Net­flix and O.D.

Esquire (Malaysia) - - MACHINERY -

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Feud), with as­ton­ish­ing nine-fig­ure deals. FX’S Land­graf, whose net­work was built in part on Mur­phy’s con­tri­bu­tions, com­pared Net­flix’s pre­da­tions to be­ing shot in the face with a wa­ter can­non, ex­cept “it’s money com­ing at you.”

Mur­phy and Rhimes may both be as­sets, hugely suc­cess­ful com­mer­cial pro­duc­ers with just enough bite to keep things in­ter­est­ing, but no one would con­sider them the bleed­ing edge of qual­ity TV. In­deed, to the ex­tent that Mur­phy has made some off­beat shows, he re­cently sounded as if he’s back­ing away from them: “I’ve got­ten away from sex­u­al­ity and vi­o­lence and how far I can push the en­ve­lope.”

Amazon Stu­dios also ap­pears to be headed to the main­stream. The com­pany is known for sup­port­ing in­die films and am­bi­tious orig­i­nal se­ries such as Mozart in the Jun­gle, The Mar­velous Mrs. Maisel, Trans­par­ent, Go­liath, and The Ro­manoffs, a forth­com­ing show by Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men. But af­ter oust­ing its head of pro­duc­tion, Roy Price, who was ac­cused of sex­ual ha­rass­ment last year, Amazon avoided the ca­ble com­pa­nies and in­diefilm world in its search for a re­place­ment; in­stead, it went to the net­works, seiz­ing on Jen­nifer Salke, head of NBC En­ter­tain­ment and a for­mer Fox exec, who de­vel­oped crowd-pleas­ing fam­ily hits like Glee, This Is Us and Mod­ern Fam­ily. Amazon did sign an ex­clu­sive first-look deal this past spring with Jor­dan Peele (Get Out), who has two se­ries cur­rently in pro­duc­tion, but Salke has re­port­edly been given a man­date to come up with a new Game of Thrones, and the ser­vice re­port­edly paid USD250 mil­lion to ex­ploit the al­ready well-mined Lord of the Rings (a deal in the works un­der Price). Ac­cord­ing to an ex­ec­u­tive at a ri­val com­pany, “They’ll be chas­ing prop­er­ties that don’t rock the boat, like the next Spi­der-man and Star Wars.” Re­port­edly, Amazon—which de­clined to com­ment—has been pur­su­ing the rights to the James Bond fran­chise.

HBO has been the gold stan­dard for tele­vi­sion ever since The So­pra­nos, prov­ing in the process that qual­ity, con­trary to con­ven­tional wisdom, pays. Last year, the chan­nel made USD2.15 bil­lion in op­er­at­ing profit on USD6.3 bil­lion in rev­enue, and it has signed up 30 per­cent of its sub­scribers in the past five years. But while HBO may be the jewel in the Time Warner crown, the chan­nel, a tal­ent-based com­pany po­lit­i­cally and cul­tur­ally on the left, looks to be a poor fit with its new owner, AT&T, the data-based tech com­pany out of Dal­las. John Stankey, an AT&T vet­eran who now over­sees HBO as head of Warn­erme­dia, is a con­trib­u­tor to Repub­li­can cam­paigns and an en­ter­tain­ment novice. Ac­cord­ing to The Hol­ly­wood Re­porter, he had trou­ble com­ing up with a ti­tle when asked for his fa­vorite movie or TV se­ries.

Stankey is push­ing HBO to­ward a full week of pro­gram­ming, when his­tor­i­cally the chan­nel has packed its orig­i­nal se­ries into the Sun­day-night slot, re­ly­ing on re­runs and movies to fill the other six days. Cit­ing dig­i­tal con­sumers, he wants HBO more en­gaged with its sub­scribers; that is, he would like his new ac­qui­si­tion to be­come more like Net­flix. But if the un­even per­for­mance of re­cent Sun­day-night shows like Vinyl, the sec­ond sea­son of True De­tec­tive, and, most re­cently, Here and Now is any in­di­ca­tion, HBO is al­ready stretched thin.

Com­pared with Net­flix, with its USD12 bil­lion bud­get for orig­i­nal pro­gram­ming, Hbo—which spends no more than USD1.2 bil­lion on orig­i­nal pro­gram­ming, with an ad­di­tional USD1.1 bil­lion for movie rights— is at a dis­tinct dis­ad­van­tage. And Net­flix is only one of HBO’S newish com­peti­tors. Big money from Ap­ple’s can­non has also splashed the net­work in the face. As­sum­ing 2017’s Big Lit­tle Lies would be a oneshot, seven-episode adap­ta­tion of the tit­u­lar novel, HBO had no deals in place when the show be­came a run­away hit, and the chan­nel tried to sign the cast for a sec­ond sea­son. In the mean­time, how­ever, one of the stars and pro­duc­ers, Reese Wither­spoon, who’d re­port­edly been paid in the neigh­bor­hood of USD300,000 per episode for the first sea­son, had been of­fered USD1 mil­lion-plus per episode for a new show by Ap­ple. Sources have said that HBO had to match her salary and give the rest of the cast com­pa­ra­ble bumps. “We’ve been...sort of raped,” groaned the co-head of drama, Francesca Orsi. As one agent put it less col­or­fully in The Hol­ly­wood Re­porter, Ap­ple’s largesse “in­flates the whole ecosys­tem of Tv-ac­tor salaries.”

Aside from bloat­ing salaries, how­ever, there’s no rea­son news from Ap­ple should make its ri­vals break a sweat. Bank­ing on the “Spiel­berg magic,” the com­pany that gave us the iphone is res­ur­rect­ing Amaz­ing Sto­ries, an an­thol­ogy se­ries Steven Spiel­berg pro­duced for NBC in the mid-1980s that wasn’t amaz­ing enough to avoid can­cel­la­tion af­ter two rat­ings-chal­lenged sea­sons. Ap­ple has also hired the dread­ful M. Night Shya­malan to pro­duce a se­ries. More­over, it will be in­ter­est­ing to see how the com­pany, which prides it­self on the di­a­mond­like pre­ci­sion of its prod­ucts, will deal with the messi­ness of TV pro­duc­tion, not to men­tion tal­ent.

If his­tory re­peats it­self, which it has an an­noy­ing way of do­ing, we can ex­pect that ca­ble com­pa­nies, un­der the pressure of ris­ing costs, will need not only big re­turns if they’re to com­pete with the new, deep­pocket ar­rivals, but also guar­an­teed re­turns. To this end, HBO is con­sid­er­ing up to five Game of Thrones spin-offs. But CEO Richard Ple­pler says he isn’t wor­ried about com­pro­mis­ing qual­ity. “AT&T un­der­stands that we have no in­ter­est in be­ing Net­flix,” he says. “We’re try­ing to be a tur­bocharged ver­sion of our­selves. We’ve had one hand tied be­hind our back for the last six, seven years.... We were un­der tremen­dous pressure to de­liver more and more money to Time Warner. Now we no longer have to say no to what we wanted to say yes to.... The ex­cit­ing thing about this merger is, in­stead of be­ing 25 per­cent of Time Warner, we’re now 2 per­cent of AT&T—NO more than a round­ing er­ror.”

If Ple­pler is up­beat about AT&T, Land­graf is sim­i­larly bullish about Dis­ney, FX’S new home. The net­work used to con­sider it­self a “free HBO,” which is to say, it spear­headed qual­ity pro­gram­ming on ad-sup­ported ba­sic ca­ble. “We make a kind of pro­gram­ming that Dis­ney doesn’t,” he says, “pro­gram­ming vi­tal to their abil­ity to scale up a large stream­ing plat­form. . . . I know that FX would not be able to thrive as a brand if it didn’t have more re­sources and wasn’t part of one of these large com­pa­nies, so I con­sider Dis­ney to be a po­ten­tial sav­ior.” Both he and Ple­pler an­tic­i­pate a shake­out in ca­ble, and they ex­pect their ser­vices to ben­e­fit from it. “You don’t make art just by throw­ing money at it. If you try to turn ev­ery­thing into Game of Thrones, it doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily make it bet­ter,” Land­graf says, adding, “We’re mak­ing too much TV. That may not be the wis­est thing for a TV ex­ec­u­tive to say, but that’s how I feel.”

Or, as one anony­mous Hol­ly­wood ex­ec­u­tive with ex­pe­ri­ence in both film and tele­vi­sion pro­duc­tion ob­serves, “It al­ready feels like the pen­du­lum is swing­ing back. A lot of view­ers are feel­ing the anx­i­ety of keep­ing up with all these mul­ti­part, mul­ti­year nar­ra­tives. It’s not fun any­more. Come Satur­day night, you want some­thing that doesn’t say ‘com­mit­ment.’ You want a self-con­tained one-hour, forty-eight-minute nar­ra­tive. What we call ‘a movie.’ ”

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