The Hollywood TV community is beginning to like what it sees coming out of the new regime at Showtime.
Bob Greenblatt took over as Showtime’s president of programming from Jerry Offsay about six months ago. He has in that short time become head cheerleader for a strategy, already in the works, of stopping the assembly-line production of huge volumes of movies and series in favor of fewer — and, the network hopes, better.
Showtime has stretched its programming budget of some $460 million a year by funneling dollars to six made-fors a year (not the 30 it was churning out three years ago) and up to five high-visibility series.
(The $460 million includes the license fees Showtime coughs up for theatrical movies from Paramount, MGM and Dimension, plus two or three smaller movie companies.)
In the days when Showtime was stuffing its schedule with lower-cost original movies and series, many of highly regarded suppliers declined to make deals with the paybox, convinced they couldn’t do quality work on such meager budgets.
“The producers who signed up with Showtime back then were either desperate to get work, or had pet projects that they couldn’t get done anywhere else,” says Mark Wolper, head of the Wolper Organization and exec producer of the Showtime series “Penn & Teller: Bullshit.”
All of Showtime’s series development has yet to bring forth a signature show for the network. Coming up with a bellwether show like HBO’s “The Sopranos” is the No. 1 goal of Greenblatt, because “it’s easier to get audiences hooked on a series than on a succession of different movies.”
Cutting back on original movies became a necessity for Showtime a few years ago when the economics ceased to make sense.
The production cost had escalated to an average of $6 million apiece while foreign money had plunged from $2 million a title to $1 million, and U.S. homevideo and TV syndication had each dropped from $250,000 a picture to $150,000.
That’s why series development has moved to Showtime’s front burner. Greenblatt’s presence is already being felt on a rookie series with aspirations of becoming a must-see program, “Dead Like Me,” picked up for a second-season renewal.
Hank Cohen, president of MGM TV Entertainment, says that even though Greenblatt inherited “Dead Like Me” from the previous regime, “he upped our license fee so that we could add an eighth day” to the production schedule of each hourlong episode. The extra day will help the show in all areas, from giving extra takes to the actors to allowing more time for the cinematographer to light each scene.
The network has also decided to pony up as much as $400,000 more an episode in production money to shoot its just-commissioned series “Huff” in Los Angeles, not Vancouver.
“Huff,” from Sony Pictures TV, is a contempo drama about a psychiatrist, played by Hank Azaria , who has to minister to a multitude of eccentric patients while his own family life is crumbling around him.
Azaria told Showtime he’d sign to do the pilot in Vancouver but added a potentially deal-breaking clause: If “Huff” got a series pickup, it would shift to California.
By agreeing to the clause, Offsay and, later, Greenblatt — convinced that Azaria is crucial to the show’s appeal — signed off on a budget that will wind up costing a Showtime record $1.75 million an episode. The budget is so big for “Huff” not only because it’s far more expensive to film in the U.S. than in Canada but because the producers will forego a Canadian tax subsidy of in the $150,000 an hour range.
While not commenting on the “Huff” budget, Greenblatt says he’ll have more money to spend on originals in 2004 because most of the movies distributed last year by Paramount and MGM, Showtime’s main theatrical-output partners, fizzled when they opened in U.S. multiplexes. These pictures will become Showtime’s theatrical staples in 2004.
“When the theatrical movies in our contracts don’t do as well at the box office, they don’t cost us as much in license fees,” Greenblatt says, referring to the formula that pegs Showtime’s payments to Paramount and MGM on a sliding scale tipped to how well the movies perform in the theaters.
Greenblatt says he’ll get the best of both worlds: While Showtime ends up paying a lot less cash to the studios, B.O. flops like “Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life,” “Beyond Borders” and “Timeline” will harvest sizable Nielsens on the net from viewers who bypassed them in the theaters.
The dominant pay-TV network, by any standard, is still HBO, but Showtime may finally be resigning itself to the fact that it’s playing in a different ballpark than its rival. Showtime falls victim to an inferiority complex every time it measures itself against HBO.
Cash flow for HBO and its sister net Cinemax was a combined $743 million in 2003, compared to the combined $300 million for Showtime and the Movie Channel, according to Kagan World Media. (The Showtime/TMC figure, however, was a gaudy 39% higher than that of 2002.)
While HBO has piled up 27.2 million subs, Showtime chalks up only 12 million. An average of 1.47 million households tuned in to HBO’s primetime schedule in 2003, according to a Horizon Media analysis of the Nielsen numbers, whereas Showtime managed only an average of 938,000.
In programming budgets, Showtime’s $460 million is way behind HBO’s $1.1 billion in 2003. HBO spends three times as much each year in marketing and promoting its series, movies and specials as Showtime does.
“If Showtime is smart,” says Robert Greenwald, one of the busiest TV-movie producers in Hollywood, “it will let Greenblatt do what he does best, which is to develop series like ‘6 Feet Under’ (which Greenblatt exec produces).”
Howard Braunstein , a partner in Jaffe-Braunstein Prods., another indie supplier of TV movies and series, says Showtime doesn’t need HBO-size budgets to create compelling shows.
Braunstein cites “The Shield” and “Nip/Tuck” as shows which have transformed FX into one of the liveliest general-entertainment nets on basic cable.
One resolution Greenblatt says he made to himself when he took the Showtime job was “not to become obsessed with HBO. Showtime is never going to be HBO.
“If I began to think otherwise, I’d be paralyzed, and spend all day staring at the walls.”