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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

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

When pay TV channel Starz launched in 1994, it was as a competitor to HBO and Showtime in bringing recent theatrical releases to home audiences. In the years since, HBO’s original series prompted a transformation of not just cable but all of serialized storytelling, while Starz primarily stuck to movies until the late-2000s. Its 2008 adaptation of Paul Haggis’ film “Crash” marked the channel’s first serious entry into producing its own scripted programming, running for two seasons and starring Dennis Hopper and Eric Roberts. In 2009, the network produced the Rob Thomas comedy “Party Down,” with Adam Scott, Lizzie Caplan and Jane Lynch, which also lasted just two seasons but has become a cult favorite.

Starz found a ratings hit with “Spartacus: Blood and Sand,” a sex and violence-filled historical epic that premiered in January 2010. That same month marked the arrival of new CEO Chris Albrecht, the man who oversaw HBO’s rise to series dominance. In April of that year, Carmi Zlotnik joined Starz as its Managing Director, responsible for programming, development and production, having worked with Albrecht for 20 years at HBO where he was head of original programming production.

Since Albrecht and Zlotnik arrived at Starz, the channel’s programming has gone through a major overhaul, and this year will see the premiere of at least four new series, beginning on January 25th with the pirate action drama “Black Sails” from Jonathan Steinberg (“Jericho”) and executive produced by Michael Bay. Also on tap for 2014 are the eagerly anticipated “Outlander,” adapted by Ronald Moore (“Battlestar Galactica”) from Diana Gabaldon’s popular series of novels; “Power,” from executive producer Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson; and the second season of David S. Goyer’s (“Man of Steel”) “Da Vinci’s Demons.”

In the ninth of our regular series of interviews with network heads, Indiewire spoke with Zlotnik about the evolution of Starz’s original series, the ambition behind the enormity of the production of “Black Sails,” and his preference for premium television as an environment for creative storytelling.

How do you feel the expectations of TV audiences have changed over the past five to 20 years, and how does Starz’s original programming fulfill those expectations?

Audiences have become connoisseurs of television. They’re becoming more discerning in terms of storytelling and production value, and all the efforts that go into making these shows are becoming more appreciated.

It’s interesting because I’ve been part of this recent evolution of television. I’ve watched it from its early days when we were at HBO and see that you couldn’t have gotten to “The Sopranos” without having gone through “The Larry Sanders Show,” “Tales From the Crypt,” “Dream On” and “Vietnam War Story.” A lot of things helped us evolve to the transitional step that was “The Sopranos,” but ever since “The Sopranos” kicked in the door to what was possible in television, now a whole bunch of entrants have flooded in, which has created this fantastic space for creative people and audiences.

The television landscape in 2014 is so different from when the HBO Original Programming team accomplished that transition you just described. Considering that Starz is a premium channel requiring audiences to opt-in with a subscription fee, how do you set Starz programming apart within such a competitive environment?

I think it’s a mistake to think of just the other pay-TV or cable channels as our competition. The reality is that we exist in a landscape where we have to compete against all other forms of entertainment — movies, video games, books, music — that are asking for consumers to invest their time or dollars. It’s our job to look at that landscape and try to provide something that we feel is compelling.

I look for opportunities to differentiate Starz – what are other people not doing — but I also look for pure inspiration and ambition. When you have a big emotional response to something you read or something takes your breath away, that’s when you know that you’ve seen a glimmer of inspiration. Those moments act like a fleck of gold that you follow back to a vein, and they really inspire us as programmers.

One of the key things that we ask people when they come in to pitch a show is, “What’s it about?” That question provides a doorway into the creators’ psyche: What they’re thinking about and the kinds of stories they want to tell. It provides one way to ascertain whether that’s a rich vein that needs to be mined or something smaller. Then you can tailor what you do programming-wise in order to fulfill that promise.

Some ideas are better served as movies; some as mini-series; some as limited series; or some as series. We exist in a programming landscape where the best practice is to throw out all the rules. Everything has to be bespoke — custom-tailored to not only the situation, but to the creative idea. That applies to not only the creative approach, but also to the business and production approaches.

Digital technology has certainly played a major role in this “third golden age of television” while also providing audiences with more say in how they experience their stories. How do you see the format of television continuing to evolve over the next five or 10 years, and what role to you envision Starz playing in that continuing evolution?

I’ve always been a fan of the non-commercial format and pay-TV just because it’s inherently a better creative experience. I don’t know if there’s ever been a psychological study done that’s shown how the continuing immersion in a story without being interrupted by commercials deepens the experience for the consumer, but intuitively I know that that experience is deeper because of its continuity and not being broken up by commercials. What we’ve seen is the expansion of technologies that you can use to the consumer’s advantage, and each one adds a different viewing experience and potential.

For the people who want a linear experience, it may be because they want to savor each episode, and they want to engage in a social conversation that really analyzes what they liked about that episode before they go on to the next one. A linear experience congregates all those people together in a moment that enables a conversation. Other people, once they’re in that emotional experience, they don’t want to stay for just an episode, but they want to keep that experience going. So for them, on demand is great because it provides that option.

Then as the online experience and things like Starz Play come into line, that gives another opportunity for not only an on demand experience but also a portable one. You can take it with you. You don’t have to lug around a big screen TV and set-top box. So as each of these technologies continue to roll out, we continue to embrace what activities they enable for the audience and program around that. I don’t really believe in just the one-format-fits-all strategy. In terms of just putting all the episodes up as the only approach, that feels a little bit like going to a great restaurant, and instead of being served the meal in courses, everything is run out on the table at the same time. Some people might like that. I don’t in particular. I’d rather savor my meal.

So do you believe that creative advantage will push business models towards more subscription-oriented, commercial-free services, of the Netflix or Amazon variety? As opposed to Hulu and Hulu Plus, both which contain ads?

No, I think what you’re seeing is subscription-oriented options. It’s not like a multi-billion dollar advertising industry is going to dry up and blow away. They have a need, and there will be programming that’s made to fill it. Sports, variety and some of these competition shows where you can aggregate a live audience are fantastic vehicles for that. Sports is just live drama. Some things work inherently better for a commercial formatted business, but for storytelling, I think that the pay-TV and the commercial-free model is a better creative approach.

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.

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.

“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?

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? 

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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