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Cinemax Has Become Uncomfortable in Its Skin

Cabler made its name with softcore fare, but changing times have shifted its focus to action

TV viewers are accustomed to seeing a lot of Beverly Lynne on Cinemax — with good reason. She has appeared in dozens of latenight movies on the HBO-owned service. You know the ones. At one time, Lynne said, she made as many as 12 movies a year — erotica fare with titles such as “The Bikini Escort Company” and “Busty Housewives of Beverly Hills.” But times have changed: “It has definitely slowed down the last couple of years,” she said.

While HBO said its volume of softcore films for wee-hours Cinemax remains the same, it has quietly moved over the past two years to tamp down the channel’s notoriety as “Skinemax,” even at the risk of losing some of its loyal viewers.

Yes, there’s still flesh on display in original Cinemax series like “Strike Back” and “Banshee,” and you can still see skin-bearing series such as “The Girl’s Guide to Depravity,” but executives think a focus on higher quality and action will give the network a new calling card. The softcore fare that established Cinemax is tame by comparison to some of what can be seen in originals on HBO and other pay TV channels. And on the blue end of the spectrum, viewers can find a whole world of free Internet porn just a click away.

All of this explains why HBO brass are plotting a new course for Cinemax.

“The hope is that I don’t hear ‘Skinemax’ any time after our original programming — what I’ll call the primetime originals — start to really take over the (lineup),” said Michael Lombardo, HBO’s president of programming.

The original-series strategy has obviously served HBO well. But Cinemax is venturing out of its softcore comfort zone at a time when viewers are besieged by original programming options from established and nontraditional players. Despite all that, HBO execs see upside in upgrading the sibling network.

Cinemax has been completely underleveraged, said Shelley Wright Brindle, HBO’s executive VP of domestic network distribution. “It continued to perform well for us in the absence of any kind of very specific marketing identity.” Imbuing Cinemax with defining programs could represent an untapped opportunity, she said, and give cable, satellite and telco distributors a new tactic to use in convincing their customers to subscribe.

Executives caution that Cinemax, which has about 13 million subscribers today, is hardly turning its back on theatrical movies, but maintain that the originals have lent it a boost. Time Warner recently told investors that HBO and Cinemax together added 1.9 million U.S. subscribers in 2012, and indicated two-thirds of that figure was due to Cinemax.

As Showtime continues to finds success with originals like “Dexter,” “Homeland” and “Ray Donovan,” and Starz loads up on new series, HBO needed to be more aggressive with Cinemax, argued Richard Greenfield, a media analyst for BTIG Research. He believes secondary services like the Movie Channel and Encore could use similar polish.

And while the offer of movies and latenight nudity has long formed the bulk of Cinemax’s appeal, executives felt the time had come to freshen things up, said Lombardo, particularly with theatrical movies being so widely available on a range of VOD and homevid platforms.

In 2014, Cinemax launches what may be its most ambitious series. The 10-episode drama, “The Knick,” stars Clive Owen and is directed and exec produced by Steven Soderbergh. The show is set in a Manhattan hospital, circa 1900, when surgeons must push boundaries without the aid of antibiotics while facing high mortality rates. Meantime, “Strike Back,” which debuted in 2011, is fast becoming the network’s signature show; its third season has nearly doubled the audience of its first, and Cinemax recently picked up earlier episodes meant only for overseas audiences. Meanwhile, “Banshee,” which launched in 2013, has been renewed for a second season.

Not all Cinemax originals have gelled. “Hunted,” a 2012 spy drama starring Melissa George, was highly serialized, making it hard for viewers to join the show midseason. It also required more action, suggested Lombardo. Cinemax was interested in continuing with the program after rejiggering it, but production partner BBC did not see a future for the show, he said.

By casting about for action in place of skin, HBO threatens to dim the lights on a cable tradition of odd latenight fare. Might Lynne go the way of Rhonda Shear from USA’s “Up All Night” or Joe Bob Briggs from TNT’s “Monstervision?” Said Robert Lombard, an independent casting director who specializes in softcore films, “The business has taken a nosedive, and I really don’t know all of the reasons.” Lynne, who still gets softcore roles (even noticing a slight uptick of late), said Cinemax fans want to see her more often. “I’m just happy to be a working actor,” she said, “and I don’t mind the genre.”

Cinemax doesn’t figure to cut her off.

“I think there won’t be the same kind of programming for that spot, but at the same time, we aren’t abandoning it,” Lombardo said. “It’s obviously enjoyed by our subscribers, and everyone is aware of it.”

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