When Adi Hasak visits MIPCOM this week, it will be with the wind at his back. He will serve as a keynote speaker at the annual confab on the heels of the premiere of his new series “Eyewitness,” which debuts Sunday night on USA. It is the second show created by Hasak to premiere this year, following “Shades of Blue,” the Jennifer Lopez cop drama that was renewed by NBC after a successful midseason roll out in January.
It’s a triumphant moment for Hasak, a journeyman writer who has begun to carve out a niche for himself as a bridge between the international and U.S. television businesses — and done so without traditional backing such as an agent or U.S. studio deal.
“I went to MIPCOM for the first time I think three years ago,” Hasak says. “And I just started going from booth to booth. No one knew who I was. The second year there was the announcement of ‘Shades of Blue.’ The third year ‘Shades of Blue’ already was happening and the fourth year we’re doing a keynote.” He credits his rising stock with “identifying a weak spot and exploiting a space that wasn’t competitive.”
Hasak bills himself as a Hollywood outsider, despite having spent the last two decades plus in the entertainment business, enjoying as he puts it “very mediocre to underachieving success.” He wrote spec scripts that were never made and the occasional unspectacular action movie — “Shadow Conspiracy” starring Charlie Sheen, “From Paris With Love” starring John Travolta, “3 Days to Kill” starring Kevin Costner.
His breakthrough was “Shades of Blue.” Hasak wrote the pilot on spec then, sans agent, began circulating it. Barry Levinson became attached, then Ryan Seacrest Productions, then, finally, Lopez, who at the time was working with Seacrest on “American Idol.” NBC picked it up straight to series, with Hasak on board as a writer and executive producer and Jack Orman serving as showrunner.
“That was a mindfuck, because I was going from writing in a room alone for 12 years to all of a sudden being a writer on the biggest of the biggest network shows,” Hasak says. “There’s producers and executive producers and you go from sitting alone in a room to there being 15 people in a room. So that was a journey and a struggle for me.”
While working on “Shades,” he continued to take meetings with contacts he had developed in Europe. He was introduced to a Norwegian crime drama “Øyevitne,” about two gay teenagers and a small-town police chief caught up in a murder case.
Hasak convinced the producer, NRK, to let him try to sell the show in the U.S. NRK agreed, reluctantly. Though he had strong relationships in Europe, Hasak had no track record of selling European formats in the U.S. He secured the rights by convincing NRK that he could get the deal done in two weeks.
Back in the U.S., work on “Shades of Blue” was in swing. At the Comcast-NBCUniversal building in Studio City, Hasak ran into Dawn Olmstead, development chief at Universal Cable Productions, the studio that feeds NBCU’s cable channels. A week later he met her in her office for coffee and pitched her “Eyewitness.” UCP and USA Network gave it a straight-to-series order just as Hasak was about to lose his rights to the format.
Hasak left “Shades of Blue” and began work on “Eyewitness,” breaking down the original series with two writers, Jennifer Coté and Kendall McKinnon, and cherry picking which elements would be preserved and which changed.
With a premiere directed by Catherine Hardwick, “Eyewitness” opens with two teen boys in a cabin in upstate New York about to have sex for the first time, suddenly interrupted by a group of criminals with hostage in tow. Things go from bad to worse and the boys escape, almost undetected. One of the two is the foster son of the local sheriff — played by Julianne Nicholson — charged with investigating the bloody crime the boys witnessed.
It was the prospect of building a show around those three characters that excited Hasak about making a version of “Øyevitne” in the U.S.
“It was a thriller that told you who the bad guy was five minutes into it,” Hasak says. “That meant it could be a character piece. I was raised on ‘Columbo.’ I thought those storylines were great.”
USA has positioned the show to air on Sunday nights after reruns of “Law & Order: SVU,” hoping a crime-drama audience will pick up on it. If “Eyewitness” catches on — it’s envisioned as an anthology, with a new story and characters each season — it will no doubt keep Hasak’s momentum going. Regardless, he has multiple irons in the fire, including two format adaptations he’s working on and another spec that he hopes to attach a big-name actor to, as he did with “Shades of Blue” and Lopez.
“In the Uber economy, you could go out with your Prius and take on Yellow Cab,” Hasak says. “If you’re entrepreneurial and you can create content, you can take on the studios.”