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Why Starz Is Looking for Truth and Spectacle and Bringing In Talent From Outside the TV Realm Like 50 Cent and Michael Bay

By Aaron Dobbs | Indiewire January 23, 2014 at 12:37PM

Starz's managing director Carmi Zlotnik talks about betting big on pirate drama "Black Sails," the two essential elements he looks for in all new series and bringing multicultural voices to the network by way of originals from 50 Cent and LeBron James.
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'Da Vinci's Demons'
Starz 'Da Vinci's Demons'

There's a value to storytelling in society and the way society digests the common experience. People want to be engaged in a conversation. They want their entertainment, but they also want something that gets them thinking, "What am I watching? Why am I watching? Why is this compelling? Why is this actor someone I can't take my eyes off of?"

I've boiled down my programming focus to two very simple axioms: "Truth" and "spectacle." "Truth" is that it has to relate to the human experience, and it's got to touch our humanity in an emotional way. And "spectacle" means it's got to be larger than life. It doesn't always have to be a visual effects sequence; we don't have to blow up the Death Star every time. "Spectacle" can be Kelsey Grammar delivering a fantastic soliloquy in an almost Shakespearian way on "Boss."

But spectacle needs to be there because it elevates the programming and cuts through the clutter of everything else that's out there competing for the consumer's attention. Those two things working in conjunction with each other give you some of the best television.

"I've boiled down my programming focus to two very simple axioms: 'Truth' and 'spectacle.'"

What are the characteristics that now define a Starz original series?

We're evolving as a programming service. When we got here, there was "Spartacus," and a lot of the attention around the network was generated around "Spartacus." One of the things we learned through our experiences at HBO was to use the GRPs [Gross Rating Points] that are created – from the ratings, the viewership and the on-air space -- to take the audience and flow them into other things that are similar and like-minded. So from "Spartacus," you branch-out into "Da Vinci's Demons," which even though it is historical fantasy also exists a bit in that graphic novel world. Now that "Spartacus" is off the air, we see the opportunity to expand the brand in terms of programming.

For instance, we thought that there was an opportunity to attract more women, and "The White Queen" absolutely delivered on that. It performed fantastically because it brought in women by telling its story from a unique female perspective, but it didn't alienate men. Women were the primary audience, but they brought their husbands, boyfriends and other people with them, so it really expanded the audience. 

We're following up that success with things like "Outlander," which I think is in that same vein as it has a huge female fan base, but there's a lot there for men to enjoy as well. And then there are things like "Flesh and Bone" which again is a female-led show, but I think will be an interesting, compelling, dark and rich show for the male audience to engage in as well.

'Boss'
'Boss'

"Spartacus" was very successful with audiences, but ended last year. "Boss" received a fair amount of critical praise, but only lasted two seasons. "Magic City" concluded its run after its recently completed second season. With the exception of one season of "Da Vinci's Demons," all of your original programming in 2014 will be brand new. Is Starz undergoing a deliberate programming strategy reset?

Each of those shows had a different life span and a different reason why it either continued or didn't. In the case of "Spartacus," we got to the end of the story. The story's trajectory was originally set in the first season when the slaves escaped the ludus. We thought that where we ended was the natural trajectory of that show.

With "Boss," as much as we loved that show, and we thought that it was a huge success creatively, it was not fundamentally compatible with the audience for the network at the time, so we were putting it in a position where it could never really succeed. The rest of the audience watching the network was the "Spartacus," Comic-Con, fanboy/fangirl type.

In order to create the transition and allow more of an evolution for Starz programming, we had to create shows like "Black Sails" that have the similar spectacle, action and graphic novel sensibilities of "Spartacus," but also have some of the drama, intrigue, characters and political machinations of a highly intelligent show like "Boss." 

When you first announced "Black Sails," its relationship to Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island" was a main element of the description, which is not surprising during this era where having an established property helps attract audiences. But in the lead-up to the series premiere, it seems that you've avoided drawing focus to that connection. Have you deliberately been trying to distance the series from that source material?

'Outlander'
'Outlander'

We want people to look at "Black Sails" as something new and of itself, not in reference to "Treasure Island." We're telling the backstories of some of the characters who are in "Treasure Island," but "Black Sails" is not purely the prequel to "Treasure Island." It's also partially the real history of Nassau, [Bahamas], because people like Charles Vane, Anne Bonny and Jack Rackham are real historical figures who don't figure in to "Treasure Island." What Jon Steinberg has done is create a world where all these characters can coexist seamlessly. 

So if you weren't looking to develop a well-known property, what drew you to "Black Sails" and made you think now was the time for a pirate series? 

This is one of those odd things that happens in programming; things sometimes come in bunches. We heard about four or five pitches for pirate projects over two months. We picked the one that we thought was the most compelling and had the best team. We thought this idea had real ambition behind it, but also knew that this was the team that could execute it. 

When you talk to anybody who has shot on the water, the one thing you hear from all of them is, "Don't shoot on the water!" So we had to decide how to do a pirate show. In order for pirates to be pirates, they have to have ships and cannons, and you have to have those iconic scenes where people are swinging from one ship to the other. We did a lot of research and location exploration. How would we do this? Where would we do it? 

'Spartacus: Blood and Sand'
'Spartacus: Blood and Sand'

I think people will be absolutely shocked that, aside from a few times that we went out to the beach, all the scenes of ships in the ocean were shot on a backlot at Capetown Film Studios. We built a water tank, a beach, and the town. We built two ships, and now we're building an even bigger ship that's a man-of-war. People driving by on the freeway in South Africa think that we've erected a theme park -- it looks like it from the road or the sky. The product that they're turning out looks fantastic, and the performances of the actors are stunning.

You've placed a lot of confidence in "Black Sails," announcing its second season renewal back in July, six months before its first season premiere. How important is the show to Starz's future, and what drove such an early vote of confidence?

Chris and I looked at the show, turned to each other and said, "That's really good." Also, we can only shoot during the summer in Capetown, which is the winter here, so we had to make a decision because of the cycles of production. We've been in production on [season two of] "Black Sails" since November. It's also a good thing for the audience because they'll watch the first season knowing that there's more to come.

But the maturation of our network doesn't just pertain to "Black Sails." We saw an opportunity around multicultural programming. When "Power" came across my desk, and I read the first script by Courtney Kemp Agboh, I was blown away by the voice and this perspective from an African-American woman who understood the code-switching that has to happen between black and white culture; how people are able to move in between these different forms of our society. When I started to talk to Curtis [Jackson, aka 50 Cent] about his experience, I could see how something truly unique was possible. We got very excited about "Power." So we're in production, and that will be on the air later this year.

Even though I say it's multicultural, and the lead of the show is African-American, when I look at the show it kind of transcends race. It's a lead character who's wondering whether he can switch from the life that he has to the life that he wants, and that's a compelling question that a lot of people end up asking themselves. I think there's a huge audience that will want to follow his journey.

This article is related to: Television, TV Interviews, Interviews, Network Interviews, Starz, Carmi Zlotnik, Black Sails, Da Vinci's Demons, Power, Boss, Outlander, The White Queen







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