Lena Dunham is getting some new neighbors. HBO launches something of an indie spirit night Sunday, Jan. 11, when “Girls” returns for a fourth season, followed by a pair of original series sprung from the same singular, low-budget film roots that led Dunham — and her $65,000 SXSW phenomenon “Tiny Furniture” — to stardom.
First up after “Girls” is “Togetherness,” a new comedy from indie veterans Jay and Mark Duplass, about four forty-somethings, one a couple, living together, starring Mark Duplass, Melanie Lynskey and Amanda Peet. That show is followed by a second season of “Looking,” the San Francisco-set dramedy co-created by writer Michael Lannan and director Andrew Haigh, whose romantic drama “Weekend” won an audience award for emerging visions at the 2011 SXSW fest.
“We always think, ‘What can we do in our space that feels distinct, different and unlike the fare you’re getting on ad-supported television?’ ” says HBO president of programming Michael Lombardo. “There’s no better place to look than to people who have done independent films.
“With the Duplass brothers, Andrew and Lena — each of their films have such clear points of view. That’s what began the conversations with them, that’s why we think the shows work on HBO. We’ve encouraged a continued exploration of that voice rather than muting that voice. ”
The network has long plucked from the indie film world, from Jody Hill (2006’s “The Foot Fist Way”/HBO series “Eastbound & Down”) to Armando Iannucci (2009’s “In the Loop”/“Veep”) to Mike White (2002’s “The Good Girl”/“Enlightened”), but this month’s new Sunday lineup appears to be even more of a gamble. While those earlier shows boast stars like Danny McBride, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Laura Dern, “Togetherness” and “Looking” spring from the even smaller niche of mumblecore films, marked by shoestring budgets and lesser-known actors.
Haigh never expected to land a high-profile gig on the smallscreen. “‘Weekend’ was a very small, tiny film,” he says. “Getting that call to meet HBO was mind-blowing at the time. I’d never made a single minute of television.”
Now that he’s a part of the HBO family, Haigh believes the cabler appreciates the diversity of voices from the indie world. “We’re all still making very different TV shows even though we’re all from independent film,” Haigh says of his schedule-mates. “There are probably similarities between us, but we’re all coming from different places. I think HBO is really keen to keep pursuing that, to find different people who want to say different things.”
The question for HBO: How many will tune in to the new shows? The bet on “Girls” is now widely seen as a winner, resulting in 12 Emmy nominations, two Golden Globe victories and never-ending buzz from media and tastemakers. But the show has had a much bigger impact than its audience suggests — last season averaged 4.7 million cumulative viewers per episode over multiple airings and platforms; “Game of Thrones” did 7 million for a single showing of season 4’s finale alone.
Lombardo says ratings aren’t the only goal. “We’re in the business of passion engagement,” he explains, adding that the strategy is even more important now with the planned launch of a standalone over-the-top service in 2015.
“We don’t intend to create a comedy that gets the largest number of eyeballs,” Lombardo adds. “What we intend to do is create a comedy that feels fresh and distinctive. The people who watch ‘Girls,’ and there are a lot of them, love ‘Girls.’ It is their favorite show. I think the same is true for ‘Looking’ and I can see the same thing for ‘Togetherness.’”
For filmmakers like Haigh, HBO offers an opportunity to play in a bigger sandbox while staying true to their ideals. “The idea of working on a TV show with 100 crew was really terrifying,” he says. “ ‘Weekend’ had 15 people on the crew. But in the end, you limit the amount of people on set during shooting so it feels intimate and small.”
And there are obvious upsides. “It’s nice to have a bit more money, coming from the low-budget film world where craft services is like one bagel between all of you,” he says. “It’s nice to pay the bills. You don’t make any money doing independent films.”