Regency Risk-Taker Rolls the Dice

Schwartz has major plans to reinvigorate studio

Robin Schwartz learned how to handle show-business crises—and personalities—early in her career. Not long out of college, she was working as a Saturday-morning program assistant at NBC when she was given the assignment of accompanying Saved By the Bell teen star Mario Lopez to the White House to meet President Clinton. The trip began veering off-course at the airport.

Having missed their flight, Schwartz worried that they would stand up the president. “I talked to every supervisor that airline had,” she says. “I begged. I pleaded. And, yes, I even cried.”

Mercifully, the mission appeared to be salvaged. An airline worker informed Schwartz that they could squeeze her and Lopez onto a flight. “We ran to the plane, and I handed [Mario] his ticket,” she recalls. “He stopped cold and said, 'I'm not getting on this plane. I only fly first class.'”

But Schwartz's moxie persuaded Lopez to get on the plane, and the presidential meeting ultimately took place.

Romancin' Danson

Schwartz learned a valuable lesson that day about asserting herself, and she shows that same chutzpah today as president of boutique TV studio Regency Television. The former NBC and ABC Family executive is completing her second nail-biting pilot season at Regency, after arriving in February 2004 with development well under way.

Faced with the loss of almost all of Regency's current programming slate this season, Schwartz has lured heavy hitters like former Cheers and Becker star Ted Danson. She persuaded the reluctant leading man to return to series television in Help Me Help You, an ABC comedy pilot about a psychologist whose life unravels. “That was one of the hardest days of my life,” she says of the Danson meeting. “Ted is so smart and asks so many good questions. He interviewed us like I've never been interviewed before. I was sweating.”

Danson wasn't her only big get. Schwartz nabbed John Strauss and Ed Decter, who co-wrote the 1998 film smash There's Something About Mary with the Farrelly brothers, to executive- produce Regency's The Worst Week of My Life pilot for Fox. The program is adapted from a BBC series about a couple's nightmarish week prior to their wedding.

To direct Regency's Fox comedy pilot That Guy, a coming-of-age story about someone who's a bit too old to be coming of age, Schwartz signed director Betty Thomas (Private Parts, The Brady Bunch Movie). She also recruited Mr. & Mrs. Smith director Doug Liman and writer Simon Kinberg for the ABC drama pilot adaptation of the film, about suburban assassins working out marriage issues.

On the business side, when Fox passed on Regency's lottery series Windfall, Schwartz sold it to NBC. It will premiere in June, a summer replacement in the plum 10 p.m. Thursday slot currently held by ER.

Schwartz's high-profile gamble to strengthen Regency this pilot season reflects her penchant “to take chances and develop unique projects,” says Regency TV CEO David Matalon.

Fox Television Studios President Angela Shapiro-Mathes, who oversees her parent company's 50% stake in Regency, thinks Schwartz's ability to relate to talent stems from her tenure as a writer/producer at 20th Century Fox Television.

“Robin has great relationships with many of the best writers and producers in the industry,” Shapiro-Mathes says. “She supports them, and the development of their projects, by giving them creative freedom and by fostering a collaborative environment in which they can do their best work.”

With Schwartz reaching out to big-name talent and maintaining strong relationships with network executives, Regency may get the turnaround it needs. Many of its top series have been relegated to low-rated Friday nights, and several are on their last legs. Malcolm in the Middle and The Bernie Mac Show were once hits for Fox, although Malcolm ends this season, and Mac is on the bubble. Fran Drescher's WB comedy, Living With Fran, which debuted last April, also may not be back.

Elsewhere, critical raves for Regency's FX heist series Thief have failed to translate into strong ratings since its March debut.

Yet Schwartz, Regency's third president, remains confident the “writers-driven studio” established under Gail Berman, who went on to lead Fox and now Paramount Pictures, will thrive.

In Berman's footsteps

Berman “set the bar extremely high,” says Schwartz. While she's wholly focused on making Regency thrive, when asked about jumping to a network down the road, she's choosing to keep her options open. “They have a need for people who are passionate, have a point of view and don't care if they get fired the next day,” Schwartz says. “At NBC, if you didn't have an opinion, you were out the door. That's the way we learned to take risks.”