UPDATED with post-panel statement from HBO’s Francesca Orsi
JERUSALEM — The final season of “Game of Thrones” will not disappoint, promise HBO executives who recounted being at the table read for the last few episodes.
“It was a really powerful moment in our lives and our careers,” said Francesca Orsi, HBO SVP of drama, who took part in a panel titled “The Best of HBO” at the INTV Conference in Israel. “None of the cast had received the scripts prior, and one by one they started falling down to their deaths.”
Orsi was joined on the panel by programming president Casey Bloys with drama chiefs David Levine, moderated by WME’s Marc Korman. Orsi spoke candidly about the challenge of working in the current environment with such competition for high-end programming. Orsi said that in planning for the second installment of “Big Little Lies,” the starry limited series from Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, HBO was “short of raped” when it came on striking new deals with the key players after the success of the first series.
Orsi issued a statement following an uproar on social media over her likening business dealings to sexual assault — a surprising comment from an executive about such high-profile talent.
“Obviously, I am embarrassed by my poor choice of words,” Orsi said. “We are extremely proud of ‘Big Little Lies’ and excited for the second season.”
In discussing “Game of Thrones” during the session, Orsi said that at the table read of the final six scripts (“a dream opportunity,” she said), everyone stood up and applauded for 15 to 20 minutes. “It was amazing,” she said of the episodes, which will air in 2019. “By the very end, everyone looked down and looked up and tears were in their eyes.”
The network execs revealed they hope to continue the magic with the potential spinoffs, which Orsi promised will live up to the original. “It feels like corporate malfeasance to not continue it,” said Orsi. “That’s why it spawned three, four, five spinoffs,” adding that “we’re going big.”
The executives also addressed the upcoming second season of “Big Little Lies,” which will also try to recapture the magic of the first. “We feel really confident we have to more to do and say, and there’s passion on the part of the cast,” said Orsi. “The scripts are as good, if not better, than last season.”
She acknowledged, though, that the transition from a one-season effort to a second season was a financial hurdle, requiring huge renegotiations with the cast, given that they didn’t have any options in place.
The executives also discussed competing with Netflix and its unrivaled spending. “They’re in the volume business, we’re in the curation business,” said Bloys. Orsi added that the deluge of series from streaming services is “absolutely diluting” quality of shows by ordering in volume.
“I don’t want to out some of the partners and producers that we work with, but lately a couple of the prestige pieces that have come through our door, they’re passionately saying they want to set it up with HBO and HBO alone because at Amazon they don’t get some of the benefits in marketing or on ‘Picnic At Hanging Rock,’ they can’t travel the cast to the premiere,” she said. “Amazon is not paying for the travel, which is somewhat of a disgrace and Amazon needs to know that.” And other producers, like Luca Guadagnino and Michael Haneke, “don’t want to get lost at Netflix.”
Asked about Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes’ recent megabucks deals with the streamer, Bloys acknowledged that he couldn’t compete but said the creators deserve the big paydays. “The reason they’re getting paid so much is they’re so prolific,” he said. “That’s a very valuable talent.”
But Levine added that HBO benefits from creators with singular vision for their shows. “If David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] had five shows with us, ‘Game of Thrones’ wouldn’t be ‘Game of Thrones’,” he said.