TV Surf Report: Origin Story — Buffy the Vampire Slayer


Santa Monica, CA – Blame the success of the iconic television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the current trend in Hollywood of adapting movies, popular or not, into TV shows. 

In the development pipeline are television adaptations of features Snatch with Rupert Grint at Crackle, The Lost Boys for The CW and  Varsity Blues for CMT.

Upcoming this fall on Fox are The Exorcist and Lethal Weapon; Taken and Cruel Intentions for NBC (starring Buffy herself, Sarah Michelle Gellar); Jack Ryan and The Last Tycoon for Amazon; and, Lemony Snicket for Netflix.

However, M*A*S*H and The Odd Couple paved the way…

Buffy was not a hit movie.  Written by Joss Whedon and directed by Fran Kazui (Tokyo Pop), the film version was released in 1992 to mediocre reviews and middling box office. 


The cast is kinda impressive though:  Kristy Swanson, Luke Perry, Donald Sutherland, Rutger Hauer, Paul Reubens and Hilary Swank.  20th Century Fox released the film which was produced by Sandy Gallin and Dolly Parton’s company, Sandollar. 

Gail Berman was president of Sandollar at the time (and years later following the success of Buffy and its spinoff, Angel, would become president of the FOX network and then president of Paramount Studios.  She is now running her own production company, The Jackal Group).

The film is enjoyable enough although I don’t see it on cable very often.  Swanson and Sutherland are good.  Hauer and Reubens are really campy and belong in a completely different movie.  Swank is kinda bad in a fun way:  Lotsa big ‘80s hair happening. 

Whedon was justifiably not satisfied with the finished version, so he adapted his own feature screenplay to a TV pilot script…on spec. 

The startup network, The WB, wanted to produce Whedon’s script and intended to lay off the script to sister company, Warner Bros. Television, however, contractually, there was a very big snag in the proceedings.


Because 20th Century Fox released the film, it retained a First Right of Refusal on the television series. 

And this is where Yours Truly comes in.  I was a development exec at 20th at the time, and I was the first person at the studio to read Whedon’s spec script.  The twist is, I had read the feature script years earlier and had remembered loving it. 

Whedon’s spec script was no less terrific.  I loved his signature Buffy-speak, the characters, how they played against stereotype.  So fun. So smart! 

I recall running up and down the hall with the Buffy script in hand because I was so excited, and believe me when I tell you that this was very unusual behavior for me.  I am not the sort of person who loves everything.  Buffy was the exception.  I was passionate about this script because there was nothing on television quite like it! 

Then-studio prexy Peter Roth and then-head of business affairs Gary Newman had never seen this level of passion from me before, and frankly, it got their attention. 

Business-wise, it was not a particularly prudent move to produce a show for the emerging WB because their license fees were so low.  The studio would undoubtedly lose money producing a pilot or a series.  Also, The WB really preferred Warner Bros. because the money is kept in the family, so to speak. 

At the time, 20th Century Fox Television, under Roth’s new leadership, was enjoying a breakout sales season, racking up more pilot production orders for scripts than ever before.  20th didn’t need Buffy. 

That’s how good Whedon’s spec script was, though.  The quality was undeniable.  The story was so fresh, so smart.  And, I just wouldn’t shut up about it. 

Much to The WB and Warner Bros.’ dismay, Roth and Newman exercised the studio’s contractual first right of refusal, and signed on to produce Buffy…without ever meeting Joss Whedon.

20th had pilot orders from every network that year, and Buffy was last on its priority list as The WB had ordered only a pilot presentation, which carries a considerably lower license fee than a full pilot.  Whedon would direct.  Buffy was small potatoes, folks.

Even though Buffy did not enjoy Preferred Pilot Status at 20th , it did have a Champion in myself on the development team as well as the considerable strength of the studio’s production department headed by Charlie Goldstein as well as Sandollar Productions which had a housekeeping deal with the studio. 

Gail Berman brought on Marcia Schulman to cast the pilot.  (Schulman would later go on to cast the series with memorable actors including Juliet Landau, Clare Kramer and Michelle Trachtenberg to name a few; and then became head of casting at the Fox network for a decade.)

BUFFYSarah Michelle Gellar originally read for the supporting role of Cordelia, and Charisma Carpenter originally read for Buffy.  Schulman found David Boreanaz when he was out walking his dog in their neighborhood.

Alyson Hannigan was not the original Willow, however.  Another actress was cast in the pilot presentation, which never made it to air.


Production was bumpy, and the final product was good, not great.  20th had lots of pilots being ordered to series, and I recall not a lot of enthusiasm for Buffy moving forward, most of it financially motivated.

Original Pilot Presentation of BUFFY 

The WB ordered 13 epsiodes, though, with the condition that the pilot be re-shot.  Hannigan became the new Willow.

The studio was on a hot streak, so deals were struck, and Whedon got to direct a new pilot, which was a big improvement on the presentation, and was ultimately aired.

Buffy became a signature show for The WB because it was so so smart and had a great style to it.  Bands wanted to play at The Bronze, the nightclub in the show (which itself became a trend to have a club on shows so bands like Cibo Matto or Aimee Mann could be booked…anyone remember the bar on Ally McBeal or P-3 on Charmed?). 

Ratings-wise, Buffy just continued to grow.  It was an under-the-radar show until The Scoobys really caught on by the end of its second season. 

Ultimately, Buffy became a signature series for The WB:  Smart, authentic, rule-breaking. For Television, it was the Deadpool of its time. The age range for the audience was quite broad, as well.

So, a not very successful film became a TV spec script that was produced as a low-rent pilot presentation that was then re-shot and re-cast into a full pilot that launched a series that took two years to become noticed by a mass audience.

Now, that’s an Origin Story unlikely to be repeated for quite some time.

Next Up:  Part Two of My Very Own Origin Story












About Surfing Hollywood

Steve La Rue is an internationally recognized leader in Film & Television with 20+ years experience as a Development Executive championing such series as Buffy The Vampire Slayer, The X-Files, The Simpsons, King of the Hill, Battlestar Galactica, and Farscape. He writes, blogs, and consults on All Things Entertainment from his home at the beach in Santa Monica, CA, where he balances his life by surfing every damn day.
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