How Everybody Loves Raymond Plays in Moscow
(Clarifies name of Russian TV show.)
In Hollywood, most TV writers expect executives to hug them and tell them how great they are—and then go back to their offices and fire them. So when Russia's CTC (CTCM) network decided to remake Everybody Loves Raymond—and took the unusual step of inviting the sitcom's creator to help it shoot the pilot—Philip Rosenthal expected at least a hug. He didn't get one. "I was told it was a big deal to them that I was coming over," says Rosenthal. "Instead, they couldn't care less."
Bro-hugging became the least of his problems. While working on "Everybody Loves Kostya", Rosenthal dealt with a producer who didn't want to buy chairs for a live audience; a wardrobe assistant who hoped to use the show's middle-class family to teach Russia about cutting-edge fashion; and a director whose true passion is playing music on enema bags strapped to his body. Rosenthal also spent a lot of time trying to stop the actor playing Kostya from endlessly writhing on the floor after getting kicked in the testicles, which is a staple of Russian television comedy. Over dinner, a CTC executive not only refused to hug Rosenthal but also told him he didn't think Everybody Loves Raymond was funny. Then he spent the rest of the meal talking about his main business—building lasers.
Reshooting sitcoms in Russia is one of show business's strangest revenue streams. Sony Pictures Entertainment (SNE) Chief Executive Officer Michael Lynton found the business so strange that he asked Rosenthal to write a movie about it. Instead, Rosenthal sold his show himself and shot a documentary about the process, Exporting Raymond, that was released on Apr. 29.
Raymond is already seen in its original version with subtitles—like many American sitcom hits—in 148 countries. However, selling sitcoms "in dubbed form wasn't working" as a business, Lynton says, because almost none of the shows pulled in enough viewers to have a financial impact. "American sitcoms don't play very well outside the United States," he says, largely because different cultures have very different senses of humor. On the other hand, Sony has had a lot of success, starting in Russia, with a new iteration of the syndication business: reshooting old sitcom scripts with local actors while lightly tweaking the plots and dialogue to make them culturally relevant. Everybody Loves Raymond has now joined the Sony sitcom diaspora portfolio, which already includes 150 episodes each of Who's the Boss? and Bewitched, and 350 episodes of Married... With Children.
Sony has gotten so good that it also sells shows, often to CTC, that it never had any affiliation with. (Raymond is owned by CBS, HBO, and David Letterman's Worldwide Pants.) "It's been a consistent contributor to the bottom line," says Lynton, who refuses to give specific numbers. Other studios have noticed, too. Warner Bros. Entertainment has entered the sitcom deportation trade, selling Russian versions of Full House, Suddenly Susan, Step by Step, and even Perfect Strangers. (The hick cousin moves to Moscow from a former Soviet Republic.) The Spanish Golden Girls are named Doroti, Rosa, Blanca, and Sofía. Twentieth Century Fox has sold the Russian rights to Dharma & Greg and How I Met Your Mother, which features a super-old guy playing the Neil Patrick Harris part—making it even creepier. There are also unlicensed versions of Prison Break in China, 24 in India, and The Big Bang Theory in Belarus.
The czar of Russian sitcom syndication, Lynton turned it into a thriving the business in 2004. That year, Sony sold what has become one of the biggest shows in the history of Russian television, The Nanny. "In retrospect, The Nanny was a weird idea," says Lynton, who's still a bit stunned that a show about a loud-mouthed, big-haired au pair from Queens, N.Y., played so well with an Eastern Europe audience. "At the time, people were like, 'What are you thinking?' It's got a butler. It's got a lot of things that Soviet Russia didn't have. But any country that would describe The Seagull as a comedy is a place where I can't describe what is comedy," says Lynton. Regardless, Russians found it funny. And the Russian audience, which is spread across nine time zones, is perfect for the syndication model. The show has since been reshot in eight other countries, including Chile. As Sony learned, Chileans will watch pretty much anything—including Married... With Children, The Jeffersons, and I Dream of Jeannie. There's even a Chilean version of Mad About You.
The sitcom deportation racket is not, however, without its problems. A scene Rosenthal never wrote was recently thrown into one of his old episodes. "A sexy nurse walks into the room—a sexy nurse out of Laugh-In. I called and said, 'What is this?'" The executive's answer, Rosenthal says, was "'We like nurses.'" Rosenthal tried not to take it personally. He was assured that if they turned Chekhov plays into half-hour shows, the same thing would happen: "Anya, they're cutting down the trees. Here comes a sexy nurse!"
Rosenthal also learned to accept other changes, like how cheap Everybody Loves Kostya looked. Unlike in the U.S., where sitcoms cost more than $1 million per episode—before he was fired, Charlie Sheen alone made $1.8 million per episode on CBS's Two and a Half Men—Everybody Loves Kostya costs $80,000 per episode, according to Rosenthal. And since new episodes air every night, it's shot more like a soap opera, with actors taping every other day. "They will burn through nine years of my show in a year and a half," Rosenthal says. And if it comes anywhere near The Nanny territory, the CTC will insist on new episodes, which will somehow be written quickly enough to keep up with the shooting schedule. At that point, it's a safe bet that Kostya's testicles will have suffered irreversible damage.
Rosenthal had to accept other realities of Russian show business. Shortly before heading to Moscow, he was told to take out "K&R" insurance. When he found out that "K&R" stood for kidnapping and ransom, he nearly bailed on the documentary. Lynton was able to convince him that kidnapping doesn't really happen—even if it has its own abbreviation—and everything was fine until Rosenthal actually showed up in Russia. "They told me, 'You will have the same security Michael Lynton has.' That was very reassuring. Until my driver said, 'Sony didn't spring for the gun package.'"
Even if Russia is still more of a K&R culture than a hugging one, there were some similarities between Moscow and Hollywood. Up until five years ago, Lynton says, "There were no agents, no lawyers" working in the entertainment business. "You didn't have a whole development process, the head of current, the head of comedy, the head of drama. Typically, it was one person. But now, actually, it's become more and more like the United States," he says. And in the end, TV executives are the same. "The business part of show business is sadly universal," Rosenthal says. When he first met the laser-beam producing CTC executive, Rosenthal noted on camera, "He looks like someone in Schindler's List—and not the list part." Without gun insurance, Sony executives cut the line from the documentary.
And with good reason: Sony doesn't want to annoy other international executives who will be buying more Everybody Loves a Kind of Weak Man with Some Locally Popular Name. The show has already been sold to Poland and Israel, where it's safe to assume few changes will be needed, other than replacing Ray Barone's last name with Rosenthal.