"House of Cards," the Netflix original political drama from David Fincher, Kevin Spacey and Beau Willimon that launched exclusively on the site on February 1st, has been an fascinating experiment both in terms of storytelling and as a business venture. It's a show that, in accordance with our DVRing/streaming habits, was released all at once and seems like it was made with that mode of consumption in mind, its episodes feeling more part of a 13-hour whole than single serve installments. And it's one that, like the cable series to which it is intended to be compared, feels very much defined by the vision of its creators, particularly the chilly, beautiful visual style set in the first two episodes, which were directed by Fincher himself.
"House of Cards" is produced by Media Rights Capital, a film and TV production company whose past work includes "The Adjustment Bureau," "Ted," "The Box," "Brüno" and "The Ricky Gervais Show." Indiewire spoke with founder and co-CEO Modi Wiczyk about the movie-style way in which "House of Cards" was assembled, and how that led to it being the kind of series it is.
The idea came from an intern.
While MRC started with a focus on film, the company began looking to TV several years ago as the industry shifted "toward filmmaker-driven or auteurish kind of shows" that, Wiczyk explained, didn't seem that far from the types of projects they were already making via their existing relationships with filmmakers. As they started looking for a property to which they could bring a filmmaker for a TV series, an intern with a British father started insisting they take a look at the 1990 BBC miniseries "House of Cards," with its antiheroic lead. Wiczyk added that he didn't actually listen for months, but that when he finally took a look at it, quickly saw the potential and the way that it "was way ahead of its time." Optioning the property involved some convincing of Michael Dobbs, the UK politician who had written the novel on which the miniseries was based and who was protective of it.
David Fincher initially only came on board as an executive producer.
MRC had an existing film production deal in place with Fincher, who knew the original and decided to join the project as an executive producer, bringing "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" screenwriter Eric Roth to serve as another EP. Beau Willimon, a playwright known for his political-themed play "Farragut North," which was turned into the film "The Ides of March," was brought on to write the pilot as well as a series bible, and upon seeing his work Fincher said he wanted to direct some of the episodes.
MRC developed the series itself before shopping it around to networks.
Rather than take the concept or a pilot script to networks in a more traditional TV fashion, Wiczyk said that they made the decision to incubate the project in house on the company's dime in order to maintain control of the project and shape it without network input. That was how Willimon was brought in and given a year to start working on the show, outining not just the first season but a second one as well. Spacey, who was playing the title character in a Sam Mendes-directed touring stage production of "Richard III," has worked with Fincher before in "Se7en" and had been tracking the project, and was ultimately approached for and accepted the lead role. Because of Fincher's schedule, after the Netflix deal was in place Willimon ended up having another year in which MRC supporting a writers' room and all 13 episodes were scripted before anything was shot.
The show was intended to be auctioned to a TV network.
"All we really wanted was to make the best show possible with a great home," said Wiczyk. "No one thought more than that." MRC set up meetings with various networks, talking to Netflix in the context of potentially having them partner with whomever bought the primary window to have it available for streaming more quickly. "Up until then they never indicated any interest in original primary viewing or personal content," said Wiczyk. "They read it and they called, said, 'We absolutely love it, we want to make it our anchor show. We want it to be our 'Mad Men,' our 'Shield' or our 'Sopranos' and define our network, define our service and throw all our weight behind it." What sealed the deal is that Netflix handed full creative and production control to the producers and to MRC and in addition offered a 26-episde, two season commitment. "We just billed Netflix as our United States outlet and subsequently MRC has made deals all over the world, having the show picked up," Wiczyk explained.
MRC plans to continue setting up series this way.
Wiczyk sees more name filmmakers and actors expressing interest in heading up small screen projects like "House of Cards" because "the budgets are very high, the opportunity to tell a story in an interesting way is there. A lot of the best drama has moved to subscription television." The company has projects in development from Rupert Wyatt, director of "The Escapist" and "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," Robert Zemeckis and "Elite Squad" filmmaker José Padilha. "Generally speaking," said Wiczyk, "all of our projects are going to be filmmaker relationships that we have who want to move into television.
"The TV world is changing so dramatically and so quickly, you have to be entrepreneurial by definition because there's no incumbency to cling to. We live in a world where AMC shows or PBS shows are the number one rated in the country. It's exciting though, a lot of opportunity."