HBO Boss on 'Big Little Lies' Impact, "Earned" Raises and Addressing Pay Parity

When Casey Bloys got his first of two major promotions in early 2016, the HBO executive took a good hard look at the suite of dramas he had inherited and wondered just one thing: Where were all the women?

On the comedy side, where Bloys had been in charge since 2013, he and his team had championed such female-fronted series as Enlightened, Veep, Getting On, Insecure and, of course, Girls. But now the drama lineup that he was suddenly responsible for skewed heavily male, with a mix of series that included True Detective, Game of Thrones and, then, the forthcoming Westworld. “The fact was we hadn’t really had a female-skewing drama since Big Love,” he says, referencing the polygamy hour that ran from 2006-11. "And so we became very interested in diversifying the slate."

Two years later, much has already changed. In fact, Bloys, who was upped to president of programming later that spring, is coming off a months-long awards season in which his first big female drama, Big Little Lies, swept nearly every category it was in. The accolades followed record ratings and an enviable spot at the center of the cultural conversation — and proceeded significant raises for a cast led by producer-stars Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, who are said to be earning in the $1 million per episode range for season two. “A show like that is a gift to a network,” says Bloys, who credits Witherspoon and Kidman for identifying its potential and bringing it to the network. His boss, chairman and CEO Richard Plepler, lavishes similar praise: “Reese and Nicole had the vision to know what this could become," he says. "They brought us a jewel and their enthusiasm became infectious, not only with the Big Little Lies team but throughout all of HBO.”

And when the limited-turned-ongoing series returns in 2019, with the original cast plus Oscar winner Meryl Streep, it'll join a lineup that's lighter on testosterone — or at least heavier on estrogen. In July, HBO will introduce Sharp Objects, centered on an even more complicated woman played by Amy Adams; and after that, My Brilliant Friend, about a lifelong female friendship. There are others, too, including projects from Misha Green (Underground) and Sally Wainwright (Happy Valley) as well as a second collaboration between Kidman and Big Little Lies’ writer/producer David E. Kelley. Bloys has been similarly focused on moving more women behind the camera, too, with his ratio of female to male writers and directors working its way to 50 percent.

With Big Little Lies back in production, Bloys sat down at the company’s corporate headquarters in New York and talked about those hefty raises, the impact of the Time's Up movement and how he intends to remain competitive without writing nine-figure producer checks.

One of your execs found herself in hot water last month when she sat on stage at a conference in Israel and said, “From a budget standpoint, going into season two of Big Little Lies without any options in place we’ve been … short of raped.” I’m hoping you can clarify the point that she was trying to make, since it got lost in the drama of her word choice.

Here's what I will say: obviously it was a really unfortunate statement, not just the choice of words but also the statement because it's not reflective of how we feel as a network. Let me just say this about Big Little Lies season two. Whatever anybody was paid was 100 percent earned and well worth it. This show was a giant hit for us and for the industry. I know there's fascination with the negotiations but, listen, they earned it. So, [the comment] was not reflective of how we feel, or how [Francesca Orsi, HBO’s drama chief] feels. And she feels terrible. I know she’s reached out to all the players on the show, and I will say while they were not happy about it they have been incredibly gracious and it actually has led to larger conversations about the choice of the word [raped] and why it’s used.

Will it change the way you go about making deals going forward? As in, will you move away from the one-season contracts?

Not really. Look, Big Little Lies is a unique case. But our business affairs group has been doing this a long time and we tend to do fair deals that people feel good about on both ends and that was absolutely the case here.

This cast, in particular, had been at the forefront of the Time’s Up movement. Curious, how have those ties and the larger movement impacted the way you do business?

One of the things that’s come out of thinking about the movement and some conversations with Reese, who’s really at the forefront, is something we’ve done recently. We’ve proactively gone through all of our shows — in fact, we just finished our process where we went through and made sure that there were no inappropriate disparities in pay; and where there were, if we found any, we corrected it going forward. And that’s is a direct result of the Times Up movement.

Are you willing to give me an example of a series that required a correction?

No, no I am not. [laughs]

You must have had some happy agents.

Yeah, but it’s also people are getting what they deserve. So, I'm sure they were happy but they also shouldn't have to fight for it.

To be clear, you’re not talking about going in and simply saying, ‘All men and women will categorically make the exact same’?

No. Look, it becomes more of an issue when you get into season two and season three, assuming the show is a success. When you're putting a show together, people come in with different levels of experience and maybe some people have won awards or something that makes them stand out. But when you get into season two or three of a show and the show is a success, it is much harder to justify paying people wildly disparate numbers, and that's where you have to make sure that you're looking at the numbers — that they don't end up just on the path they were on from the pilot stage. So, the thing that has been interesting about the whole movement is that it really is reminding everybody to do what's right, and I think it's retraining all of our thinking.

In this moment, Big Little Lies feels particularly timely. What’s surprised you most about its success?

What it showed was that there was a place not only on HBO but in the greater TV landscape for shows that showed complex, complicated women. One of the things that would drive me nuts is when people would call a show like this with really talented actresses talking about things that are important to, really, everybody but women specifically in terms of schooling and infidelity and, in this case, domestic abuse, a “guilty pleasure.” Why is a show that’s smart and entertaining and talking about really difficult topics a guilty pleasure? Why dismiss it that way?

How has its success informed your other programming decisions?

It just reinforces some of the bets we've already made like Sharp Objects, which we’ve got coming out this summer with Amy Adams. I can't think of a more complicated female lead. I mean, she's to the point of self-destruction. There are a lot of celebrated, self-destructive male leads out there, but it's going be very interesting to see a woman really wrestling with her demons like that. Richard and I have talked a lot about, like, why aren't there more? Now, obviously there's a lot of history behind that, people liking men a certain way and women a certain way. But one of the things that I hope that Big Little Lies shows is that you can have complicated female characters and it can not only do well but it can break records and win awards.

Can I assume you don't intend to abandon men in this process?

No. I sometimes joke about that, [and say,] ‘Nothing against straight men, my dad is one and I like him very much.’ [Laughs] But being for more female stories doesn’t mean that you are anti male. We've got True Detective coming up, we've got Game of Thrones, which actually has a lot of complicated females, and we'll have the Game of Thrones spinoff. As I have said [about the latter], we'll do anywhere between zero and five, depending. So, yeah, we're not abandoning male stories.

You are playing in a field where Netflix is willing to write nine-figure checks to get a Ryan Murphy or a Shonda Rhimes. How do you compete?

For someone like Ryan Murphy or Shonda Rhimes, who are prolific creators of quality content, that is the market now. And it’s a unique skill that they have. But as a business, you kind of have to adjust to the marketplace.

Does that mean you suck it up and write the huge checks, too?

It depends. Ryan or Shonda probably don’t make sense for us because we're not in the volume business and that's what they're getting paid for. But in general, across the board, costs are going up because there are so many people making TV. For talent — writers, producers, actors — it's a good time because the opportunities are now much more plentiful than they were even two, three years ago. And as a business, it's just a reality that doing a show will cost more.

At some point there’s a ceiling, no?

A lot of people speculate about that. Are we in a bubble? Is there too much? It certainly does feel like, as Alan Greenspan called it, irrational exuberance. But just like any market, nobody really knows when you're at the top.

Amazon is spending $1 billion to try and create its Game of Thrones. What do you think about that?

Richard and I talk about that, too, [and it’s,] ‘Eyes on your own paper.’ And it's true: we’ve got to stay focused on our goal, which is curating excellent content — not ignoring the outside world because you can’t but also trying not to get too distracted by Amazon has this money or Apple has that money. Money is obviously very nice but it doesn't automatically mean quality. It's very hard to curate content, and it matters how you engage with talent and how you treat them. And it's the game we've been playing for a long time.

In those bidding wars you find yourself in, what’s the pitch for why HBO? 

It’s what you see with Big Little Lies or Westworld or, honestly, what you just saw with Barry. In a crowded marketplace, it matters how you put things out into the world. We don’t put a new show out every week. We take our time, and we try to make every show feel like an event — something special because they are special to us. We have enough content to make an impact but not too much that we're not engaging with the creators on a daily basis and having a lot of conversations about not only the show but how we want to present it and things like that. So, it really is a hands-on approach as opposed to kind of a factory. And that sell to creators in an ever more crowded world really resonates.

From a quantity perspective, are you where you’d like to be?

I think maybe we could stand to have some more but those are ongoing conversations.

You recently acquired the hottest film, The Tale, out of Sundance. You buy finished docs often, but I believe this was the first finished narrative film you’ve purchased, no?

Yeah. What's interesting about the film space, and HBO Films in particular, is we're thinking about that more, which is if there is something interesting and it has something to say — in the case of this film, it has something big to say and it's very of the moment — we are more open to that. What you're seeing with streaming services getting into film, the definition of what's a film is changing and there are questions about what does a theatrical release mean and do you want to go for Emmys vs. Academy Awards; that conversation is a lot more open than it was even two years ago.

So, this is part of a new strategy rather than a one-off decision?

It was an interesting opportunity and we'll see how it goes but I could see doing more. This one was at Sundance, and Len [Amato, head of HBO Films] and I had talked about maybe picking up a film and what would it mean and we had all those conversations about theatrical release or Academy Awards versus Emmys. And again, you have filmmakers now who are a lot more open to airing on a streaming services or airing on HBO. So, we'll try this one and see. But it has to be a movie that speaks to us. This one was the story of a woman who has lived a narrative that made sense to her, she told herself this is how something happened, and the whole movie is about reexamining that. And not to make it too neat a comparison but I do think that the industry is kind of like, we've done things a certain way and we all tell ourselves it's okay and that's what's been eye opening about all of it is it's challenging you to reexamine your expectations and what's appropriate and what's not. Somebody referred to it as a cultural audit, and that's actually a good way to think about it. It's forcing us to check our norms and standards of conduct and that's appropriate. And sometimes you're doing everything just fine and sometimes it's small adjustments, sometimes it's big adjustments.