HBO's 'Westworld,' With $100 Million Price Tag, Faces Huge Expectations

The long-in-the-works genre drama has a lot riding on it after multiple delays, a regime change at the top of the premium cable network and the end of 'Game of Thrones' in sight.
Courtesy of John P. Johnson/HBO
'Westworld'

It would be an understatement to say that HBO has a lot riding on Westworld.

The highly anticipated sci-fi drama, based on the Michael Crichton book and subsequent 1973 feature film, makes its debut Sunday night after a string of delays, a regime change at the network and a sizable price tag.

Insiders tell The Hollywood Reporter the overall budget for the first season of the 10-episode project is in the $100 million range — on par with HBO's long-in-the-works rock drama Vinyl, which fizzled after one season earlier this year. Sources peg the budget for the 90-minute Westworld pilot alone in the $25 million range, including reshoots, with some costs rolled to episode two as parts of the series debut were moved out of the premiere. (For context: HBO scrapped the entire original Game of Thrones pilot, which had a price tag of $20 million.) The per-episode budget is said to be anywhere from $8 million to $10 million. It's also worth noting that the drama hails from Warner Bros. Television, with HBO paying a massive licensing fee to its corporate sibling for Westworld, which is among the premium cabler's few studio buys. Both share in the costs for the series, with sources noting it's likely a 50-50 split and HBO serving as the lead on the show.

Created by husband-and-wife duo Jonathan Nolan (Person of Interest) and Lisa Joy and executive produced by J.J. Abrams, Westworld features a cast of A-listers including Anthony Hopkins as the head of an ultra-realistic amusement park where visitors come to live out their most outrageous desires. The cast also includes Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Thandie Newton and Ed Harris. (Hopkins and Harris are said to have scored $175,000 per episode each, with the latter potentially having only a two-year deal.)

"The production value of this thing is preposterous," Abrams tells THR. "But it's HBO. That's what they do. There was no way that this idea, which Jonah and Lisa from the beginning were doing as a AAA experience — that HBO would compromise. The expense is one thing, but the results are entirely onscreen. The cast is extraordinary, and the writers and directors wanted to maximize that sense of a cinematic experience. It's not a cheap show to make, but it doesn't hurt the eyes to look at."

Picked up to pilot in August 2013 and ordered to series in November 2014 under former HBO programming president Michael Lombardo, the futuristic Western originally was eyed for a 2015 debut. The ambitious series was the subject of swirling rumors about its messy production process for months. The show ultimately was shut down from Dec. 1, 2015, to Feb. 1, 2016, to allow Nolan and Joy time to catch up on scripts, with the show rumored at one point to be pushed to 2017. Sources say it was Nolan who fought for the production to get up and running again so the series did not lose its California tax credit.

"We didn't have scripts at that point; we'd finished shooting everything that we had and we had a few more episodes at the end," Joy says. "To be able to write them in advance and then go back to production and fully commit … it was an enormous opportunity and we're so grateful for it."

Westworld's debut comes as HBO is facing a turning point in its history. Lombardo, a 33-year veteran of the cabler, exited in May with former head of comedy Casey Bloys taking over as programming president. The network, with its well-known deep pockets, also is facing steep competition as its 15-year streak atop the Emmy leaderboard is in jeopardy thanks to the likes of FX and Netflix. What's more, the end is in sight for back-to-back Emmy outstanding drama winner Game of Thrones. The most-watched program in the channel's history will sit out the 2017 Emmys as production will start later to feature winter weather to match its creative story. With the $100 million Vinyl disappointment (one of Bloys' first moves was to scrap its planned second season) and two David Fincher projects that both stalled due to creative differences, the pressure is certainly on Westworld to perform.

"I'm sure it's among the more expensive ones but I can't tell you that it is the most expensive one we've ever done; I would imagine it is [among them]," Bloys says of Westworld's price tag. "If it works, no one would be happier than me," adds the exec, who touts HBO's strong lineup including a potential second season of critical darling The Night Of, Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon mini Big Little Lies and David Simon's James Franco starrer The Deuce. "The notion that it's Westworld or nothing, I understand the comparisons to Game of Thrones because they're both big genre pieces, but the fate of the network doesn't rise or fall on this show. That being said, it would certainly be great if it connected with an audience."

Bloys stresses that HBO will take its time to review both live viewership as well as delayed, on-demand and digital performance before pulling the trigger on a second season. "I don't have an 'I want X million viewers' because I'm not sure," he says. "I'm feeling good about the reviews we're getting. Like any show that I hope has broad appeal, there are some big fans and some legitimate criticisms. But I'm feeling good about where we are."

Asked about the pressure to deliver, Abrams — fresh off the demise of Cameron Crowe's Showtime rock drama Roadies — hoped only for the best for all involved. "The pressure is self-imposed. I would love for it to work for HBO, but I want this to work for everybody who spent so much time on this and invested so much and spent so much time away from their families," he says. "It's a little intense for people, no question. But I think it's something people will respond to. It deserves an audience. Game of Thrones is a phenomenon that can't be matched, so I think we need to stop comparing it and just say that it's another series on an extraordinary network."

Westworld premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.

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