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LMNO ready for reality

Producer positioned to ride wave with three projects for Fox and long-term deal with UK's Granada 8/13/2000 08:00:00 PM Eastern

The popularity of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? last fall set off a flurry of activity in Hollywood. Producers at home and abroad pitched their wares to network executives hungry for the next hot format.

One U.S. production company, anticipating the reality gold rush, had already forged relationships with many of the top networks.

Los Angeles-based LMNO Productions (as in Leave My Name Off, rather than the run-together letters before P in a child's recitation of the alphabet) is in its ninth year in the reality business, having produced series such as Kids Say the Darndest Things for CBS, Guinness World Records: Primetime for FOX and numerous reality series and specials for cable.

LMNO executives already had an important base covered: They had a three-year-old working relationship with UK-based Granada Media, the producer of a number of top British game shows and reality formats. ABC's Millionaire is a British knockoff and CBS' Big Brother is from Holland, so many of the U.S. networks are suddenly hot for the international format business.

LMNO is currently in negotiations with Granada on a new, possibly long-term, deal that will keep the two companies working together.

"Over the course of the last four years, we have spent quite a bit of time trying to mine a relationship where this concept of shows that were developed in America and England could be sold in both directions," says LMNO Productions President and CEO Eric Schotz. "We had quite a few things in the pipeline when the feeding frenzy began."

Among them are three separate reality projects for FOX and some potential shows elsewhere. The studio just finished a pilot for MTV, Mall Confessions, and is shopping a syndicated daily series that would bring online retailer eBay to daily TV.

Between Granada and LMNO, over a dozen game-show or reality formats are available to the U.S. and overseas markets.

"I think the guys at LMNO are clever and also have their own good ideas, but it was nice that they were linked with one of the biggest format companies in the UK, especially now that everybody is buying these foreign concepts," says FOX executive Mike Darnell. "And generally speaking, everything they have been doing over the last five or so years, has remained on the air."

Schotz started LMNO in 1989, when Hollywood's TV writers were on strike and the networks were in need of programming. He stepped in with a couple of reality formats, including Making of a Model, and then followed it up with specials such as Fantastic Facts and How'd They Do That? It was in 1992, on How'd They Do That?, that Schotz first teamed with Bill Paolantonio, now LMNO's senior vice president of creative affairs. Paolantonio had worked in England in the early 1980s.

In 1996, executives from London Weekend Television called on Paolantonio and Schotz, looking to forge a relationship between the two TV studios. The two sides agreed to work together, LMNO Productions bringing shows to the UK, LWT doing the same here in the U.S. Granada Media acquired LWT and kept the pact going.

"We spent the beginning part of the relationship consulting with the English, giving them insight into what the world market was doing and listening to what they had to say," says Paolantonio.

It wasn't long before LMNO Productions was bringing U.S. imports over the Atlantic. Granada's first U.S. project with LMNO came a year and a half ago on the CBS reality special, Surprise, Surprise, Surprise. And last year, LMNO and Granada executives met for their first-ever brainstorming retreat. "We brought creative folks from [Granada's] side and our side, sat down and brainstormed with absolutely no rules," says Schotz. "We just tried to come up with notions that could work in either market or both. And we had key executives from British and American networks calling into the group confab to tell us exactly what they were looking for, and it seemed to work."

Out of the retreat, LMNO executives identified a handful of Granada formats they wanted to bring to the U.S. LMNO's upcoming FOX game-show special Krypton Factor (based on the British game by the same name) and the FOX special Since You've Been Gone were created during the brainstorming session. The studio's third reality project in development at FOX, Boot Camp, was forged out of a Granada division named The Greenhouse Project. All three FOX shows are expected to air by midseason, according to Darnell.