HBO's High-Class Problems: $100M 'Vinyl' Disappoints Amid 'Westworld,' David Fincher Woes

HBO's Richard Plepler, left, and Michael Lombardo
ILLUSTRATION BY Thomas Kuhlenbeck

As its rock drama underwhelms in the ratings, the premium cable network faces pressure from struggling parent Time Warner, and a recent spate of troubled projects shine a light on a crown jewel at a crossroads.

This story first appeared in the March 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

When HBO launched Vinyl, the ambitious rock drama from Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger, on Feb. 14, its ratings — even with three days of DVR viewing — were wan. But the network promptly renewed the series. As the motto used to go, "It's not TV, it's HBO."

And that's still true. Yet the pay TV service, with 36 million U.S. subscribers and a nearly year-old streaming service that CEO Richard Plepler said Feb. 10 has 800,000 subs, no longer is alone in the premium space. As Netflix and Amazon, not to mention Showtime, AMC, FX and others, fight it out for prestige projects, HBO still is the first choice for many A-listers. In 2015, it mopped up 43 Emmys with such diverse offerings as Game of Thrones, Olive Kitteridge and Veep. (NBC came in second with 12.) "As far as television goes," says David Simon, who created The Wire and Treme, "these guys are the f—ing Medicis."

Yet HBO is in a period of challenge. It hasn't had a breakout drama hit since Game of Thrones launched in 2011, and in recent months, it has seen several troubled shows go expensively into and then out of production. Those include the mega-budgeted futuristic Westworld, which was halted in December with several episodes shot but needing additional work. The series now might be pushed into 2017 despite an initial plan to have it ready last year. Other projects shut down well into the process include two shows from David Fincher, a limited series from Steve McQueen and another on Lewis and Clark from producers Brad Pitt and Tom Hanks. HBO says some of these may be revived. "We make no apologies for sticking by a project we believe has the potential to be great," says programming president Michael Lombardo. "Unfortunately, we also at times find ourselves in the position of deciding not to move forward with others. That is never fun, but that is our business."

'Vinyl,' with Bobby Cannavale and Olivia Wilde, debuted to only 1.1 million live-plus-3-day viewers.

Meanwhile, adjustments are being made. In January, drama head Michael Ellenberg was ousted, and since then, the famously development-rich network has been looking to winnow the 100-plus shows in the pipeline. (Casey Bloys, who oversaw such well-regarded comedies as Silicon Valley, now heads drama as well.) HBO is putting pressure on budgets for scripted shows as the network has increased its programming hours by 40 percent with expensive forays outside scripted, adding offerings from Vice, ESPN alum Bill Simmons and Jon Stewart as well as a family programming effort spearheaded by Sesame Street.

These moves come at a delicate time. HBO is the jewel in the Time Warner crown, contributing 27 percent of the company's operating income in 2015, but sources say it is paying a price for that. "Connect the dots," says one veteran, contending that HBO is dealing with added pressure as its parent grapples with struggles at its Warner Bros. film studio and challenges at its TV production arm. In selling off assets like Time Warner Cable, CEO Jeffrey Bewkes has laid bare a susceptibility to the vagaries of the content business.

Observers long have perceived Bewkes as a seller, either of all of Time Warner or of HBO. So he wants his most desirable asset to shine brightly. One source with business at HBO believes Fox's 2014 play for Time Warner "changed the culture at the network," with increased emphasis on performance and cost control. While HBO leans on scripted budgets, Ben Weiss of 8th & Jackson Partners — perhaps ironically — believes the network should be spending more. HBO is a valuable source of steady revenue but "needs to take more swings," he says, arguing that "the old model of two big scripted series in the fall and spring does not provide enough value for subscribers relative to what competitors [Amazon and Netflix] are offering at a lower price."

As HBO is only too aware, Netflix and Amazon have the luxury of operating on a different and far less transparent model. They throw up a seemingly limitless number of series while HBO's prime real estate for scripted shows still is Sunday nights. HBO series are rated by Nielsen even though the network is not ratings-driven, while the streamers reveal nothing. Their failures go unrecognized.

Meanwhile, HBO's big swings can be mind-bendingly expensive. The two-hour Vinyl opener is said to have cost about $30 million and the first season $100 million. HBO executives still are optimistic that Vinyl will recover from its disappointing launch, which pitted it against the midseason return of The Walking Dead. As for projects that haven't made it to air yet, HBO has gone through false starts before; it dumped the pilot for Game of Thrones before a reset that has been successful in every sense of the word. But given the names involved, HBO's troubled projects can be especially noisy.

Last summer, Fincher's Videosyncrasy — a half-hour about a music video PA (as Fincher was) — was halted with four episodes shot. After directing the first two, Fincher turned his focus to Utopia, a thriller about graphic novel fans. Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn wrote scripts for the series, and a cast led by Rooney Mara was deep into rehearsals when HBO pulled the plug in August. The network reportedly balked at Fincher's insistence on a $100 million budget. HBO still hopes Fincher will return to Videosyncrasy and plans to make Utopia with another director. Meanwhile, Fincher has returned to his House of Cards home, Netflix, to develop a new drama.

Last summer, HBO also shut down a six-part Lewis and Clark mini­series after weeks of shooting. Sources say the network lost faith in director John Curran's vision; Masters of Sex creator Michelle Ashford, whose credits include John Adams, was hired to start from scratch. THR has learned that McQueen's drama, Codes of Conduct, with Paul Dano, Helena Bonham Carter and Rebecca Hall, has been scrapped. The pilot was shot, and HBO had ordered a six-episode series before pulling out.

Late last year, HBO stopped work on the pricey J.J. Abrams-produced Westworld, based on a 1970's sci-fi movie series. and with an enormous cast including Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris. Initially produced with Warners' TV production arm, HBO took back control after what sources call clashes with creator Jonathan Nolan, whose TV credit is the WBTV-produced Person of Interest on CBS. (HBO usually makes its own programming but works with Warners on The Leftovers.) Nolan is said to be every bit as controlling as his filmmaker brother Chris. Sources say cuts came in slowly, scripts started running behind, and it became apparent that episodes already shot needed tweaks requiring additional filming. Since stopping production, HBO persuaded Nolan to "put aside his ego," one source says, and has brought in two additional producers and two more writers. Production is set to resume in March.

"Westworld is wildly ambitious — on the page and on set," says Nolan. "In broadcast TV, it's been routine for us to write and shoot at the same time. This is a completely different animal. As we got closer to the final episodes, we realized we needed to take a break from shooting to catch up on writing. HBO and WBTV have been incredibly supportive throughout the process. It would have been literally impossible to make this show anywhere else."

Says WME co-CEO Ari Emanuel: "The great thing about HBO is they do take those shots. They back artists." But several HBO veterans lament the network suffers from the allure of big film names who have turned to the channel as the movie business became less hospitable. Noting that he's always kept his shows at or under his comparatively modest budgets, Simon says, "A lot of feature people have thought, 'It's HBO. The world is my oyster.' I saw the thing with David Fincher, and I can't imagine an argument with HBO over whether I can spend $100 million or $80 million." Star talent is hard to resist, continues Simon, but "it's got to be a tough dynamic. You want to do a project that you think might be glorious, but if they're all $100 million for the first season, you're going to exhaust your budget pretty quickly."

Some insiders feel the culture at HBO has changed. "If you can get something on there, I still think it's a great place to be," says a high-profile HBO talent. "But if you're looking for a steady hand to shape and mold, I don't think that's happening." An agent with business at the network adds, "At times there are directives from those guys that conflict with what they then feel later, in terms of who you should hire and what role they should play." With the recent executive shuffle, he adds, "They're obviously saying that it wasn't working."

HBO points with pride to upcoming programming, including the Reese Witherspoon-Nicole Kidman limited series Big Little Lies and a Sarah Jessica Parker half-hour series Divorce, that it believes will prove HBO is still HBO. And Leftovers creator Damon Lindelof says there is every chance the new shows will do the job, starting with Westworld. "The first Game of Thrones pilot was disastrous," he says. "They spent and they retooled and, lo and behold, Game of Thrones." Lombardo adds he wants to be "proud of everything we put on the screen. We look out at 2016 and beyond with great pride and couldn't be more excited or optimistic about our slate of programming."

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