A talented team helmed by award-winning producer Sky Conway, including actor fan favorites such as Walter Koenig, plan to embark on a television pilot next year for John E. Stith’s MANHATTAN TRANSFER, the Tor Books novel about the kidnapping of Manhattan by aliens.
We asked John to write a series of short pieces to chronicle this thirty-year journey.
Here is part seven.
Sky Conway Development Gets Underway.
From the beginning, the majority of my media-adaptation discussions of MANHATTAN TRANSFER with Sky Conway centered on a feature film. Any TV discussion was driven mainly by the notion that if a feature film was done well and well-received, then the next possible step was a TV series. STARGATE’s evolution into the STARGATE SG1 series was one of the templates.
Brief aside. When my REUNION ON NEVEREND was pitched to Roland Emerich’s team before STARGATE came out, I was told they loved the book but had a vaguely similar project in development. RoN features point-to-point doorways to other planets via an M. C. Escher-like grid of hidden gateways left behind by an advanced race, and the people who exploit the passages are a couple of bad guys. Their only opposition is our heroes, and a small alien who communicates with sign language. So the stories are markedly different, but still way too similar for one company to invest in both.
STARGATE SG1 remains a terrific template, though, for what I would love to see for MT: believable characters thrown into fantastic situations that they often solve with intelligence rather than the last-minute handwaving that some lesser series rely on. Plus they integrated a modest amount of humor driven by the situations.
The entertainment landscape has changed a lot since MANHATTAN TRANSFER was first being pitched. Streaming companies wresting much control from the Hollywood studio system is one of those huge changes, allowing a proliferation of different projects. FOR ALL MANKIND from Apple TV is the new template I’d love to emulate. It’s an extremely well-done alternate history tale whose starting point is what if the Russians beat the USA to the moon, and what if the Russian team included female cosmonauts. This version of history results in the space race continuing in high gear, and also accelerates the women’s rights issues. To me, it’s one of the very best examples of current TV SF. Fully realized characters, plausible extrapolation, ample tension, and sense of wonder. Some scenes are basically near-future drama, while the A stories keep the focus on exploring space. I would tweak the recipe by adding maybe three to five percent more humor, but that’s just me. FOR ALL MANKIND does what it sets out to do and sets a very high bar. And of primary importance, FAM started as a TV series. There was no feature film kickoff.
With Sky Conway, we moved into a higher gear in 2022. Since I’d been watching while more and more TV series started without a feature film kickoff, I had already written a TV bible, the document that lays out the project to the point of including a five-year plan. Readers of TV bibles, the producers/buyers, want to know there’s not just six or eight episodes to produce. They want a property that has enough meat to drive the action for several years. (With a multitude of alien cities to investigate, and the work ahead to deal with all these stranded civilizations, plus dealing with the underlying reason the cities were captured in the first place, we shouldn’t run out of material quickly.) All the factors that affect TV series success are steadily changing, in that the time it takes to find your audience is different, and the idea of re-runs has morphed into either syndication or just being part of an on-demand library. Some of these factors drove last year’s strikes.
Along with the TV bible, I’d written an outline for the pilot episode and about a third of the script.
One of the early changes came when Sky told me Walter Koenig was interested in being in the cast. For such an icon, I was only too happy to incorporate a new character. And that brings us to one of the changes as the focus shifts from thinking of MT as a feature film to seeing it as a TV series. The character list grows. The number of complications grows. The canvas expands.
Early on, Sky asked me to finish the pilot with a screenwriter he had worked with on prior projects, Ethan Calk. I’m definitely not the world’s best collaborator, as I often find my ideas more appealing than other people’s ideas, but Ethan is agreeable and has good ideas, and we proceeded. I did certainly get a taste of some of the tug-of-war that will always exist in projects as we had to find a balance between story and budget. Special effects have gotten steadily cheaper over time, but they are still a big consideration. Unreal Engine and LED background screens give an amazing amount of flexibility and power, but they are still expensive, so for the short term, we will likely have to do without, or make very judicious use.
We also worked to make compromises centered on the relative weight of story elements. At its simplest level, the time you spend on a particular element is generally driven by how it fits into story. If you have a scene where a dirty newspaper page is swept across the screen and it’s gone, that might just be a comment on a dirty environment or unpaid workers. If the page is swept into a character’s face and she has to read it before discarding it, the information takes on more meaning and makes it likely we will see that information incorporated in the story. In the current pilot, I think we spend more time than the story would demand for certain elements, but lengthening scenes to attract a star is, for one example, the kind of trade-off one makes to get a project to the screen.
While the pace of development has really accelerated, it’s not been without ups and downs. For one example, Tom Sizemore signed on for the role of Matt, an ex-military leader who gets roped into coordinating escape efforts. Sadly, Tom Sizemore died last year.
So now, in early 2024, most of the cast is in place and are being identified on the Facebook page devoted to the project. The pilot script is done, subject to some final cast- and budget-related tweaking. The TV bible is ready. A special effects team is in place.
Before long, therefore, the crowdfunding phase will start. Sky Conway has produced several films with increasing budgets as he’s grown as a producer and as he’s grown in his financing skills. The first overall milestone is to make the MT pilot.
When that’s finished, Sky can air it on the internet streaming platform he has been developing. In parallel, I believe the intent is to show the pilot to a few of the majors, which I hope would include outfits like Apple TV and Netflix. If one of the majors gets excited and wants to pick it up and run with a higher budget, that’s terrific. And if not, then Sky has the resources and means to continue producing subscription-based episodes. I see no shortage of enthusiasm.
We have lots of unknowns still ahead of us. But at the very least, if the pilot gets made, I will still have the world’s best book trailer.
To be continued, probably more irregularly.
Copyright © 2024 by John E. Stith
John E. Stith is the author of REDSHIFT RENDEZVOUS, a Nebula Award nominee, MANHATTAN TRANSFER, and numerous other novels and short stories. His works with Ace Books and Tor Books have been bought by the Science Fiction Book Club, optioned for film, and translated into many languages. He has optioned feature-film screenplays and has sold to television (Star Trek). Find him at www.neverend.com. His latest novellas are TINY TIME MACHINE and TINY TIME MACHINE 2: RETURN OF THE FATHER from Amazing Stories. His latest novel is PUSHBACK, a mystery-suspense novel. and a finalist for the Daphne Du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense. In 2024, look for TINY TIME MACHINE 3: MOTHER OF INVENTION, and his new SF novel, DISAVOWED, both from Amazing Stories.
To be on John’s list of occasional writing updates, visit http://eepurl.com/bGL4kj.
John’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/john.e.stith
The Facebook page for the streaming series is https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=61552675967552 .
This story so far:
Part 1 In the Beginning https://amazingstories.com/2023/11/manhattan-transfer-the-motion-picture-in-the-beginning/
Part 3 The First Offer https://amazingstories.com/2023/11/manhattan-transfer-story-03-the-first-offer/
Part 4 Clouds Forming https://amazingstories.com/2023/12/manhattan-transfer-story-04-clouds-forming/
Part 5 Neverending Saga https://amazingstories.com/2023/12/manhattan-transfer-story-05-neverending-saga/
Part 6 The First Sky Conway Chapter https://amazingstories.com/2023/12/manhattan-transfer-story-05-neverending-saga-2/
Part 7 Sky Conway Development Gets Underway (this update)