At every entrance of a particular soundstage at Culver Studios in Culver City, Calif., there are armed guards standing watch. No, that doesn't mean the president or the Hope Diamond is inside -- but even with security at the gates of the studio lot, a million bucks in cold, hard cash is nothing to take lightly.
At 8 p.m. Monday, Fox premieres back-to-back hours of "Million Dollar Money Drop," a game show from the international company Endemol USA, which also produces NBC's "Deal or No Deal" and ABC's "Wipeout." It airs for one hour at 9 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday and for two hours on Thursday (beginning at 8 p.m.), with additional airdates to be announced.
While the money amounts on "Deal" are just numbers on a tote board, the prize in "Drop" consists of bundles of real bills, which contestants can handle, perhaps for the only time before watching them fall out of their lives forever.
The towering set looks like a mixture of "Star Trek," "Tron" and the sacrificial altar from "King Kong." The contestants -- usually married couples, sometimes dating couples or friends -- and host Kevin Pollak stand on a Plexiglas platform 20 feet in the air, surrounded by the audience, over a mirrored floor. It's a dramatic setting that produces dramatic results.
"I'll be honest with you," says Pollak, "a lot of people jump on me when they first rush out. There's such a rush of energy when the show starts, when I introduce them, they come rushing out like rhinos with their arms out."
Trivia questions are posed, with multiple-choice answers written on movable platforms. The players must pile cash bundles on the answers they believe are right (or the only right answer, if they're sure). Money placed on wrong answers drops away, and with any luck, there's still some left over when players get to the end.
"The idea was to put it 20 feet up in the air," says executive producer Jeff Apploff, "give people a daunting feeling. We're handing you a million bucks in cash. We're only going to give you seven questions.
"We're making you a millionaire: 'Here's your million bucks.' We give you choices, and you have to pay the consequences for those choices."
"What's great," says Pollak, "even when it's just friends, is the human drama and the element in between people who, often, when the questions come up, have photo-opposite opinions but must work as a team, a unit, because they're in it together."
For example, "According to the Lenox Report, which of these is the most popular Thanksgiving side dish: mashed potatoes, green-bean casserole, cranberry sauce or candied yams?"
You'll have to watch to figure out the answer, but considering that green-bean casserole and candied yams could be considered regional specialties, and cranberry sauce is more of, well, a sauce or, maybe not.
"How much money are you going to put on each?" says Pollak. "I love that part of it."
Of course, if the contestants ace all the questions, the cool million is theirs -- but that's harder than it sounds. The team on this particular day doesn't do too badly and still has a chunk of change at the end. But that's not always the case, and it only takes one very wrong move to lose it all.
"If it doesn't go well," Apploff says, "it's gut-wrenching."
It's even worse for Pollak, who is standing right next to the unhappy duo.
"All kidding aside," he says, "when they lose -- and they often do -- and all that money drops away, it is utterly devastating. It is utterly devastating.
"And it makes it that much sweeter when people win, but boy, oh, boy, that's hard on me."