August 19, 2022

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‘Law & Order’ Boss Dick Wolf on Building His TV Empire

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Dick Wolf does not take anything for granted. Not even his prowess as one of Hollywood’s most prolific producers.

The lord of “Law & Order” has taken his television operations to new heights during the 2021-22 television season, which is about to conclude with no less than six Wolf-produced series in primetime’s top 10 rankings.

Giacomo Gambineri for Variety

Over a long conversation on a deck overlooking the ocean near his home in Montecito, Calif., last month, the 75-year-old writerproducer speaks at length about the changes in television and the revitalization of his Wolf Entertainment banner over the past half-dozen years. Wolf and his loyal team of producers and showrunners have come a long way since the dark day, 12 years ago this month, when NBC executives unceremoniously plucked out the jewel in his crown, “Law & Order,” canceling the show after 20 years of yeoman’s service to the network.

Wolf doesn’t hide his lingering anger at a decision he still finds short-sighted: “It was a political cancellation. It shouldn’t have gone off the air when it did,” he assures. Nor does he hide his glee at finally seeing “Law & Order” return for Season 21 on NBC earlier this year. Still, he presumes nothing when it comes to business.

As his company approaches the end of a milestone season of delivering multiple drama series at an unprecedented scale, Wolf is not ready to declare that all his active series will be renewed for another year. If NBC could pull the plug on “Law & Order” just as it was poised to elbow past “Gunsmoke” as TV’s longest-running drama, then anything can happen.

“The biggest miracle was getting nine broadcast series scheduled,” Wolf says in our mid-April conversation. “The bigger miracle will be getting all nine of them renewed.”

Spoiler alert: The miracle happened right on cue, just as the television industry prepared to gather this week in New York for the first traditional upfronts week since the television landscape was upended by the arrival of Disney+, HBO Max, Apple TV+ and others.

Wolf’s long run and the strength of the organization he’s built have earned him the respect of fellow TV super producer Greg Berlanti. Moreover, the shows have incredible reach beyond the chattering classes.

“Wherever I go in the country, wherever I go in the world, people reference Dick Wolf shows,” Berlanti says. “Sometimes folks in New York and L.A. get so focused on shows that get a ton of Emmy nominations. But the priority is telling stories that move an audience. The real value of any show is ultimately its relationship with an audience. Dick Wolf makes shows that people love and love to talk about.”

Wolf Entertainment’s production feat has come into sharper focus now that there’s a season’s worth of ratings data to peruse. Indeed, while no one in Hollywood was paying attention, Wolf quietly reshaped the network television business to his own liking.

“It’s very comforting to know absolutely what the legacy will be into the future,” he says. “This company has produced and has clear ownership [stakes] in the longest-running dramas in the history of television [‘Law & Order: SVU’ is wrapping up Season 23]. I don’t think anybody’s ever gonna catch us. And it ain’t over.”

Wolf, who changed primetime in the 1990s with “Law & Order,” has blazed trails, a generation later, for a markedly different era of entertainment.

He took advantage of an industry in transition to bulldoze past obstacles to creating the linear TV version of both a binge-watch and an intricate narrative metaverse. Universal Television-based Wolf Entertainment has filled three nights of primetime across two networks with blocs of scripted dramas from the “Law & Order,” “One Chicago” and “FBI” constellations.

Long before Netflix shook up TV-watching conventions, Wolf preached the virtue of having his shows feed off one another by airing in clusters (or “stacks,” in TV jargon) and occasionally employing crossover storytelling. More than one regime of NBC executives resisted his full-throated advocacy for such scheduling. One promised him it would “never happen.”

But as of the 2021-22 television season, Wolf has gotten his wish.

Tuesday nights on CBS have been devoted to Wolf Entertainment’s “FBI,” “FBI: Most Wanted” and “FBI: International” (which was the last piece of the nine-stack added to the primetime Wolf pack in fall 2021). Wednesdays on NBC the action moves to the “One Chicago” universe with “Chicago Fire,” “Chicago P.D.” and “Chicago Med.” On Thursdays, it’s been — ching-ching — “Law & Order,” “Law & Order: SVU” and “Law & Order: Organized Crime” in NBC’s Must-See time slots.



“It’s a constant exploration of possibilities,” Wolf tells Variety during his first extensive sit-down interview in more than six years. “There are 56 actors under contract. The concept is there are nine shows, and anybody who’s in any of the nine shows can appear in the other eight, even on different networks. It’s pretty cool.”

***

The Wolf programs add up to 66 episodes per season per stack, or 198 hours in total, produced on two continents (“FBI: International” films in Budapest) over about 10 months. All nine series start and wrap around the same time, roughly on a June-to-May production cycle. In other words, it’s an old-school drama factory working at a formidable scale, with the added complexity of interconnected storytelling. Not to mention extremely high production values and a signature look and feel that is carefully enforced by the producer whose name is on the door.

“There’s just a level of care here that you don’t see at other places,” says Rebecca McGill, executive vice president of development for Wolf Entertainment. “There are companies that have twice as many people, and there’s half as much care going into the shows. It doesn’t matter if a show is 1 year old or 23 years old. Everybody wants every word on the page and every frame of film to be as good as it can be.”

Wolf emphasizes more than once in discussing the nuts-and-bolts of production how much network TV production is a team sport.

“You don’t do it alone,” Wolf says. “That’s why the consistency is there. It’s not accidental.”

Wolf may be heading into his lion-in-winter years, but his enthusiasm for the industry where he got his start on “Hill Street Blues” and “Miami Vice” in the 1980s is showing no signs of abating. He is animated in sharing his thoughts about the state of the industry in general and broadcast TV in particular. (“I do believe it is virtually impossible anymore to launch unaffiliated IP.”)

And he speaks at length about how Wolf Entertainment manages the high-wire act of delivering so many series. It comes down to teamwork, among a closeknit group that has worked together for decades, anchored by Wolf Entertainment president Peter Jankowski and post-production chief Arthur Forney.

“We know how to do this,” Wolf says. “It’s part of what we offer that nobody else can offer. We’ve got the infrastructure to turn out volume television.” At the same time, he allows: “The numbers are staggering. The pace is unbelievable.”

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Wolf Entertainment president Peter Jankowski remembers working with Wolf on the “Chicago Fire” pilot when his boss saw the future of what is now the “One Chicago” cluster.
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Wolf is vocal about his desire for his company to stay in the business of broadcast even as he acknowledges that it is in a period of decline. And he aims to set the firm up for the next generation of leadership, which includes his son, Elliot Wolf, who is the head of digital and is leading the company’s charge into podcasting, social media marketing, licensing and merchandising.

Hollywood’s fervent embrace of direct-to-consumer business models has pushed network television out of the spotlight in recent years. But while the Big Four are no longer the center of the TV universe, they remain a vital launchpad for introducing new series. Wolf’s scale and prominence allow the company to provide a new kind of linear TV experience as well as turn out the episodic tonnage that content-hungry streaming services crave. Just ask Fox and producer Ryan Murphy, who now emulate the broadcast binge on Monday nights with rescue dramas “9-1-1” and “9-1-1: Lone Star.”

Industry insiders say Wolf has been remarkably clear and prescient in his storytelling vision and his ambition. His shows are hits that each generate more than 10 million viewers a week (including delayed viewing) because they connect with more than just the coastal quadrants of the fragmented audience for scripted television.

“His understanding of his audience is unparalleled. It amazes me, constantly,” says Susan Rovner, chairman of entertainment for NBCUniversal Television and Streaming. “It comes from doing this for so long and learning what his audience responds to. He really pays attention.”

And Wolf Entertainment has proven that it is not beholden to tradition — far from it. “He’s not stuck in a formula,” Rovner says. “He’s evolved and kept up with a changing world.”

Although his company is home to more shows than ever — including an active slate of unscripted series as well as feature documentaries and a streaming adaptation of Wolf Entertainment podcast “Dark Woods” — those who work closely with Wolf say he’s never been more engaged in the highlevel creative steering of the shows. He recently informed Pearlena Igbokwe, chairman of Universal Studio Group, that his latest stretch goal is 12 shows across four nights.

“It took me a while. And then I learned. He’ll say these ambitious things, and then he does it. And now I never doubt a thing he says,” says Igbokwe. “He’s said to me, ‘I will be the last man standing in broadcast. That’s my ambition.’ He’s not only standing — he’s towering.”

***

A decade ago, few would have predicted that an incredibly rich 60-something producer would lead the kind of comeback that Wolf Entertainment is enjoying now.

No doubt, Wolf’s fury at the decision to ax “Law & Order” without so much as a final season fueled his drive to rebuild his TV empire bigger and broader than it was at its mid-2000s peak. In those days, he had three highly rated “Law & Order”-branded series on NBC: the mother ship, “SVU” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” (which later shifted to USA Network).

It was also in that era that Wolf scored what has been described as “the mother of all television deals,” which included one of the most lucrative profit participation definitions for any producer in Hollywood. Those wheels were greased in part by fortuitous timing.

Universal Television had been approaching a big license-fee renewal negotiation with NBC for the “Law & Order” series when rumblings began that NBC and General Electric were in negotiations to buy Universal Studios. Wolf’s longtime lawyer Cliff Gilbert-Lurie, of Ziffren Brittenham, used every bit of leverage provided by the situation to extract all manner of rich fees and self-dealing protections for Wolf. That definition is still paying off for Wolf Entertainment even as the shift to streaming has altered — some fear forever reduced — the long-term profit potential for creatives of successful series.

By the end of 2010, Wolf was down to one show in primetime, “SVU.” The road back began the following year over lunch at Beverly Hills’ now-departed Barney Greengrass. WME partner Rick Rosen, Wolf’s agent for the past 11 years, and WME’s Marc Korman had a conversation with then-Wolf Films development chief Danielle Gelber about new series options for the company (which was renamed Wolf Entertainment in 2019).

Rosen and Gelber knew Wolf was interested in doing something about the world of firefighters. From the restaurant, the pair called then-NBC Entertainment chief Robert Greenblatt to gauge his interest in a show about everyday firefighter heroes in New York. Greenblatt was game, but he told them the backdrop should be a place less familiar than New York or Los Angeles. Rosen suggested Chicago. From that moment, the show that would become “Chicago Fire” was bound to boost NBC’s then-struggling schedule.

The series was a departure for Wolf’s procedural milieu in that it delved into the home lives of characters — in contrast to the laser focus on work life of “Law & Order.” It also unabashedly incorporated a dose of beefcake into sweaty firehouse scenes.

Jankowski, who worked on the pilot of “Law & Order” as a Universal Television executive before joining Wolf’s pack in 1997, vividly remembers the moment that his boss saw the future of what is now the “One Chicago” cluster. The two were on location in winter lensing the pilot for “Chicago Fire” in less-than-warm conditions. As they drove out to a location shooting site, they pulled over to allow a real firetruck to pass them on the way to an accident. When their car passed the accident scene, Wolf observed that the police were on hand even before the first firetruck arrived.

“We were standing on a metal bridge over the Chicago River, it’s freezing out and Dick says to me, ‘We’re going to have “Chicago P.D.,” and we’re going to do one about the hospital, and we’re going to do one about the court system,’” recalls Jankowski. “We’re in the middle of this big, complicated pilot shoot, and I’m like, ‘OK, let’s just get this one done.’ But that’s the way he thinks. He looks at the horizon and dreams big.” (In fact, “Chicago Justice” had a brief run on NBC in 2017, but it didn’t last.)

The advent of the “Chicago” series gave Wolf Entertainment a jolt of fresh energy, experimentation and a roster of new creatives in front of and behind the camera. The shows have employed innovative production techniques in the studio compound in Chicago where they are all filmed. They share a common wall on their stages to make things modular as needed, which simplifies the movement of cast and crew from show to show.

“‘Chicago’ is a great example of synergy,” Jankowski says. “You can walk through all the sets in five minutes.”

Jankowski and others at Wolf Entertainment emphasize that for all the company’s expansion, it still functions largely like a family-run business — albeit a family with no less than 62 post-production pros who work under Forney at a bank of edit bays that fill most of a floor in the company’s offices in the Jack Webb building on a prime corner of the Universal lot.

“He’s found that perfect balance between his own will and his very intense drive and delegating to people he trusts,” says attorney Gilbert-Lurie, who has repped Wolf for 35 years. Another member of Wolf’s 30-year club is his communications chief, Pam Golum of Lippin Group.

“Dick is a very unusual combination of someone who demands excellence, but at the same time he empowers his closest people to do their jobs,” Gilbert-Lurie says.

***

A native of New York, Wolf got his start as an advertising copywriter (he famously penned the toothpaste tagline “You can’t beat Crest for fighting cavities”) before setting his sights on Hollywood as a screenwriter. He was able to sell a few scripts, including one that became the 1992 film “School Ties.” But he found his footing as a writer and producer in television.

Among Wolf’s closest confidants, Arthur Forney is a veteran of the New York independent film scene who has headed post-production since Season 1 of “Law & Order.” He oversees every cut of every episode. By now, he knows what Wolf wants and doesn’t want in a scene before Wolf can finish his sentence.

“One of the great things about this company is we all have one vision. And that’s Dick’s vision,” Forney says. “And it’s very simple. It’s a very straightforward visual style that he has — and it’s a style that tells a story. He believes that the audience is made up of intelligent people that listen and have instincts. And he respects that. So from me down to the 62 employees we have in editorial, we all execute with that vision in mind.”

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Arthur Forney, head of post-production for Wolf Entertainment, with Rebecca McGill, exec VP of development
Michael Buckner for Variety

Anastasia Puglisi is a newer recruit to Wolf Entertainment. She started as an assistant seven years ago. Today she’s senior vice president and supervising producer on all of Wolf ’s network dramas. Jankowski calls her a “rock star” production whiz who is on the phone at all hours helping to keep the nine productions running smoothly.

As a young woman with more ambition than experience, Puglisi found the environment at Wolf Entertainment extremely nurturing.

“Our whole group really approaches everything with a very loyal, family mentality,” Puglisi says. “Most everyone here has been part of the company for a long time, and newer people coming in recognize that right away. We treat everyone with respect. There is truly collaboration across the board.”

Elliot Wolf, 29, joined the company as head of digital in 2018. The third oldest of Wolf’s five children, Elliot has found his niche leading the push into alternative forms of storytelling.

Elliot Wolf executive produced Wolf Entertainment’s scripted drama podcast “Dark Woods,” a murder-mystery thriller released last year in partnership with Endeavor Content. The property is now being developed as a TV series. The younger Wolf is also co-writing and shepherding the half-hour police drama series “On Call” for Amazon’s Freevee (formerly IMDbTV); the show revolves around a training officer and a rookie cop on patrol in Long Beach, Calif.

The Wolf DNA is on display as Elliot describes “On Call.”

“We’re shooting it in a very gritty way,” he says. “It’s going to be the R-rated version of what you’d expect from us on network — it will have a lot of body-cam and dash-cam footage. It’s going to be cool, and I think it’s the beginning of a streaming franchise.”

Another part of Elliot’s mandate was to, yes, get his father’s company up to speed on social media. Elliot has overseen a big push to build online communities around the Wolf titles, making smart use of behind-the-scenes and insider-y material culled from the various shows that speak to the most ardent fans. These are separate from the official social media accounts for the shows run by NBC and CBS marketing teams.

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Anastasia Puglisi, Wolf Entertainment senior VP and supervising producer for network dramas, with Elliot Wolf, the company’s head of digital
Michael Buckner for Variety

That meant convincing fans to follow a second social media account tied to the individual series, @wolfentertainment, which is separate from NBC’s longest-established account. Elliot knew that was a tall order, but he also knew that fans would respond to exclusive content related to the shows that only Wolf Entertainment can provide.

“We were behind the eight ball on social media, but we rebranded and started new socials from scratch, and now we have more than 1.4 million followers across our main channels,” Elliot Wolf says. “I’m positive that we are one of the most engaged brands that is a production company.”

That direct connection to its most loyal viewers isn’t just for bragging rights. It’s a marketing tool that helps promote the shows and the mega crossover episodes that are ratings catnip. Those marketing channels also have allowed “Dark Woods” to soar up the podcast charts after its release, with precious little marketing support.

Elliot drove the decision to change the company’s name from the anachronistic Wolf Films in order to express a broader scope of content and operations. He is pursuing a host of licensing and merchandising opportunities for the “Law & Order,” “One Chicago” and “FBI” brands — a sure sign of Dick Wolf’s clout, because networks typically refuse to give up control of those rights.

“We’re taking the approach of looking at ourselves as a brand rather than a collection of producers working across the shows,” Elliot says. “That brand is going to lend itself more and more to business in the years to come. How do you decide what shows to watch — what products to engage with? It’s your favorite brands. We want Wolf Entertainment to be the institutional favorite for storytelling around crime, around first responders.”

Another area of expansion for Wolf Entertainment during the past decade has been unscripted TV series, which are not produced through his Universal Television overall deal. Wolf steers that operation in partnership with Tom Thayer, who was president of Universal Television in the 1990s and is another longstanding Wolf collaborator.

“We like the same kind of television,” Wolf says.

Tackling nonfiction true-crime stories was a natural expansion for the organization built on the foundation of “Law & Order.”

“The respect for Dick’s brand over 30 years allows us to open doors that weren’t open to anybody else before,” Thayer says.

“Cold Justice,” following the work of Texas prosecutor turned cold-case investigator Kelly Siegler, was an early success in the genre for Wolf Entertainment The series premiered in 2013 on TNT and has aired on Oxygen since 2017.

“There was a pretty huge collection of true crime even back then. And most of it is pretty bad. I knew that if we could do it 20 percent better than those shows, we can carve out a block of good programming,” Wolf says.

The company now produces a clutch of true-crime tales for NBCUniversal’s Oxygen (“Murder for Hire,” “Criminal Confessions,” “Final Moments”) as well as content for A&E Network (“BTK: Confession of a Serial Killer,” “Nightwatch”). Thayer and Wolf credit WME, notably Rosen and Joshua Pyatt, with providing essential support for navigating the marketplace as a free agent. The key has been connecting them with simpatico and skilled unscripted production outfits such as Magical Elves and 44 Blue Productions.

A big priority this year is “LA Fire and Rescue,” an NBC docuseries following members of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Thayer proudly notes that firefighters in the nation’s most populous county have long turned down unscripted TV offers. But representatives for the department approached 44 Blue’s Rasha Drachkovitch after being impressed by “Nightwatch,” which follows emergency responders who work the 9 p.m.-3 a.m. shift in New Orleans.

For Wolf Entertainment, the company’s focus in unscripted and documentary fare is not much different than its focus for narrative drama.

“These shows are about making America realize the people who are watching out for them,” Thayer says. “We want to open up the eyes of America and make sure people are really aware of who’s keeping you safe.”

***

The launch of the “FBI” series brand on CBS in the fall of 2018 was a milestone moment for Wolf Entertainment in diversifying its distribution for scripted content beyond NBCUniversal platforms.

But getting Universal Television to commit to producing a high-end series for CBS — with all the premium deal terms that a producer of Wolf’s stature commands — took some doing. In a sign of fast-changing times, the NBCUniversal executive who was a key player in helping sort out the deal for “FBI” is now leading CBS. George Cheeks joined the Eye network in early 2020 as president and CEO, after nearly eight years at NBCU.

Cheeks can be very glad he helped get the “FBI” deal done because the Tuesday stack is a pillar of CBS’ schedule. As soon as “FBI” showed promise, the network was eager to dive into spinoffs.

“It’s a virtuous circle from a ratings perspective. We’re No. 1 on Tuesday nights,” Cheeks says. “The great thing about the ‘FBI’ shows is that they play right into our sweet spot of shows that appeal to our live linear audience and bring us an unduplicated audience in streaming.”

NBCUniversal’s Rovner echoes Cheeks’ view of the benefits of airing strong shows in a stack. The ratings halo extends beyond the single night, as strong circulation in primetime benefits late-night programming and provides a strong platform to promote other network priorities. ‘

“There is nothing better than not having to worry about an entire night,” Rovner says. “I know I have a fantastic Wednesday and Thursday night.”

Those who know Wolf say he is not one to pat himself on the back or revel in his pole position status.

“There’s a humility to Dick Wolf that is an aberration to any producer that has come close to his level of success,” Thayer says. “He has no pretense and no attitude about his accomplishments. He’s very aware and very appreciative of what he’s been able to do.”

When asked to reflect on the growth of the company, Wolf is, as ever, focused on the future.

“I’ve got five kids. The thing that I have most strenuously tried to push into their skulls is what I live by — don’t ever, ever, ever give up. And ‘Law & Order’ is the perfect example,” Wolf says.

“Look at Gwen Sigan, who is now [showrunner of] ‘Chicago P.D.’ She was an assistant a few years ago. She is one of the keys of the next-gen people. Gwen, Elliot, Anastasia — that’s Wolf Entertainment 2.0. Which is great,” he says. “I don’t have the feeling that I’m building something that is just going to disappear.”



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