Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...

How HBO Has Stayed on Top of the Game by Embracing Stories With Endings and Making Sunday the Best TV Night of the Week

By Aaron Dobbs | Indiewire October 3, 2013 at 10:00AM

HBO's president of programming Michael Lombardo talks "True Detective," why the network remains more focused on making series than movies, whether HBO Go will ever be available as an a la carte service and how Sunday night became the most competitive on the TV schedule.
5
'Seduced and Abandoned'
'Seduced and Abandoned'

In addition to original series, HBO still makes feature-length scripted and documentary movies, miniseries, sports docs as well as other original content. You have strong teams overseeing each of those areas, so how much direct attention do you personally provide once a show receives the greenlight?

It really depends on the show and my relationship with the creator. There are times where I've developed a particularly close connection with the creator, and I tend to stay more involved because a trust has developed. In that case, I tend to stay involved in the first year of a series; beyond that, I think it's probably not the most effective use of my time. I try to spend my time where I think I'm value-added.

Your path to overseeing programming was unorthodox compared to most programming heads. Did you always have an interest in the creative side of things, and how do you believe your business affairs background serves you in this position?

I think people go down paths somewhat dependent on parental expectations and their own insecurities, but there's a reason I wound up doing business affairs at an entertainment company instead of being a corporate lawyer on Wall Street. I've always been passionate about content. I can only say this in hindsight because when I took this position I had no clue, but I do feel that my prior training equipped me to listen, which I really believe is the most critical skill for anybody in this kind of job at a studio or network. I don't mean that lightly. As a business affairs executive -- someone who worked side-by-side with creative people and talked to producers about budgets -- I was a really active listener. That's critical when you're dealing with talent. Asking the right questions is also a part of that. 

'Behind the Candelabra'
'Behind the Candelabra'

I've grown up at HBO, and a little bit of fearlessness is in the DNA here and has become part of me. I think you've got to have that for these jobs. The minute I start worrying about ratings, about a New York Times review or about what my husband's going to think about a show, I'm lost.

Feature-length scripted movies were a primary focus of HBO's original programming strategy throughout the 1990s and into the first half of the 2000s. Now, you still produce several original movies each year, but they've taken a backseat to series. How and why is it important for HBO to continue making scripted feature-length movies?

I've actually been thinking a lot about that lately and talked to Len Amato [President, HBO Films} about it too. Historically, movies were our bread-and-butter. They were our sexiest, noisiest form of original programming. We used to do somewhere between eight and 12 a year; we're now doing four a year, plus a miniseries here and there.

Every once in a while there's a "Behind the Candelabra," which just works on every level for us. It's beautifully done; it gets a lot of buzz in the press; and it gets an enormous response from our viewership. We obviously can't program for that, and I don't ever want to feel like we're making movies just to make movies. I don't want to just to satisfy timeslots because then we're programming for mediocrity

Historically we tended to do docudramas so that we might get some ink outside the entertainment pages because we do not have the budget to market just one film. In the noise out there, to get people to pay attention to just one movie is really challenging for us. With a series, we're marketing over a number of weeks; movies, we're driving people to one night. 

Larry David's movie ["Clear History"] obviously wasn't fact-based. We're almost done shooting "The Normal Heart" [adapted from Larry Kramer's 1985 play about the rise of the AIDS crisis, which also won the 2011 Tony for "Best Revival of a Play"] with Ryan Murphy directing. When Ryan came in to talk and mentioned this, to me it was a no brainer. That's a movie that needs to get made. It's been out there in the studio world for over 20 years, and this is the moment to tell that story. 

Clear History
Clear History

I don't think we ever want to be out of the two-hour business. We're trying a lot of different things: higher budgets, lower budgets -- we're playing around.. The stories I hear about the amount of time and energy it takes to put together financing for low-budget, independent films are really depressing. So we're looking at projects that we wouldn't have looked at a while ago.

Since you just mentioned "Behind the Candelabra," Steven Soderbergh is directing the 10-hour series "The Knick" for Cinemax and not HBO. What is the overall strategy for Cinemax?

A few years ago, our sales people reported that they were having a hard time discussing Cinemax with the affiliates [cable, satellite and other distribution providers]. Cinemax was the only subscription pay service that had no branded content. People were watching it, and it was doing quite well for us, but historically Cinemax had been taking the film inventory and rescheduling and repackaging it, almost exclusively being a film service. So we thought about how we could quickly and inexpensively jump into original programming for Cinemax, and what should that be?

We looked around at what was going on [at other networks], and we looked at what films were really doing well on Cinemax as opposed to on HBO, and they were action genre. The number one film on Cinemax was "The Transporter." We couldn't air it enough. So we thought, let's lean in to that. It also was a genre that had coproduction opportunities. BSkyB was looking for a coproduction partner for "Strike Back," and we jumped in. We adapted the show a little -- brought in an American protagonist -- and it worked really well. We're talking about doing our fourth season now. 

We tried a show called "Hunted," another similar coproduction, this time with the BBC. We started to tell people about this direction for the channel, pitches started to come in, and we developed and produced "Banshee" in-house, which will be premiering its second season [in 2014]. I think every new series has helped the definition of the channel evolve. We wanted to give Cinemax its own identity, not to make HBO-lite.

'Banshee'
'Banshee'

So how did "The Knick" wind-up on Cinemax, and how does it fit into Cinemax's evolving identity?

We had finished "Behind the Candelabra," and [Soderbergh] came in and said, "You know, I have an idea for a show. I have this great script. I've got Clive Owen. I want to direct everything, 10 episodes." I did not have a need right then for 10 hours next year for HBO. But Steven Soderbergh is not only brilliant; he's iconoclastic. He asked, "What are you doing over there at Cinemax? I want to be part of that." It was the right moment for Cinemax: we had a hole, we had a need, and it will clearly be a moment where you have to pay attention to Cinemax.

The Cinemax brand is growing and evolving with the shows that present themselves. "The Knick" is a slight deviation: It's not action at all, but it is propulsive show. It has an incredible male lead and a fair amount of grit and blood. "The Knick" is the first show that will be on Cinemax with a version that could absolutely be on HBO, and I think we have to be careful of that. The idea is not to have Cinemax cannibalize HBO. It is a very comfortable second pay service to HBO, so it's something we're mindful of. 

I don't think we're going to have a slate of "Knick"s. We just shot ["Quarry"], a pilot that John Hillcoat directed that's about a hitman [based on the Max Allan Collins series of novels]. It's really good, but it's not in "The Knick" frame; it's a little more action. But it feels like that service is growing up and quickly.

This article is related to: Television, TV Interviews, Interviews, Michael Lombardo, Network Interviews, HBO , Steven Soderbergh, Cinemax, The Knick, True Detective, Looking





Win The Complete Twin Peaks on Blu-ray from Indiewire! in Indiewire's Hangs on LockerDome


SnagFilms

Watch Over 10,000 Free Movies!

We the Economy: Supply and Dance, Man!

Why is the law of supply and demand so powerful? In this whimsical tale, our friendly narrator guides bored students Jonathan and Kristin through a microeconomic musical extravaganza.

More