HBO reigns miniseries, other networks shift focus

Mini business model down, not out

As more networks flee from running original movies and miniseries, HBO’s lock on the genre appears even more secure.

The broadcast webs (not counting PBS) have long abandoned the form, save a few exceptions. Rival pay cabler Showtime — which once churned out so many longforms, most got lost in the shuffle — has also dropped out of the game.

And even basic-cable nets are spending more time these days focusing on original series, slowing down their movie and mini greenlighting or halting them altogether.

But made-for-TV movies and miniseries remain a staple of HBO’s diet. With signature skeins such as “The Sopranos” exiting the air, minis in particular may become an even more crucial part of the channel’s marketing strategy in the coming years.

Upcoming big-ticket entries such as “The Pacific,” “Generation Kill” and “John Adams” are sure to build as much noise and interest as any new series.

“There are certain stories that can’t be told in a two-hour format but can’t go on to series,” says HBO Films prexy Colin Callender. “We’re in a position where we can tell those stories.”

George Faber, a producer behind “Generation Kill,” says the cabler remains unique among U.S. outlets in terms of running longforms that probably wouldn’t get made elsewhere.

“They have the desire to take the risks and tackle the kind of material that other broadcasters and channels wouldn’t be interested in doing,” says Faber, who produced last year’s “Elizabeth I” for HBO. “They treat them with integrity and rigor, and respect the artistic vision of whomever the particular talent is on a project.”

Of course, that formula has led to hefty Emmy hauls, including the top prize last year among minis (for “Elizabeth I”). Dick Wolf, who exec produced the recent HBO telepic “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” says he got the unspoken sense from the channel’s execs that for some projects, an Emmy nom is almost expected — and anything short of a win is seen as a disappointment.

“Their obsession is only with getting a product on the screen that doesn’t look like television,” Wolf says.

That mandate has its share of detractors, as critics wonder whether the channel is too focused on awards — spending gobs of money on campaigns that could be used elsewhere.

But awards remain a key part of HBO’s marketing strategy, as it looks to keep its subscription numbers high as the dominant U.S. pay TV outlet. Because they pay a premium for HBO, viewers count on seeing something they won’t find anywhere else, particularly on broadcast TV.

“They expect to be entertained on a different level than on the networks,” Wolf says. “Even sometimes HBO can’t afford it. I was totally hooked on ‘Rome,’ but that was a little too expensive.”

Indeed, it’s not getting easier to produce such mega events. Costs continue to skyrocket for projects such as “The Pacific” (estimated at $200 million) and “John Adams” at a time when producers are being asked to tighten their belts.

Callender says ancillary streams like DVD sales and international coin help offset those costs. The channel also regularly structures co-financing deals with foreign broadcasters such as the BBC and Australia’s Seven Network (a partner on “The Pacific”).

But producers like Faber admit they’ve noticed that a “slight change” has hit the financial climate over the past two or three years.

“(HBO has) become even more attentive to the bottom line,” Faber says. “There’s a more rigorous control on spending. I don’t know where it comes from. But nevertheless if they commit to a project, they want to make sure it’s made to sufficiently high production values.”

Wolf agrees that HBO “is not handing out money the way they were seven or eight years ago. The business model has changed.”

In the case of “Wounded Knee,” the production was shot in Canada with a prudent budget.

“They force you to really think how you’re going to make a movie,” Wolf says.

Still, when it comes to marketing, HBO spares no expense, he adds. While noting that HBO produces fewer hours of original programming than the big broadcast webs — making it easier to focus on one or two big initiatives — Wolf marvels at the amount of attention lavished on “Wounded Knee.”

“They pull out all the stops. I’ve never seen anything like it,” he says. “The quote would be, ‘I rest my case.’ ”

If Wolf has one quibble with HBO, it was the lengthy development process for “Wounded Knee.” It took six years for the movie to make it to the air.

“Certainly nobody’s getting rich working there,” he says. “If you figure it out in terms of a six-year period how many hours were invested, for a producer’s fee it doesn’t make any sense. But luckily, if you’re in a situation where you have a total passion project, you go make it there.”

So far, Faber says he has sent every one of his miniseries proposals to HBO first, and it has backed all of them.

“They’re continuing to look for ideas or subjects that have not been seen before or could be treated in a bold way,” he says.

As for HBO’s broadcast rivals, Wolf says the nets have made a “big mistake” by dropping out of the longform game.

“It’s a programming tool that, if used judiciously, can staunch a lot of bleeding,” he says.

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