Tag Archives: Chris Albrecht

Starz Powers ahead but drops its Sails

Power is going from strength to strength
Power is going from strength to strength

As of this week, US premium cable network Starz has started airing original series on Sunday nights instead of Saturdays. The move appears to have been a good one, with the debut episode of Power’s third season setting a new viewing record.

The show, which tells the story of a charismatic club owner who leads a double life as the head of a powerful drug-dealing business, attracted 2.26 million viewers, significantly up on the 1.54 million who viewed the finale of the second run.

The previous record for a premiere episode on Starz was 1.46 million, for the second season opener of period adventure Outlander.

As soon as the rating news was in, Starz announced it had commissioned two more seasons of Power, which stars Omari Hardwick and was created by Courtney Kemp Agboh – with Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson also on board as an executive producer.

Commenting on the news, Starz CEO Chris Albrecht said: “In today’s content landscape, it is challenging for a series to stand out, but Courtney is a singular voice working in television today. In Curtis, we not only have an immense talent but an executive producer who brings a unique perspective, an authentic voice and passionate fan base that has helped propel the success of the series. The fans have let it be known loud and clear that they cannot get enough of [main characters] Ghost, Tommy, Tasha, Angela and Kanan.”

Black Sails' end is on the horizon
Black Sails’ end is on the horizon

There was mixed news for Starz pirate drama Black Sails, however. The show, which is a prequel to Treasure Island, has been given the green light for a fourth season of 10 episodes – but that season will also be its last.

Black Sails co-creator and executive producer Jonathan E Steinberg said: “It’s a rare privilege in television to be given the kind of creative freedom we’ve enjoyed on this show over the last four years. While it was a difficult decision to make this season our last, we couldn’t imagine anything beyond it that would make for a better ending to the story nor a more natural handoff to Treasure Island.”

Overall, Black Sails will be remembered as a success for Starz, building on the work done by The Pillars of the Earth, Spartacus and Camelot. The show is the first Starz original series to have got as far as four seasons, averaging 3.6 million viewers per episode along the way. It has won two Emmys, achieved an 8.2 rating on IMDb and has been licensed to 130 countries, including a deal with A+E Networks in the UK.

So the question now is whether the network will go in search of another period adventure to fill the gap – or whether the recent Lionsgate deal will point it in a new direction.

San Diego Comic-Con got underway on Thursday and runs through until Sunday. A hugely important date in the entertainment industry calendar, it is an opportunity for film and TV producers to build buzz around their projects by connecting directly with hardcore fans.

Luke Cage is the next addition to Netflix's Marvel titles
Luke Cage is the next addition to Netflix’s Marvel titles, launching on September 30

Historically regarded as a gathering for geeks, it is now an unmissable event for anyone interested or working in the sci-fi, fantasy, superhero, horror and adventure genres.

At time of writing, the headlines definitely belonged to Star Trek Beyond, the latest movie in the iconic sci-fi franchise. Not only did it put on a spectacular show in San Diego, but Paramount Studios has approved plans for another film.

In parallel, there’s also a huge amount of interest in the new Star Trek TV series, which launches on CBS’s subscription streaming service CBS All Access in the US in January. This week CBS revealed that it has now licensed the show (and the extensive Star Trek back catalogue) to SVoD giant Netflix for the international market.

Netflix will be able to stream the show just one day after it has debuted on CBS All Access.

Coming off the back of this summer’s movie launch, there’s no question the TV series will be one of the highlights of 2017. “Star Trek is already a worldwide phenomenon and this international partnership will provide fans around the world, who have been craving a new series for more than a decade, the opportunity to see every episode virtually at the same time as viewers in the US,” said Armando Nunez, president and CEO of CBS Global Distribution Group. “The new Star Trek will definitely be hailing on all frequencies throughout the planet.”

Jordskott is being adapted into English by Amazon
Jordskott is being adapted into English by Amazon

Netflix is also at Comic-Con to promote its partnership with Marvel and gave fans a brief introduction to Luke Cage, the central character of a new superhero series coming on September 30. Luke Cage joins existing Netflix Marvel series Daredevil and Jessica Jones.

Earlier this week, in our Greenlight column, we looked at the success of Australian prison drama Wentworth on the international market. Now there is more good news for the show following reports that Australia’s Foxtel has ordered a fifth season for its SoHo channel. FremantleMedia Australia will start production on 12 episodes in Melbourne next month.

Foxtel head of drama Penny Win said: “Wentworth has gone from strength to strength over the past four seasons. It is a ratings blockbuster and fan favourite for Foxtel audiences. It was a very easy decision to commission a further season of this brilliantly constructed and crafted programme. There is a lot in store both for the women behind bars and those on the outside.”

There was also good news for Scandinavian drama Jordskott this week, with DQ sister title C21 reporting that it is to be adapted into English by Amazon for its Prime Video service. That news came just after Sony Pictures Television took a stake in Palladium Fiction, the Swedish production company behind the original show.

Loch Ness will star Laura Fraser (photo: Ian West/PA Wire)
Loch Ness will star Laura Fraser
(photo: Ian West/PA Wire)

A 10-part thriller with supernatural overtones, Jordskott debuted on SVT in February 2015 and was then picked up for distribution by ITV Studios Global Entertainment (ITVSGE). ITVSGE sold the show around the world, including to ITV Encore in the UK, and Palladium is now in development on a second season with SVT.

Another show creating a buzz on the international market this week is ITV’s new six-part murder mystery Loch Ness, also distributed by ITVSGE. Despite the fact it has only just started filming in Scotland, it has been picked up by NBCUniversal International Networks for broadcast on its 13th Street pay TV channel in France, Spain, Germany and Poland in 2017.

One possible explanation for the early pick-up is that Loch Ness stars Scottish actor Laura Fraser – a familiar face to many viewers thanks to her excellent turn as the neurotic Lydia in Breaking Bad. The show is written by Stephen Brady (Fortitude) and executive produced by ITV Studios creative director and executive producer Tim Haines (Beowulf).

Loch Ness was commissioned by ITV controller of drama Victoria Fea and head of drama series Jane Hudson, with support from Creative Scotland’s Production Growth Fund. Fea commented: “Loch Ness is a gripping, tightly plotted drama that focuses on how a serial killer terrifies a local community. Stephen Brady’s compelling scripts utilise the wilderness of Loch Ness perfectly.”

Haines added: “Serial killers are monsters that lie beneath the surface of normal happy communities. Where better to hunt for one than in a place that has thrived off its own monster myth for centuries – Loch Ness.”

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Federation backs belgian content

Unit 42
Belgian drama Unit 42 will be distributed by Federation Entertainment

The international market for non-English language drama has taken off in the last couple of years. One of the key players in distributing such shows is France’s Federation Entertainment, which controls rights to an eclectic slate of titles from around the world including The Bureau (France), Hostages (Israel) and Bordertown (Finland).

Now it has acquired rights to a cybercrime drama from Belgian filmmaker John Engel.

Entitled Unit 42, the 10-part drama is currently in production at Engel’s Left Field Ventures and will air in its domestic market on public broadcaster RTBF. Federation will distribute in all markets except Benelux and France, which are handled by Ella Productions.

Unit 42 tells the story of a non-tech-savvy cop and a feisty young policewoman and IT expert who are forced to collaborate with one another. It is based on an original story by Annie Carels, who co-wrote the show alongside Julie Bertrand, Charlotte Joulia and Guy Goossens.

Belgian drama is yet to have the kind of impact enjoyed by Nordic, French, German, Spanish, Turkish or Israeli fare, but there are a few signs that it can hold its own internationally.

Salamander
Salamander sold internationally

In 2014, for example, thriller series Salamander was picked up by a number of networks internationally as a completed show and a format. More recently, BBC4 in the UK acquired Cordon, in which a deadly virus results in the city of Antwerp being sealed off.

Another title to have attracted a lot of interest is Tim van Aelst’s comedy Safety First, which is distributed internationally by Red Arrow International.

And then there is Public Enemy, which won the Buyers’ Choice Award at MipTV’s first international drama competition earlier this year. All in all, then, it looks like Belgium is starting to make its mark on the international scripted scene.

Back on more familiar turf, Netflix has given a straight-to-series order for a reboot of 1960s sci-fi show Lost in Space. The 10-part series will be made by Legendary TV and is scheduled for 2018. It will be written by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, with Zack Estrin (Prison Break) as showrunner.

The original Lost in Space
The original Lost in Space

Cindy Holland, VP of original content at Netflix, said: “The original series so deftly captured both drama and comedy, and that made it very appealing to a broad audience. The current creative team’s reimagining of the series for Netflix is sure to appeal to fans who fondly remember the original and create a new generation of enthusiasts around the world.” The last attempt to bring the franchise back was a mediocre movie with Matt LeBlanc in 1998.

Netflix rival Amazon, meanwhile, has acquired the UK rights to Roadies, Cameron Crowe’s new drama series. The first two episodes will be available to Amazon Prime members from today. New episodes will then be made available every Monday, the day after they air on Showtime in the US.

Commenting on the show, which was acquired from Warner Bros International Television Distribution, Brad Beale, VP of worldwide television acquisition for Amazon, said: “Cameron Crowe and (executive producer) Winnie Holzman are both amazing storytellers and having both of their voices behind Roadies makes it one of the most anticipated series of the year. Joining shows like The Man in the High Castle, Transparent, Mr Robot and Preacher, we’re sure that Prime customers are going to love it.”

Roadies
Roadies hasn’t opened particularly strongly

Maybe they will – although the early ratings figures from Showtime aren’t especially encouraging. With an opening episode audience of just 360,000, a 6.9 rating on IMDb and a lacklustre response from reviewers, Roadies is at risk of going the same way as Vinyl, HBO’s recent foray into the world of music.

At the other end of the dramatic spectrum, BBC1 in the UK has commissioned a disturbing three-part miniseries from indie producer Studio Lambert entitled Three Girls. The series is based on the true stories of victims of sexual abuse in Rochdale, near Manchester. It will look at the way girls were groomed, how they were ignored by the authorities responsible for protecting them, and how they eventually made themselves heard.

Commenting on the commission, Susan Hogg, head of drama at Studio Lambert, said: “This true story, researched over a number of years, will shine a light on the trauma of sexual grooming, providing knowledge and understanding for parents and children alike. We are so grateful for the generosity of the young women and their families in sharing their experiences.”

Three Girls is written by Nicole Taylor (The C Word) and directed by Philippa Lowthorpe (Call the Midwife, Jamaica Inn).

Could House of Cards get a spin-off?
Could House of Cards get a spin-off?

Taylor said: “Whatever I thought I knew about what had happened in Rochdale, I knew nothing until I met the girls and their families. Listening to them was the beginning of understanding – not just of the terrible suffering they experienced but of the courage it took to persist in telling authorities who didn’t want to know, and to participate in the court proceedings that brought justice.”

The award for most interesting rumour of the week goes to author Michael Dobbs, who has suggested there might be scope for a House of Cards spin-off if the acclaimed Netflix show ends after season five.

In an interview with the Daily Express, he responded to the question of a possible spin-off: “That is a very interesting question and one that we are putting our minds to actively because every show comes to a natural end. Look what they’ve done with Breaking Bad, look what they’ve done with 24 (which have both seen spin-offs). So is there life in the long term? Well, it’s a hell of a brand. It’s been going now for 30 years: it was a success as a book, it was a success as a BBC TV series, it is a huge success as a US series. There are plenty of people from other parts of the world who want to make their version of House of Cards. We’ll see what happens with those. It is a global brand, so the question arises: what do we do with a global brand?”

Starz's Ash vs Evil Dead
Starz’s Ash vs Evil Dead

The big industry story of the week has been producer/distributor Lionsgate’s decision to acquire premium cable outfit Starz for US$4.4bn. The move brings together one of the US’s most prolific and admired production houses with the broadcaster that commissioned or coproduced shows like Power, Outlander, Black Sails, The White Queen and Ash vs Evil Dead.

Lionsgate CEO Jon Feltheimer and vice-chairman Michael Burns said: “This transaction unites two companies with strong brands, complementary assets and leading positions within our industry. We expect the acquisition to be highly accretive, generate significant synergies and create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. (Starz CEO) Chris Albrecht and his team have built a world-class platform and programming leader, and we’re proud to marshal our resources in a deal that accelerates our growth and diversification, generates exciting new strategic content opportunities and creates significant value for our shareholders.”

Albrecht added: “Jon, Michael and the rest of the Lionsgate team have built the first major new Hollywood studio in decades, and we’re thrilled to join with them in a transaction that multiplies the strengths of our respective businesses. Our similar entrepreneurial cultures and shared vision of the future will make this alliance an incredible fit that creates tremendous value for our shareholders, great content for our audiences and limitless opportunities for our newly-combined company.”

The dust is yet to settle on the deal, so it is not clear how the Lionsgate/Starz marriage will impact on commissioning strategy. In theory, Lionsgate could launch new TV shows on Starz, making it easier to set up deals that will allow it to retain international rights on shows. But it won’t want to do anything that adversely impacts on its relationship with other key channel operators.

Equally, Starz won’t want to become too reliant on Lionsgate for original content, though it may be able to air more of Lionsgate’s back catalogue once existing rights contracts run down.

The one immediate issue that will need to be resolved is Lionsgate’s involvement in Epix, a premium movie channel it owns with Viacom and MGM. Epix has been the pay TV home for Lionsgate’s movies since 2009 but there will now be an obvious temptation to switch its films to Starz. Nothing will happen straight away but it’s a consideration for the medium term.

The good news for talent in the film and TV chain is that the group plans to invest US$1.8bn annually in new content.

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The Girlfriend Experience: Starz reveals high hopes for Soderbergh series

Starz CEO Chris Albrecht and actress Riley Keough tell Michael Pickard why viewers should get on board The Girlfriend Experience.

It’s not often that a writer or director can demand free rein on a new television show. But that’s what happened when Steven Soderbergh first approached US premium cable network Starz about a new project.

The Ocean’s 11 director, who won an Emmy for HBO movie Behind the Candelabra in 2013, had wanted to reunite with Starz CEO Chris Albrecht since they worked together on HBO’s political drama K Street in 2003.

“So he came in and said, ‘Here’s my vision, two filmmakers, all the scripts, you’ve got to give me the money, we’re gonna go shoot an entire film and I’m gonna bring you back the stuff,’” Albrecht recalls of Soderberg. “I was like, ‘OK.’ Not a lot of people would say yes to that deal.

Chris Albrecht
Chris Albrecht

“There are few people as talented as Steven Soderbergh, and any chance to work with him I’m going to take.”

The project was The Girlfriend Experience, which stars Riley Keough as Christine, a law student and an intern at a prestigious law firm who is introduced by a friend to transactional relationships and becomes involved in the world of the ‘girlfriend experience,’ which sees women provide their clients with more than just sex.

Based on the 2009 film of the same name, the 13-part half-hour series is produced by Transactional Pictures. Soderbergh, who directed the original film, and Philip Fleishman executive produce with filmmakers Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz, who wrote and directed.

During that first meeting, Soderbergh knew he wanted to bring Kerrigan and Seimetz onto the show and also that he wanted Keough to star, having worked with the Mad Max: Fury Road actress on 2012’s Magic Mike.

Albrecht continues: “Steven said there was this girl he worked with on Magic Mike, she’s fucking terrific. She’s going to be a big star.

“I think when people see this young actress… I got so excited when I watched all the episodes because it’s a brilliant, brave performance and she’s astonishing in it. I think people are going to be blown away by her. I watched all 13 in a row. I said I’d watch some and then go to lunch; six hours later I’m starving.”

Sex might not be an unusual theme for a show on a premium cable network, but Albrecht explains that the subject matter goes far beyond the initial implications of someone providing the girlfriend experience.

The Girlfriend Experience stars Riley Keough (right) as Christine
The Girlfriend Experience stars Riley Keough (right) as Christine, a law student who enters the world of transactional relationships

“In Steven’s mind, it’s what price intimacy?” Albrecht says. “The girlfriend experience is ostensibly different from just paying someone for sex; you’re paying someone to be your girlfriend. Whether you’re married or not, it’s someone looking for that connection. The other side of it is here’s this young woman, this character who tries to do everything she does in the best way possible. She’s an intern, a law student, she’s working her ass off and she gets introduced to this world and approaches it in the same way she approaches everything else, which is ‘I’m going to be the best at this that I possibly can be.’

“It’s a way to look at the relationships that people seek and to ask whether this is any more honest than many marriages or relationships out there, with both people getting something they want. So Steven had all that in his head, and that’s fertile ground that so many people can relate to – not necessarily the girlfriend experience, but the search for intimacy and the connection with another human being. When you’ve got a guy like him and an idea that could be pretty universal, those are two pretty good starts for doing a film or TV show.”

Soderbergh was also the reason Keough was drawn to the series. The actress hadn’t appeared on TV before, preferring big-screen roles, but she says the director was a big influence on her move to television.

“I don’t think he’s going to make anything that’s shit,” says Keough, who is Elvis Presley’s granddaughter. “Also, there’s a lot of really cool stuff on TV. The content’s getting really interesting and I actually really like watching TV more than movies. The character is really interesting. I liked how shameless she is – she doesn’t care about other people’s opinions and will do anything. She gets into a lot of sticky situations but doesn’t ever think she’s wrong, and that was really funny. I thought you would want people to really like the main character and have someone people aspire to be like, but she’s a realistic person – strong and opinionated and different to anyone I’ve seen.

“I kept reading the scripts thinking there was going to be some big drama, but there’s not. It’s very realistic and naturalistic and that’s the kind of thing I like to watch. When I spoke to Lodge, Amy and Steven about how they wanted to shoot it – the style and the tone, the vibe – I just found it really interesting.”

But that’s not to say Keough had no reservations about the series: “I didn’t want to be promoting sex work; I didn’t want to glorify it or make it look bad. I just wanted to make sure it was very honest and non-judgemental, and that was one of the biggest things all of us agreed on, that we are just showing a piece of this girl’s life.”

Albrecht and Soderbergh predict Keough is set to become a 'big star'
Albrecht and Steven Soderbergh believe Keough is set to become a ‘big star’

Keough also didn’t want it to be “some sex show,” and although she admits the script called for a lot of sex scenes, she says they weren’t gratuitous. “Surprisingly, when you watch it, it didn’t feel like a lot at all,” Keough adds. “And there aren’t sex scenes for the sake of sex scenes. It’s part of her job. Everything I was concerned about or thought would be difficult, I talked through with Amy, Lodge and Steven beforehand. Christine’s not very emotional or self-indulgent. She’s very real. I didn’t have a hard time with it.”

But what about the show’s potential audience? Albrecht believes The Girlfriend Experience will attract young women to the premium cable channel.

“They’ll be really attracted to Riley and her character, and it’s an audience that’s pretty tough to get to premium television,” he says. “Between (forthcoming ballet drama) Flesh and Bone, The Girlfriend Experience and some other things we’re thinking about, we’d like to continue to reach out to audiences that aren’t really coming to premium much and see if we can get them to be Starz subscribers.”

As well as Flesh and Bone, Starz’ ever-expanding original drama slate includes Ash vs Evil Dead; an adaptation of Neil Gaiman novel American Gods; and The One Percent, a 10-part drama about the world of organic farming from Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman) and starring Ed Helms, Hilary Swank and Ed Harris.

“We just respond to the stuff that comes to us but we do have a pretty big variety,” says Albrecht. “The idea that people can binge on these shows is something that’s also fun about premium. We have an on-demand platform, and for Flesh and Bone and (the third season of) Da Vinci’s Demons, we’re putting all the episodes up when the first one airs, so if people want to watch them all, they can – like I did with The Girlfriend Experience.”

Amid the ongoing debate over whether there is too much TV drama, Albrecht jokes that his job would be easier if there were less content. “But that’s why I get excited about a show like The Girlfriend Experience, because even with all the stuff that’s on the air, when you watch this show, you say to yourself, ‘I haven’t seen this on television before,’” he adds.

“I respond to talent, I get excited by talent. My faith in Steven has just been even more solidified by the team he has and him saying to me, ‘I think this girl is going to be a big star.’ Seeing the result at the end, he wasn’t kidding.”

The Girlfriend Experience is due to air on Starz in early 2016, and while the anthological nature of the show means a second season would involve a different cast and a new story, that doesn’t mean Albrecht is done with Keough.

“Everybody’s going to be talking about Riley’s performance,” he says. “I’m definitely going to try to convince her to do something else on Starz.”

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Starz in his eyes

Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik has played a key role in a creative transformation that has boosted the pay TV broadcaster’s viewing figures, but he’s not stopping there. He tells DQ how he plans to increase original programming to keep the growth going.

In recent years, HBO, Showtime, Netflix and AMC have generated most of the headlines regarding the renaissance in scripted television. But any serious discussion of the genre also needs to factor in the creative transformation at Starz, the US premium pay TV broadcaster that has backed shows like Spartacus: Blood and Sand, Black Sails, Outlander and Power.

One of the architects of the Starz revolution is MD Carmi Zlotnik, who joined the company in April 2010 at the behest of CEO Chris Albrecht. Zlotnik, who had previously worked with Albrecht at HBO and IMG, says Starz at that time was “a stable business but had no future. We started with significant challenges in terms of remodelling the company so it was clear who we were and how we liked to work.”

According to Zlotnik, the big problem with Starz was that its schedule was almost entirely dependent on acquired movies, with just a smattering of original shows: “We saw a clear need to make the business viable by converting from movies to originals. Movies are a commodity that doesn’t translate any real value to the channel brand. Viewers don’t know what network they are on. So to grow our subscriber base in a very competitive marketplace we needed to invest in originals.”

This thesis was complicated by the fact that the old Starz still made decent money. “We knew every dollar we spent on programming would be a dollar out of the profit margin. But Starz owner Liberty Media wanted its profits to increase, so we had to ramp up our original programming very gradually. It was an ‘eat what you kill’ mentality where programming innovation had to go hand in hand with financial discipline. The idea was that as profits grew we could invest more in original shows.”

The emphasis on financial rigour wasn’t, however, an excuse to play it safe, Zlotnik continues. “There’s a trite phrase going round about this being the golden age of television – but it’s also the golden age of competition in television. It’s not just networks competing with you for share of time and wallet but also theme parks, movies, video games and so on. It means you really need to dig to come up with new, refreshing thinking.”

Spartacus
Spartacus

At first sight, a reboot of Spartacus doesn’t look like it fits that definition, but for Zlotnik it’s a classic example of the way Starz has sought to “‘superserve’ the ‘underserved.’ We looked at the media landscape and asked: who is not being programmed for? In Spartacus we found a property that appealed to the ComicCon crowd. Women were also being underserved in terms of women driving the story, so we got behind The White Queen, which was a phenomenal performer for us. And the African American audience had almost been abandoned by the pay TV universe in the US, which is what brought us to Power, the Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson/Courtney Kemp Agboh project that was renewed for a second series by Starz in summer 2014.”

Having identified these areas as opportunities, Starz has sought to build on them. “Viewership of the channel is one of the most important marketing assets we have, so we have used it to launch other premium franchises.” Targeting the Spartacus fan base, for example, have been shows like pirate drama Black Sails and historical fantasy Da Vinci’s Demons. For women, The White Queen has been followed by Outlander, and for the US black community there is Survivor’s Remorse, a half-hour comedy series produced by basketball superstar LeBron James.

But doesn’t Zlotnik worry that the channel is creating a series of unrelated viewing ghettoes rather than a unified channel brand? “We reject the proposition that you can’t bring different audiences to the same programme. Outlander has a passionate female fan base as a book but we’ve been careful to make sure the male audience would appreciate the TV series. People want to watch stuff with their significant other.”

The fact that so many Starz properties have recognisable elements is a deliberate part of the strategy. In-built awareness of the Spartacus story, the success of the Outlander book series, the popularity of pirates at celebrations like Halloween and the fame of 50 Cent and LeBron James have all been key, Zlotnik says. “Curtis Jackson is a cultural entrepreneur so we were happy to get him; LeBron James is an icon who gets our brand into new places. It’s about leveraging IP and personalities in a way that allows us to cut through the cacophony of marketing messages. We’re trying to turn fans of existing brands into subscribers.”

This thesis extends to one of the latest properties to be added to the Starz portfolio, The Evil Dead. Based on the cult film franchise, a new TV series (to be called Ash Vs. Evil Dead) will debut as 10 half-hours in 2015. Should it prove successful, the goal will be to build a long-running franchise – and the omens look good. “Evil Dead has developed a huge fan base during its 30 years of life,” says Zlotnik. “Social media platforms like Twitter blew up when we announced we were doing it.”

The Evil Dead TV project has a strong US feel to it, with horror veteran Sam Raimi (who directed the original film trilogy) lined up to co-write series one and direct the first episode.

Zlotnik says Starz is keen to work with the best talent around the world. His most expansive international relationship to date has been with the BBC and BBC Worldwide – which have partnered Starz on projects including Torchwood and Da Vinci’s Demons – and Zlotnik is on the hunt for more. Speaking in London at the C21 Drama Summit at the end of 2014, he stressed that “the creative community is not just in Los Angeles but is a worldwide phenomenon. We want to source and finance programmes with an international purview.”

Further proof of his interest in non-US shows was the decision to come on board The Missing, an eight-part thriller about an English family whose son is kidnapped while on holiday in France. Shot in Belgium with a European cast, the series is not one that you’d immediately associate with US channels. So what appealed to Zlotnik? “The Missing was interesting to us because we were able to read all eight scripts at the start,” he says. “There was a freshness to the writing as well as a complicated, well-executed plot. We could see with clarity what journey the audience would go on. It was beguiling to see what happened to characters because the child went missing.”

The Missing is also notable because of the way Starz is utilising its content rights. The first episode was made available for free across a wide range of platforms, a week ahead of the series premiere on Starz, as a way to encourage sampling. All told, around 82 million households were able to view this episode, with a week then to decide if they wanted to subscribe to Starz to continue watching the series. Starz is also making each episode of the show available to subscribers via its on-demand services one week ahead of its linear transmission.

Zlotnik has made it clear that he sees on-demand as a critical component of the Starz business in future. The company’s SVOD service Starz Play recently launched on Xbox One in the US and is now being rolled out internationally. As a result, the need for on-demand rights affects content strategy: “We don’t do deals with three of the majors, Disney, Warner Bros, and Fox, because they don’t recognise our need for SVOD rights. We’re positioned as linear and on demand.”

In terms of the nuts and bolts of Starz’ approach, Zlotnik looks for “complexity, conflict and consequences” when investing in drama. He is fond of saying the channel looks for “truth and spectacle.” By truth, he means stories on Starz have to “relate to the human condition, to be about something,” while spectacle means they “must stand out, be larger than life.”

Black Sails
Black Sails

As series like Black Sails have shown, Starz is not scared of using visual effects or big set constructions to achieve spectacle, but this cannot be at the expense of accuracy in the details, says Zlotnik. “With green screen we can do pretty much anything to create compelling worlds. But the human eye picks up falsity very easily, so we take meticulous care to make sure everything passes the test. Every detail of wardrobe, set dressing, props and extras is important when we are schooling people.”

Similarly, Zlotnik says it is important not to confuse spectacle with scale: “It doesn’t always have to be about visual effects, it can be very intimate, such as an actor delivering a soliloquy. You really affect people when you hit them at an emotional level.”

Under Albrecht and Zlotnik, Starz has taken a flexible approach to deal making. In the case of copros, Zlotnik says the key is to pick the right partner at the outset: “If you are philosophically aligned you don’t have to micro-manage people. I’ve always found that if you pick copro partners with expertise and credibility, it turns long conversations into short conversations. As a company, we don’t demand more than our proportional say in the way the creative is developed.”

The obvious question, of course, is has this worked? Zlotnik has encouraging numbers to suggest it has. When Albrecht and Zlotnik began their transformation program, rivals HBO and Showtime had 28.8 million and 17.7 million subscribers respectively, while Starz had 16.9 million. The most recent comparative figures give HBO 30.4 million, Showtime 22.5 million and Starz 22 million – and Starz’ most recent financial report shows further growth to 22.5 million (Q3, 2014). “We’ve done that as a standalone company, without protection from a conglomerate and sister companies,” Zlotnik adds.

As subs grow, so does investment in programming, says Zlotnik. “Looking down 2015 and beyond, our ambition is to continue to grow originals. In 2013, we had 36 episodes; in 2014 it was 58, and this year it will be more than 60. Looking ahead to 2017, we have given up the Disney library, which means there will be additional resources to plug into original programming.”

Some financial caution continues to be required, however. Speaking about projects that haven’t quite worked out (yet), Zlotnik says: “We had developed a big sci-fi project (Steven DeKnight’s Incursion) which was like Band of Brothers meets Halo (the video game franchise). It’s on the backburner because we decided we could do two or three other projects for the price of that one. But it’s still out there.”

With growth, there has been inevitable speculation about where Starz might go next as a business. As referenced above, the company has announced plans to create an on-demand platform, and this is part of a wider attack on the global market. “We want to grow business internationally,” says Zlotnik. “We will grow through distribution then channel creation and on-demand. We developed the attributes of business in anticipation OTT would be a new phenomenon.”

On the face of it, it’s hard to see how Starz could compete with the much more established brands that are already fighting it out for elbow room in the international arena. But Zlotnik’s comments become more interesting when one factors in the recent takeover talk that has been swirling around Starz.

Starz’ job is clear. It needs to maintain a virtuous circle whereby investment in content grows subscribers, thus allowing further investment. It also needs to win the hearts and minds of the creative community, something it appears to be on the road to doing. Zlotnik says Starz has worked hard to build a reputation as a business that is “sustainable but creative, that will care for and nurture properties, especially those with existing fan bases. It excites me when someone with a clear idea and a lot of passion comes in with a pitch. We want to be a great creative partner, so that – at the end of it all – they say ‘that’s the show I had in mind.’”

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