazy, and may or may not be seeing ghosts that are helping him. It’s a very rainy streets, brooding, straight-forward supernatural thriller.
Extra Curricular, a live-action TV series they’re developing, described as “the supernatural Breakfast Club.” Writer/producer Flint Wainess would run the show.
SGS: A group of kids gets detention on the same day. They have absolutely nothing to do with each other. It’s the goth, it’s the jock, it’s the this, it’s the that … They’re in a chem lab for detention, and, in a very comic book, origin-story kind of way, something goes wrong in the lab and they all get different super powers. All the sudden this group of total non-friends has to become a poor man’s X-Men, figure out what their powers are, and fight a growing crime menace we reveal in a Buffy-type way.
It may take a while for these projects to make it to theaters, and not all of them will come to fruition. Most producers have many projects going at once, knowing that only one or two may actually move forward. “We feel like we have a lot to prove,” Grahame-Smith says. “There has been a big bet placed on us that we need to pay off.”
On Twitter: @Breznican