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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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'Black Sails'
Starz 'Black Sails'

You've made a practice of giving early votes of confidence to your shows the past few years, with "Boss" and "Magic City" receiving second season renewals before their first season premieres while "Da Vinci's Demons" was renewed after its first episode. The "Black Sails" production issues aside, do you believe that second season certainty has helped the creative process for those series? And do you foresee Starz continuing such a practice with its upcoming shows?

The decision is based on what we have on the air and what we have in development. How do we create room for new shows, and what's the natural trajectory of the storytelling? We have been very disciplined about what money we put on the table and what money we don't because we've got a successful, profitable, well-run business that we don't want to undermine by ramping-up programming spending too far too fast. It's got to be organic and based on success. We've made an investment in programming, but there's not an unlimited checkbook. 

Sometimes in order to do other things, we have to cancel a show that we happen to really admire and love. That goes back to things like "Party Down," a show that I thought was fantastic and really enjoyed personally, but it had a very small audience. There were no options on the actors. We were not going to be able to continue doing the show because we had to focus on getting the Starz programming engine up and running, and that meant focusing on dramas and finding international co-financing where we could to help us, which is not something that you can really do with a comedy.

'Party Down'
'Party Down'

You have, in fact, focused solely on dramas since then, but now you have "Survivor's Remorse" in development, which is reportedly a step-back in the comedy direction. Why do you believe this is the show to possibly mark Starz's return to comedy?

When a compelling idea comes across your desk, you have to pay attention, and when [NBA star] LeBron [James], Maverick Carter and Tom Werner ("Roseanne") came to us with this idea, we were deeply intrigued because it was about something. This is not the LeBron James story, but it is informed by his and Maverick's experience, where all of a sudden you have to exist in two cultures simultaneously. That's a really interesting place to start. 

Then Mike O'Malley ("Shameless") came in and wrote a script that was poignant and funny. It had really interesting characters, and I said, "I haven't seen people like this on television before. I haven't seen these kinds of issues discussed in this way." So we decided to start the same process that we've done with dramas, which is to continue to develop it. We haven't greenlit the show, but we'll continue to put together a writer's room, write scripts and try to figure it out because it's a show that deserves to see the light of day.

More frequently, we're seeing people from outside the world of TV -- filmmakers, playwrights, longform journalists, radio producers -- developing series. HBO did that when you were there, and now at Starz it seems like much of the creative talent you're working with comes from the feature world, but now you're also working with the likes of 50 Cent and LeBron James. Do you actively search for creative talent that doesn't have its background in television?

'Da Vinci's Demons'
'Da Vinci's Demons'

During the early days at HBO, we didn't have a lot of money to offer people, so Chris Albrecht had this idea to give them a great creative experience; to be brave, bold and smart about the programming choices. The door has always been open to people from the feature world as well as the television world. 

One thing that really works for us is pairing up people. For example, on "Black Sails," when you match the big ideas, scope and visual storytelling of somebody like Michael Bay with the serialized storytelling of somebody like Jon Steinberg, that's a great combination of talents. There's a whole world of creative entrepreneurialism that we have to tap into, certainly from film and television, but also from video games, literature and comic books. There are talents coming up like David Goyer ["Da Vinci's Demons"], who really passes seamlessly between features, television, video games, comic books, and graphic novels. The great thing about the age that we're in is that they can tailor their ideas to the specific venues and formats that are best for executing those ideas.

A few years ago, Starz announced Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert would be producing a live-action version of the popular Japanese anime series "Noir" to the screen, but then it was put on hold. Will there be a "Noir" series on Starz? 

"Noir" is not moving forward, although we do have a deal and a continuing relationship with Rob Tapert and Ghost House Pictures, and we continue to look to do more projects with them in the future.

You mentioned Starz Play earlier. With younger audiences cord-cutting to a greater degree, have you considered offering Starz Play separate from a cable or satellite subscription as a stand-along product?

We've studied the issue, and we believe in an ecosystem that works for our consumers and our distributors. That's our stance for the time being, but we're in an evolving situation, so we continue to study the issue and experiment.

'The White Queen'
'The White Queen'

I was part of the team that originated what is now HBO Go. We could see what was possible over the horizon as far as a product that would enable a different behavior and activity for consumers. We could see some of the possibilities, but we could also see some of the challenges. As business people, we have to sort through things and figure out what's the right thing to do and when to do it. The one thing that's been proven in the ramp up of the internet is that a good idea executed too early is a bad idea.

As you just mentioned, during your tenure at HBO you oversaw new media programming initiatives. Now, social media and other transmedia efforts have become a major part of the programming process. How do you view these new media developments, and can we expect to see larger transmedia efforts in Starz programming?

My background and thinking is still largely that of a producer. It's what I was before I came to HBO, and it buoyed the way I thought through my career there. As a producer, people give you an amount of money, and it's your job to turn that money into an intellectual property that's a sound business investment that develops a return. In order to do that, you need to be aware of not only the creative elements in terms of scripts and performances, but of the production techniques, how those are enabled by technology and how the visual language that we use for filmmaking and television keeps evolving.

You also need to be aware of how you engage the audience and market that product, because from the time a project is pitched, you're starting to think about the one sheet and the social media conversation and that question: "What's it about?" If it's about a really interesting subject that you think will engage lots of conversation, that's a good thing, because every sophisticated marketing effort now includes a social media component. If you don't understand that, you're missing a big part of what it means to be a producer or a creative executive in this world. 

There are engines, and there are boxcars. Our first priority is to find the engines: The creative properties that are strong and powerful enough to really drive an idea and a program. Then, as business people, we try to figure out what are the boxcars that we're going to attach to it? Are there merchandising opportunities? How do we couple the social media engines? Who do we partner with on a business basis? Engines come first, but then there are the options for those boxcars. How you stage them on the train is a really interesting part about being a programming executive, which ultimately is also being a brand manager.

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