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.”
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.”
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.’”