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‘Star Trek’ Has Been a Virtual Money Machine. Now a New Series, Film Are Due With . . . : Paramount Set ‘to Boldly Go’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the final episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” airs Monday, Paramount Pictures will pull the plug on its biggest profit maker. Paramount executives are unfazed.

“I sleep well,” says Kerry McCluggage, chairman of Paramount TV Group.

And well he should. Paramount believes that in “Star Trek” it has found the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: an entertainment property suited to endless exploitation. It’s the kind of hit every studio dreams of but few can actually claim.

Now some in Hollywood are wondering if, in rebuilding the studio after its takeover by Viacom, Paramount is not relying too heavily on what insiders there call “the franchise.”

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The studio is rushing to complete a fall release of its seventh “Star Trek” sequel--advanced several months to plug holes in its release schedule--as well as readying its fourth TV series, “Star Trek: Voyager,” which will also serve as the January launch pad for Paramount’s fifth network. “Voyager” will air even as three previous “Star Trek” series crowd the airwaves.

“What level of saturation can the market bear?” ponders one former Paramount executive. “Gene Roddenberry would be doing a few flips in the ground right now.” The late Roddenberry was fiercely protective of his creation and frequently battled Paramount executives over creative aspects of the movies and series.

Over the last seven years, “Next Generation” alone has brought in an estimated $511 million in revenue and $293 million in profit--marking it as one of the most successful TV shows in history. The price of a 30-second commercial, usually about $110,000, reached $700,000 for the final episode.

The seemingly endless movie sequels, TV series spinoffs and merchandising bonanza “Star Trek” has spawned since its inception has grossed more than $1.3 billion for the studio.

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It is with an eye to preserving and expanding the so-called franchise that Paramount decided two years ago that, even if “Next Generation” showed no signs of slipping in the ratings, it would be terminated after its seventh season.

“The original episodes have been outstanding, but once they start repeating five days a week we’re usually looking at a declining ratings pattern over time,” McCluggage says. “We didn’t want stations to choke on all those episodes.”

As it turned out, “Next Generation” reruns have held up better than expected. “Next Generation” is the highest-rated “first-run” series in syndication, an area of the industry where failure is extremely costly but success begets phenomenal wealth.

There are various explanations for the success of “Star Trek,” from story lines inspired by the Bible and Shakespeare to Roddenberry’s vision of an “optimistic future.” Michael Piller, one of the executive producers, says simply that the movies and shows strike chords with people because they address “the human condition.”

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Industry executives estimate that “Next Generation” pulled in an average of $50 million annually in advertising revenue, more than enough to offset the $1.4-million production cost per episode. In addition, Paramount grossed about $161 million on the sale of rerun rights for “Next Generation"--virtually all of it profit for the studio.

The third “Star Trek” series, “Deep Space Nine,” although not as highly rated as “Next Generation,” nonetheless pulls in about $40 million annually in advertising revenue. The rerun rights are expected to exceed those of “Next Generation.”

Perhaps nowhere does Paramount exploit the “Star Trek” franchise more shrewdly than in merchandising, which has yielded $750 million in retail sales--everything from boxer shorts and $2,000 chess sets to computer screen savers. Paramount usually gets a 10% royalty. Next up: “Branded electronics” featuring Star Trek personal computers and mobile phones.

Not that there haven’t been a few misses along the way. A Saturday morning cartoon version of “Star Trek” fizzled, and an action toy licensee never caught on with kids a few years ago. “A lot of it has to do with timing,” says Andrea Hein, president of Paramount Licensing Group.

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But the concern among several “Star Trek” observers both inside and outside Paramount is whether the studio might actually be endangering its franchise now by overexposing it.

By the time “Voyager” premieres in January, many TV stations will be carrying four “Star Trek” series: the original 79 episodes from the 1960s NBC series, the “Next Generation” reruns and the original “Deep Space Nine” episodes. Those shows will be airing on the heels of the Thanksgiving theatrical release of “Star Trek: Generations.”

“I think there’s definitely a question of how much time people are going to devote” to watching “Star Trek” shows, says Piller. “There has already been an effect on the cumulative ratings.”

True, the ratings for “Deep Space Nine” are running about 25% below that of “Next Generation,” but that could be because the former is only two seasons old and is scheduled in worse time slots than the latter.

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Nobody knows this better than Rick Berman, the 48-year-old executive now wearing the “Star Trek” mantle left by creator Gene Roddenberry. Berman, a onetime documentary filmmaker, looks like he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Actually, Berman may be carrying the weight of Paramount on his shoulders. He is producing the $25-million feature film as well as overseeing next season’s plans for “Deep Space Nine” and pre-production on the launch of “Voyager.” The three productions are taking up eight sound stages on Paramount’s lot and employing 500 people.

“Are we taking too many trips to the well?” Berman asks, having heard the question often. “People asked that about ‘Next Generation’ too. But it’s no riskier than any other film, maybe less. History has shown there is clearly an audience willing to embrace” a series of “Star Trek” TV spinoffs and sequels.

Berman takes pains to emphasize that the movie is not a “seventh sequel.” It is, he says, the first film introducing the cast from the “Next Generation” TV series, although some characters, such as William Shatner’s Capt. James Kirk, will make appearances. Paramount thinks the “Next Generation” cast will last through several more feature films.

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Indeed, Berman suspects that there will be an eighth “Star Trek” feature in the not-too-distant future, with work beginning on the conceptual stages shortly after the movie is released in November.


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