Featured Player: Richard Stratton

Exec producer goes from hard time to Showtime with skein

Like Charles Dickens, producer Richard Stratton can spin his own yarns about the best of times and the worst of times. For Stratton, these tales range from incarceration in a federal penitentiary to international festival prizes.

While the road from kingpin to Cannes hasn’t been easy, Stratton refuses to settle down. These days, as creator and exec producer of gritty Showtime series “Street Time,” he is still fighting, this time to give his show its due. Although critically acclaimed, “Street Time” was bounced around its first season, trying to fit into the cabler’s sked. On Aug. 6, it returns on Wednesdays at 10.

Luckily, Stratton knows thing or two about survival. More than 20 years ago, he was convicted for importing marijuana, receiving an enhanced 25 year sentence for refusing to cooperate with the court when it looked to him to give up names.

An aspiring writer before he became involved in the drug trade, Stratton immersed himself in the law, which he likens to learning a language. As a jailhouse lawyer, he realized his sentence had been enhanced illegally. With a help of a criminal attorney friend, Stratton was out in eight years. He spent three years on parole; these experiences would later develop into “Street Time.”

After his release, Barbara Kopple found him through a mutual friend and invited him aboard her Mike Tyson documentary. Stratton became hooked again, this time on the biz.

“It’s the same requirements of running a big drug smuggling operation, getting on the phone, getting people to agree — although it’s all legal,” he says. “It had the same adrenaline rush.”

A chance meeting with director/producer Mark Levin established a creative partnership that exists to this day. Before creating “Street Time,” the pair wrote and produced 1998 indie hit “Slam” before moving onto a series of HBO “America Undercover” docs, including Emmy-winning “Thug Life in D.C.”

“I became the resident expert at HBO on prisons,” laughs Stratton, who also spent a year on “Oz” as a technical consultant.A project at HBO never made it off the ground when the network decided to put their support behind fledgling “The Sopranos.” Undaunted, Stratton ended up at Showtime with a pitch about parole officers.

“There are characters you get coming on parole in New York and nowhere else,” recalls Stratton about the Metropolitan Correctional Center, where show is set. “Leona Helmsley, John Gotti, Michael Milken, Russian mobsters, Asian gang members and terrorism suspects.”

No stranger to the murky relationship between parolees and the officers who watch over them, Stratton himself tangled with the parole board. First, they complained about his job (working for his attorney friend would put him in contact with the criminal element) and then, about his engagement to Kim Wozencraft, a former undercover narc and an ex-offender, who based the novel “Rush” on her own experiences.

“This was a fresh look at the criminal justice system, in a way that was eye opening for us,” says Gary Levine, Showtime’s exec VP of original programming. “There’s somebody who is empowered to supervise you, but on a whim can send you back if they so choose.”Still, there have been times when the network’s enthusiasm hasn’t seemed so evident.

“Street Time” launched on a Sunday night in June 2002. It was a so-so start with 561,000 total viewers, losing almost 40% of the audience from last year. Things looked better when the show was moved to Wednesday nights, and the audience increased to 661,000 — a 94% improvement on the time slot. The only catch: it was airing at 10:45 p.m. Showtime had made a Faustian bargain for survival, sacrificing a marquee time slot where critical success might have built up more buzz, and dropped the series into no man’s land.

“We feel that Sunday is the key premium TV night and “Street Time” premiered there, but there were untapped resources to use ‘Soul Food’ as a launching pad and expose it to a different audience,” says Levine. “It was a calculated decision to take our biggest series (‘Soul Food’) and let that bring in an audience to a newborn that still needed nurturing.”

With Robert Greenblatt now in charge, Stratton is optimistic for the show’s second season. “Robert is the perfect guy, he knows about quality TV on premium cable,” says Stratton. “If we can produce quality TV shows, I think they’ll get behind it. We don’t quit easily.”

Cabler has brought on street marketing specialists Cornerstone to generate more interest. Series will still air on Wednesday, but at more traditional 10 p.m., now that “Soul Food” is on hiatus.

True to his nature, Stratton is staying busy. He’s writing a screenplay for William Friedkin about Irish mobster James “Whitey” Bulger and prepping for his feature directorial debut, “Notes from a Country Club.” Story is based on Wozencraft’s novel about a male psychiatrist in a women’s federal prison.