Countries that fight and unite remain worthy themes for longform
Kary Antholis, president of HBO Miniseries, estimates he listens to between 100 and 150 pitches a year. Given that HBO generally produces a single miniseries a year, he’s incredibly selective.
Equally as clearly, that selectivity pays off. Since 1998, every HBO miniseries produced except one has won the Emmy for top miniseries, including the 10-hour World War II epic “The Pacific.” Exec produced by Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman, “The Pacific,” which boasted an unprecedented budget of $195 million according to Goetzman, was vast in scope yet obsessed with period details.
Other HBO Emmy-winning miniseries include “From the Earth to the Moon,” “Band of Brothers” and “John Adams,” as well as “The Corner,” “Elizabeth I” and “Angels in America.” Only 2008’s grittily authentic epic about the early days of the Iraq war, “Generation Kill,” was nominated but didn’t win. Moreover, “The Corner” inspired the series “The Wire,” on most critics’ shortlist of best TV series in history.
“In looking at pitches, the material has to be compelling and resonant, and the voice that’s going to tell the story has to be singular,” says Antholis. “Then we ask ourselves, ‘Is the piece itself going to attract the highest level of talent available in the industry? We’re shooting to make feature films at the length of a novel. We’re aiming to make something that lives up to the great films that have been made in any medium. We get to work with filmmakers who have helped set the highest standards for cinema and try to reach those same heights.”
“When dealing with HBO, you actually are dealing with real filmmakers,” says Goetzman, who in addition to “The Pacific” has exec produced “Band of Brothers” and “John Adams,” in addition to polygamist series “Big Love.” “We feel that it is more a co-filmmaker relationship. It must help that they’re not solely ratings-driven, that it’s not their first concern.
“The biggest problem is, they receive so many good ideas. You go to them and say, wouldn’t it be great to do a movie about Harry Truman, and they’ve got about 65 Harry Truman scripts in their files.”
“They’re looking for high-end, smart, challenging and artistically ambitious shows that can make a lot of noise when marketed and deliver awards down the line,” adds George Faber, who served as exec producer on “Elizabeth I” and “Generation Kill.” “They want the shows to offer parts that will attract movie stars to television by offering them scope and range that they don’t often get in their movie careers. They never want to be derivative, or, if it’s a familiar story, you need to find the spin, attitude or tilt that makes it fresh.”
Naturally, HBO’s success has inspired a bit of a backlash in some corners of the TV industry, usually from those envious of their business model. HBO’s budgets are far higher than other nets, naysayers says, putting them at an unfair advantage. HBO’s dominance in the movies and miniseries categories at the recent Emmy telecasts even had some calling for some of those trophies to be awarded outside the broadcast ceremony.
Antholis responds that appearances notwithstanding, the network is budget-conscious. “We do aim for epic even if we’re not spending epics amounts of money,” he says.
“John Adams” was scaled back from an initial 10-hour miniseries to seven, “Generation Kill” was cut from eight hours to seven and even “The Pacific” was truncated from an original 13-hour production.
As for those who wondered how HBO could justify spending $195 million on “The Pacific” — its premiere episode was seen by just 4 million viewers on the night it premiered — Antholis explains that the net takes a further-reaching view of success than just ratings numbers.
“Programming our network is more art than social science,” he says. “We look at what we think ‘The Pacific’ can bring back in DVD sales. We’re also looking at ways to go to the Comcasts of the world, the Dish Networks, and give them reasons on what they should market to potential subscribers. They’re mindful that they’re selling other services in promoting ‘The Pacific.’ It became a specific part of acquisition campaigns. Comcast did a huge campaign selling high-definition packages, using footage from ‘The Pacific.’ Cable companies are mindful of the fact that we brought them event programming. We don’t measure that, but it is a factor in making a decision.”
Moreover, he adds, “We sold it to 60, 70 territories for a lot of money. We’re building an international brand, and ‘The Pacific’ did an immeasurable service to that branding initiative. You may hear about the big money for ‘The Pacific,’ but it comes down quite a bit on international numbers and DVD sales, and it goes a long way to explain how we build goodwill among subscribers and affiliates.”
Antholis is unabashedly proud of and grateful for the work he does.
“It’s just a great job, and the people I work with are so extraordinarily gifted,” he says, trying not to gush too much. “On every project, I have an epiphany that I can’t believe I get to do this for a living.”