Taking the long road from script to screen is not uncommon in Hollywood, but Brian Michael Bendis’ “Powers” is notable for more than just its 14-year development journey at Sony Pictures. In 2001, the studio thought the graphic novel had potential as a movie, but that plan didn’t get far. Ten years later, “Powers” got another shot as a TV series, with Charles S. Dutton and Lucy Punch in the lead roles, but FX declined to order the pilot to series.
But just when Bendis thought he may have exhausted his options, Sony presented an unexpected third possibility: The conglomerate’s gaming console, PlayStation, wanted to stream the scripted drama series.
Bendis, who serves as one of the series’ executive producers, believes the property is finally launching where it was meant to. “It just feels right,” he said. “There’s a huge overlap between comicbook fans and gamers.”
Bendis isn’t the only with something to prove: PlayStation itself is out to demonstrate it can accomplish what no other consoleyet has: successfully launch an original series the way Netflix and Amazon have done. While PlayStation offers a platform as comparably massive as those other tech giants, this is the same territory where another gaming juggernaut, Microsoft’s Xbox, beat a hasty retreat earlier this year amid the kind of corporate slump that has gripped Sony of late as well.
But when the series bows this winter (exact date still to be determined), PlayStation is hoping “Powers” not only will enhance the console, but will help the company upsell PlayStation Plus memberships —- $50 annual passes that will provide access to episodes of the show, along with Sony’s menu of free games, additional online multiplayer modes, PlayStation Store discounts and online storage across the PS4, PlayStation 3 and PS Vita systems.
“Number one for us is to promote the PlayStation business and PlayStation Plus,” said John Koller, VP of platforms marketing at Sony Computer Entertainment America, who is overseeing the original programming foray for the conglomerate. “There’s a financial and marketing win in launching (“Powers”) the right way.”
A dark, R-rated tale about two homicide detectives assigned to investigate cases involving people with superhuman abilities, “Powers” boasts a cast of familiar faces, including Sharlto Copley (“Elysium”), Eddie Izzard, Noah Taylor (“Almost Famous”), Susan Heyward (“The Following”) and Michelle Forbes (“Chicago Fire”). “Game of Thrones’ ” veteran David Slade directed the first two of “Powers’ ” 10 hourlong episodes. While Sony is not divulging the program’s actual budget, it’s said to be comparable to most primetime cable series —- in the neighborhood of $2 million per episode
“We wouldn’t have been credible with cheap, original content,” Koller said. “(Gamers) are used to seeing things like ‘House of Cards,’ ‘Orange Is the New Black.’ That’s where we needed to be.”
Since PlayStation owners were using the console to stream Netflix with increasing frequency, Sony saw original content as a way to attract more PlayStation Plus subscribers like Amazon is doing with shows like “Alpha House” and “Transparent” to drive its Prime upsell. Getting to that point, however, involved a deep dive into understanding whether PlayStation owners had an appetite for something like “Powers.” Considering the number of projects across various genres, including horror, adventure and thrillers, PlayStation knew it needed to be authentic to its target gamer audience.
Because of its comicbook source material, the series fits in well with the current trend of caped crusaders at the multiplex and on television, which factored into the decision to greenlight the series. The project also shares a sensibility with two of the series watched most on the Video Unlimited service available on Sony’s assortment of streaming devices: “The Walking Dead” and “Breaking Bad.”
Getting “Powers” off the ground was a quick process compared with launching other TV shows. For one, it helped that Sony Pictures TV and PlayStation are in the same family, eliminating the need to pitch and sell projects. As it did with “Outlander,” on Starz, and “Helix,” on Syfy, Sony Pictures TV decided against shooting a pilot for “Powers,” and instead set up a writer’s room to develop the series through scripts, overseen by Remi Aubuchon (“24,” “Falling Skies”) and pulp writer Charlie Houston.
“Because it’s all under the same banner, we’re able to find the shows together that we want to do and greenlight them straight to series,” said Chris Parnell, Sony Pictures TV’s senior VP of U.S. drama development.
But “Powers” isn’t the first time PlayStation has tried to court its consoles’ owners with original content. In 2010, Sony unveiled “The Tester,” a gameshow heralded as the first original live-action series distributed on a videogame console. “It was a learning experience,” Koller said. “It was not at the production and budget level and overall quality level that we wanted.”
Original programming hasn’t come any easier to Xbox, which took a short-lived stab at gameshows as well in 2009, with an interactive spin on the Endemol TV format “1 vs. 100.” A more ambitious, recent attempt to re-enter the space fared even worse: Just a few months ago, Microsoft moved forward with mass layoffs, which involved pulling the plug on Xbox Entertainment Studios, a division it had hoped would produce a slate of high-profile series. Xbox will continue to produce some of the digital series it greenlit, including two for “Halo.”
Like its rival, Sony has weathered its own share of cutbacks over the past year, as well as increasing competition from other deep pocketed electronics makers, including Korea’s Samsung, which has clouded the prospects for many of its products. Last month, the company reported a stunning $1.25 billion second-quarter loss.
But its newest PlayStation console has been a bright spot for Sony, which has sold more than 13.5 million PS4s worldwide since the product was introduced last November. There are 7.9 million PlayStation Plus memberships, content for which can also be accessed on older PlayStation models.
Michael Pachter, a videogame industry observer and managing director of equity research at Wedbush Securities, thinks the series’ appeal will be limited to the subscriber base. “I can’t believe that more than 10% of users care,” he said.
PlayStation is jumping into an increasingly crowded pool of longform original programming providers including Hulu Plus, Yahoo and Sony’s own Crackle, a digital network that’s building a roster of scripted and unscripted series beyond its shortform roots.
The talent attached to “Powers” believes viewers no longer distinguish between content on old or new media.
“This is no different from any other TV or film project,” said Taylor, who plays a villain on “Powers.” “Now it’s about who has a strong story.”
Promotion could make all the difference in being able to stand out amid the clutter. Sony started to rev up its marketing campaign for the show in October, presenting its first footage at New York Comic Con. Given the investment it’s made in the series, Sony will back the launch of “Powers” with a significant campaign that involves a variety of media, including print and television.
The notion that watching TV or movies on a gaming console is odd no longer applies, given that all of the major consoles, including Nintendo, the only one of the three that hasn’t ventured into original programming, have offered a variety of the most popular streaming apps for several years.
However, consoles risk losing their status as the most popular source for broadband content, considering rising competition from Internet-connected TVs and streaming sticks like Roku. The combination of PlayStation, Xbox and Nintendo’s Wii U still account for a majority of such traffic, at 43%, but that’s down from 48% in 2013, and 62% in 2011.
While distribution of “Powers” will be focused around PlayStation Plus, Sony is looking beyond the first window. That could include Crackle and perhaps Sony’s new broadband-delivered TV service, which is expected to launch by year’s end. While “Powers” will be available on PlayStation strictly in the U.S., Sony will certainly sell the show overseas as well, leveraging the company’s formidable international distribution capabilities.
Individual episodes, in addition to being released on a weekly basis via PlayStation Plus, will be sold through either the Video Unlimited and PlayStation Store components of the Sony Entertainment Network worldwide, accessible across Sony’s video devices, for a price yet to be announced. The first episode will be available for free.
If successful, “Powers” could become the first of a slate of new series developed specifically for PlayStation owners, though the company isn’t saying what else, if anything, it has in the development pipeline. The short-term goal may be for PlayStation to use the show as a marketing tool, but long-term, some say, Sony Pictures Television could opt to build out a full-fledged digital network with PlayStation, with shows that are produced internally.
“We’ve been talking a long time with PlayStation,” Parnell said. “It has been a desire for us and for them to try to do something together, because they have a content-delivery service and we have content. It’s a chocolate and peanut butter kind of thing.”
Should “Powers” prove popular, Sony already is considering plans to expand the franchise to other platforms, the most natural move being a videogame adaptation. But first the hard part: launching “Powers,” the TV show. Said Bendis, “I can’t imagine any more pressure than not sucking.”
(Todd Spangler contributed to this report).