CBS All Access has given a series order to The Man Who Fell to Earth, based on the Walter Tevis novel and the cult classic 1976 film starring David Bowie. Julie McNamara, EVP Original Content for CBS All Access, made the announcement at TCA.
The CBS TV Studios-produced project comes from Alex Kurtzman, who is set to direct. He and Jenny Lumet co-wrote the pilot script and serve as executive producers and co-showrunners alongside Shooter creator John Hlavin.
The Man Who Fell to Earth had been set up at Hulu for more than a year, initially with producers Sarah Timberman and Carl Beverly while they were based at CBS TV Studios. After a short early development, Kurtzman and Lumet came on board, along with Kurtzman’s CBS Studios-based Secret Hideout.
Because of the lengthy development process, which I hear involved multiple extensions granted to Hulu, Studiocanal — which owns the rights for both Tevis’ book and the Nicolas Roeg film — ultimately put a cutoff time by which the project had to be greenlighted, declining to go for more extensions.
Meanwhile, Hulu underwent an ownership change following Disney’s acquisition of Fox assets as Disney became a majority owner of the streamer in March and took full operational control in May. One of the changes brought in by the new Hulu owners was a push for outside series to become co-productions with Disney. Because The Man Who Fell to Earth already was a co-production with Tandem, I hear CBS Studios was not willing to agree to an ABC Studios co-production, introduced at the last minute and not in the previously negotiated contract. I hear the two sides were at an impasse while the end on the latest rights deal approached. That is when CBS All Access, CBS’ digital SVOD and live streaming service, moved in to pick up the series.
Lumet is a co-executive producer on the Kurtzman-led CBS All Access series Star Trek: Discovery and also wrote a 2017 CBS pilot produced by Kurtzman’s Secret Hideout.
When the two first discussed The Man Who Fell to Earth, “we both flashed to the incredible day 12 years ago when Steve Jobs got on stage and introduced the iPhone to the world, changing forever the way we communicate,” Lumet said.
Kurtzman then pondered, “What if he was an alien?,” which became the genesis of the duo’s approach to rebooting the title. It does not feature Bowie’s iconic Thomas Jerome Newton but a new central alien character inspired by some of the biggest tech innovators of the past couple of decades including Jobs, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.
The timely project will center on an alien who arrives on Earth at a turning point in human evolution and must confront his own past to determine our future. “He is truly unique and strange,” Kurtzman said. Added Lumet: “He introduces technology that evolves us and has to be dealing with the consequences of that. What a better way of looking at human behavior.”
The goal is to avoid sci-fi tropes and have a much more grounded series based on emotion and connection while using sci-fi as a “great template”, Kurtzman added. “Getting to use this story template to do a deep dive on what it means to be a human being from the point of view of an alien who has no idea what love, human empathy and connection are.”
In a statement, Kurtzman and Lumet further articulated their vision for The Man Who Fell to Earth.
“Walter Tevis’ visionary novel gave us a Tech God Willy Wonka from another planet, brought to life by David Bowie’s legendary performance, that foretold Steve Jobs’ and Elon Musk’s impact on our world,” they said. “The series will imagine the next step in our evolution, seen through the eyes of an alien who must learn what it means to become human, even as he fights for the survival of his species.”
The 1976 film is known for its stunning imagery. Kurtzman has no plans to try and replicate that.
“Nicolas Roeg was a legend, and the last thing I would want to do is mimic his work in any way,” Kurtzman said. “He saw this story through his own prism. He captured that incredible sense of loneliness of a small character in a larger landscape, the alienation the character felt. He captured that feeling, and I want to find a way to capture a feeling, not necessarily in the way he did.”
With the pilot script written, next for Kurtzman and Lumet is opening a writers room for the series in September.
“We are thrilled to add another iconic genre favorite to our line-up as we expand original programming on CBS All Access,” said McNamara. “We know this series will capture the soul and spirit of the source material and further push narrative boundaries in the capable hands of Alex Kurtzman, Jenny Lumet and the entire producing team.”
CBS All Access’ slate of pedigreed genre series include the Kurtzman-led Star Trek franchise and Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone reboot.
“I’ve been a fan of this extraordinary film starring David Bowie for years,” said David Stapf, President of CBS Television Studios. “While no one can ever hope to surpass Bowie, bringing the film to series will allow for an ongoing detailed and nuanced exploration of the concepts established in the novel.”
Executive producing The Man Who Fell to Earth are Lumet, Secret Hideout’s Kurtzman and Heather Kadin, Tandem’s Rola Bauer and Tim Halkin, and Timberman/Beverly’s Sarah Timberman and Carl Beverly. Aaron Baiers will serve as co-executive producer. The series will be co-produced by CBS Television Studios and Tandem Productions, a Studiocanal Company.
“Owning an iconic property like this is a privilege,” said Rola Bauer, MD of Studiocanal TV. “Alex and Jenny’s voice takes Tevis’ provocative vision of humanity and finds today’s pulse and relevance.”
The Man Who Fell to Earth joins CBS All Access’ slate of original series which include the current Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Picard, Star Trek: Lower Decks, The Good Fight, The Twilight Zone, No Activity, Strange Angel and Tell Me a Story as well as the upcoming Why Women Kill, Interrogation and The Stand.