Is 'Boardwalk Empire' HBO's next 'Sopranos'?

Pay TV net spends big on drama, renews after strong debut

A line that resonates late in the opening episode of "Boardwalk Empire" comes when the central figure's protege brings his mentor up short with a stern bit of advice: "You can't be half a gangster, Nucky, not anymore."

The advice isn't welcome: The protege, Michael Pitt's emotionally wounded war veteran Jimmy Darmody, has been overstepping his bounds with the boss, Steve Buscemi's Nucky Thompson -- but it's clearly correct.

In similar fashion, when HBO set out to make the series -- which was renewed Tuesday, two days after attracting 4.8 million viewers (7.1 million including repeats) to become its most-watched premiere of any HBO program in six years -- it realized you can't make half a gangster epic.

That's how HBO came to hire Martin Scorsese to executive produce and direct the 70-minute pilot and budget nearly $20 million for it. (Read THR's review here.)

Before that figure (about double the going rate for a TV pilot) was made public, there was a lot of guesswork as to what a month of shooting (about triple the typical schedule for a pilot) had cost HBO. The New York Post's Page Six threw a haymaker guess of $50 million, leading HBO to point querying media toward the Wall Street Journal's later, gentler $18 million estimate.

The subsequent 11 episodes now in the can -- they push the story, largely set in a carefully re-created boomtime Atlantic City, across nine months of 1920 beginning with the opening night of Prohibition -- averaged about $5 million to shoot. With the first ratings in, HBO was quick to order a new season, leaving the number of new shows unspecified (but very likely 12, matching the current cycle).

"It's more than a little victory," Standard & Poor's equity analyst Tuna Amobi said. "This makes it a potential juggernaut that's blown away even the more optimistic expectations."

The series debut's debate-snuffing number aligns with a generally -- but hardly unanimously -- upbeat set of reviews to let the network breathe much easier. Given the amount of earlier buzz, both in the industry and with the eager populace, HBO wasn't likely to get a standing ovation without hitting a home run. (Check out a trailer for the show below.)



Even the highly successful "True Blood," with its steadily ascending viewership across four seasons and sturdy DVD sales, has somehow been regarded as kid stuff alongside the epochal, 330-pound goombah that was "The Sopranos." (By the end of its run, the mob drama had an average viewership of nearly 9 million; the vampires series hovers at around half that.)

At a time when HBO's subscriber base is taking a small but unwelcome downtick, even the passing hullabaloo that was set off by early reports of "Empire's" high production costs can sting. HBO executives can and frequently will point out that their steady revenue stream has been fattening Time Warner's bottom line for years. And co-president Eric Kessler's oft-repeated mantra that exclusive, high-quality content will generally be rewarded by subscribers willing to pay a premium for the service (with handy cost escalators built into the network's deals with cable providers) has mostly kept Wall Street pretty upbeat.

Said industry analyst Richard Greenfield of BTIG: "HBO is in the midst of a creative resurgence. Every year they must continue to do what I would call 'feed the beast' and give people a reason to keep paying a substantial amount of money every month. And one way you do that is through irreverent original programming."

But Benchmark Capital recently downgraded both Time Warner and Viacom from "buy" to "hold" based mostly on the blah industry- and economywide forecasts. In February, Sanford C. Bernstein cable and satellite analyst Craig Moffett called the Time Warner Cable side "the single most attractive name in our coverage universe -- and by a wide margin," but by August he was warning that though "cord cutting," or dumping cable, is "overhyped," consumers ' impatience with rising prices soon could synergize with alternative delivery systems "storming the castle" to undercut cable subs.

Still, HBO's brain trust seems determined to hew to the business model that brought them this far.

"To count on a hit is a recipe for disaster," HBO programming president Michael Lombardo said. "I just think all we need to do is lean into the quality, believe in what you're doing, and hope that you find an audience there."

"Empire" showrunner and series creator Terence Winter ran with the show's premise at HBO's behest after executive producer Mark Wahlberg, tuned in with Scorsese since they made 2006's "The Departed," recruited the filmmaker.

Winter is best known for playing accomplished second fiddle to "Sopranos" creator David Chase, and he and Scorsese spent more than a year with two teams of writers developing "Empire" from Nelson Johnson's nonfiction book, "Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times and Corruption of Atlantic City." He was more than content to step back when Scorsese agreed to make the pilot and stay aboard.



Given their determination to make the setting look as authentic as possible, the production built 300 feet of actual boardwalk in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, stretched a greenscreen across the near horizon so a digital Atlantic Ocean could be painted in for background, and set out to make the pilot, typically a 10-day procedure for even big TV productions.

"We ended up at 30 days," Winter said. "The pilot script was really big, 66 pages long compared to your standard network hour of 43 pages, and it was full of complicated sequences."

Costume designer John Dunn had worked with Scorsese on "Casino" and knew him to be alert to every detail.

"The clothing is very, very important to him; we lavished attention on all the characters, whether it's Nucky or the fellow pushing the cart on the boardwalk," Dunn said. "Each extra that you see on the set was individually fitted and tailored, because we wanted to make sure that this was a place that each individual was coming to -- some of them just to have a good time, and some of them to re-invent themselves and make a fortune."

Although the boardwalk had been downsized from its original 60-foot width to 45 feet partly to cut down on the need to hire and dress extras to fill it, certain scenes were dropped because of their scale, Dunn noted.

"The world that we were creating was quite huge on the scale of what television is used to," he said, "so despite the fact it looks like we had endless funds, we had budgets and there were some scenes we were unable to shoot just because of the cost of involving costumes."

Still, production designer Bob Shaw, who won an Emmy for the pilot episode of "Mad Men," found the director beefing up his set designs.

"I might not have gone to a big enough scope if left to my own devices," he said. "It's unusual to paint with such a large brush. I got started as a stage designer, because I wanted to do opera -- this is the closest I've come to that scale.

The man writing the checks for this level of detail is Lombardo, who was elevated to fill the large if scuffed shoes of the departed Chris Albrecht, now heading Starz and building his own adventurous, pricey slate there.

"In terms of our series, whether it's 'True Blood,' 'Sopranos,' any of our big action shows with big casts, this is well within the range; it's not going to end up being our most expensive show and certainly not our cheapest," Lombardo said. "The big swing we took was in the pilot -- we decided to build a boardwalk and to build a set that had we not gone past pilot, would have been for us an expensive pilot. But we're very happy where we are now."

Obviously, the economies of scale grow more attractive if the show can sustain robust viewership through several more seasons. But regardless of the run, it's a good bet -- the only kind the network generally makes, to paraphrase the Arnold Rothstein character (Michael Stuhlbarg) from the series -- that Time Warner will end up crying all the way to the bank.

With one of the savviest marketing and publicity operations in the business and a promotional budget of $10 million, HBO seems to have already Charleston'ed past any naysayers.

Still regretful that the network might have killed off David Milch's acclaimed but underperforming "Deadwood" before its time (they're in business with Milch again on the horse racing drama "Luck," with a pilot directed by Michael Mann), Lombardo cites "Treme" as a case of sticking with a show that finds its own loyalists.

He and Winter are adamant that Buscemi's acting chops and offbeat appeal will win over any skeptics. Said Winter: "The people who are kind of scratching their heads at Steve Buscemi being the lead of this thing -- I'm pretty confident that by Episode 12, you're going to say, 'I can't imagine anybody else in this role.' He's going to just own this character.

"The real Nucky Johnson (the producers changed the surname to Thompson, gaining some creative leeway) -- ruled Atlantic City until the '40s. I think Season 2 will be 1921-22, and then on through the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. There's plenty of material in terms of where [Lucky] Luciano and [Al] Capone and Rothstein go."

Winter feels anything but jinxed by the controversy that attended that obscure final moment in "The Sopranos." He has no apologies.

"It's in keeping with the series before it. Not every question is answered. It keeps you guessing, it defies expectations," he says. "So I don't know -- I think at the end of this series I'm going to have a very old Nucky walk into a diner and kill Tony Soprano. That's how I'll wrap it up."

CORRECTION: This story in its original version mistakenly identified producer Terence Winter as the writer responsible for creating the mysterious cut-to-black ending of "The Sopranos." The person responsible for that episode and the ending was series creator David Chase. Also, the Time Warner networks and Time Warner Cable have functioned independently since the cable operation was spun off in 2009.
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