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Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Aaron Dobbs
October 3, 2013 10:00 AM
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How HBO Has Stayed on Top of the Game by Embracing Stories With Endings and Making Sunday the Best TV Night of the Week

'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'

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

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.


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.


  • Gia | October 3, 2013 7:13 PMReply

    i cancelled cable years ago because i HATE time warner, but, i bought it so i could see season 3 of game of thrones. i love game of thrones but it is not worth $140 something i have to pay to see one show. i was happy to see a few of the other things hbo offered but i would have happily waited to see them some other way. i was able to buy the last season of breaking bad on amazon (amazing!) and watch and re-watch previous episodes of breaking bad on netflix streaming (though I would have happily waited for discs in the mail). perfect. i guess i'll wait for the next season of GoT to go to dvd because it's no longer worth it. btw - canceling your cable is not easy, as time warner wants you to believe, and i was once again, overcharged. hbo, please get a new business model.

  • Marc Schenker | October 3, 2013 7:10 PMReply

    HBO, in reality, remains the most consistent rip-off in the rip-off industry called "premium channels." That means that you're paying for their Sunday night, since 98% of the other movies and documentaries are the worst fare Hollywood offers. Yes, it is Hollywood's selfishness that keeps decades and decades of decent movies off television, but HBO seems to go out of it's way to get the worst of them. Of course, if you like seeing an utter failure like Prometheus 45 times a month, I must be mistaken.

  • shelly | October 3, 2013 10:20 AMReply

    There's so much internalized homophobia in every single comment about Looking. It's fascinating. Also Girls gets no live viewers and they always claim all the viewers watch it on HBO Go. Yet here he states only 6 percent of viewers watch it that way. So where are all the magically supposed viewers of that show coming from...?