Backers risk millions on longform TV productions
EmptyThe most expensive miniseries in history, "The Pacific," got a big push toward production from Steven Spielberg's dad.
After the triumphant reception for Spielberg and HBO's $125 million miniseries "Band of Brothers," Spielberg's father called him, somewhat perturbed. Noting that he and his own brother had fought in the war against Japan, he asked: "What about the boys on the other side of the Atlantic? You're celebrating all those guys from Europe. We did something, too!"
Along with a flood of letters from veterans, that was the spark for the 10-hour, $195 million-plus follow-up that is now a major contender across multiple Emmy categories. More than four years in development, the venture took more than 10 months to shoot and another 18 months for post; involved a crew of more than 800, with more than 130 speaking parts. It is that rare example of a television production whose expense is as high as most movies, and whose ambitions are even greater.
Along with projects like Starz's "Spartacus: Blood and Sand" and History's anticipated "The Kennedys," it is one of several epic series or mega-minis that are crucially important to their networks but exceptionally challenging to create.
Such television "opens up an opportunity in the marketplace," says Nancy Dubuc, president and GM of Lifetime and History. "The viewer does want event TV when they can get it, and there's not much of it. The fact nobody else is really doing it around the dial opens up an opportunity for us to play in that arena, with limited economic risk."
Just how limited a risk is open to question.
While HBO fully financed "The Pacific" and handles its own international sales and home video, more networks typically partner with producers who split the rights. "The Kennedys," for instance, was a joint venture with Montreal-based Muse Entertainment Enterprises, which began selling foreign rights to the estimated $30 million mini in spring 2009, even before History was fully on board. For "Spartacus: Blood and Sand," Starz put up the entire budget of nearly $30 million, taking on the entire risk, in contrast to its upcoming mini, "Pillars of the Earth," where it just licensed domestic rights.
Whatever the risk, for Dubuc it is worthwhile.
"It's a big marketing driver," she says. "It's (also) a big ad sales upfront driver. It's premium product that advertisers are looking for, that complements our brand."
There is an "advantage to being associated with a big event," says Lisa Herdman, a vp with RPA Advertising, which handles clients like American Honda and Mandalay Bay Casino. "Advertisers are interested because they feel it's going to be a really broad-reach vehicle and the ratings are going to be big."
True, but most networks -- especially the broadcast networks -- are wary of taking on any miniseries that spans more than a few hours. "It's tough to get people interested for that amount of time," says Tanya Lopez, Lifetime's senior vp original movies, who notes that her own network has mainly limited itself to a handful of miniseries that last no more than four hours, such as "Coco Chanel" and "Maneater." "It's expensive. And for most networks, it means preempting their regular programming."
That hasn't been the case at HBO, whose name and brand identity have been boosted by high-quality programming like this, no matter how expensive (though HBO will not confirm "The Pacific" was the most expensive ever). HBO was ready and willing when Spielberg and his partners came calling.
"HBO was primed to do a sequel," says Michael Lombardo, HBO's president of programming. Still, he acknowledges, "The size and scope of this miniseries is really unprecedented for us."
Work on the project got under way in 2003, when Spielberg and fellow executive producers Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman contacted one of the "Band of Brothers" scribes, Bruce McKenna, to find what Goetzman called the "trajectory" of the series.
Unlike "Band," based on a book by the late Stephen Ambrose, there was no single source for "Pacific." What followed was nine months working with Ambrose's son, Hugh, going through interviews with survivors, historical research and several books, including Robert Leckie's "Helmet for My Pillow."
"We went through reams of research," McKenna says. "I had the epiphany to do the show like (the movie and miniseries) 'Traffic,' with characters not necessarily connected, and weave them together in a way that could tell the whole tapestry of the war."
In October 2003, McKenna pitched his vision to Spielberg and Hanks on the set of "The Terminal," after which McKenna and Goetzman met with then-HBO executive Chris Albrecht, who authorized the creation of a "bible." McKenna started with a 35-page outline, then HBO commissioned scripts for a 13-part series, centered on five characters.
After the first draft, however, "We realized it was too much to chew on," McKenna says, "and scaled back and focused on three main characters in 10 hours."
Despite the cost, then projected at $200 million, HBO let the producers cast experienced but not well-known actors for the leads. "They said, 'Go make the show you want to make,' " McKenna recalls.
After nine days of an intense boot camp for the actors, production got under way Aug. 10, 2007.
Even with $200 million, there were limits to what could be done. After considering locations in Hawaii, the filmmakers opted instead for Australia, where they could benefit not only from its Pacific-style locales, but also available government rebates.
Using six directors, with two production units often operating simultaneously, shooting went on five days a week for 10 months, before the team relocated to Los Angeles for three weeks of home-front scenes.
Starz' "Spartacus: Blood and Sand"
Even after the shoot, "Pacific" still required a whopping a year and a half in post, all supervised in small dark rooms by Goetzman. "I'm surprised he can still see," Lombardo jokes.
When it aired, "The Pacific" averaged 8.1 million viewers for each episode -- somewhat less than "Band of Brothers," but numbers that pleased HBO, and probably the man who had started work on it, Albrecht.
While HBO was working on "Pacific," Albrecht was employing a similar event TV strategy over at Starz Entertainment, where another epic series, "Spartacus: Blood and Sand," had been put into production before his arrival.
"When 'Spartacus' was pitched to us (by executive producer Rob Tapert) it was perfect timing," says executive vp programming Stephan Shelanski. "We were looking for a show of that nature with the visual effects, and 'Spartacus' fit the bill perfectly."
The project had begun at NBC with Tapert and producing partners Sam Raimi and Josh Donen, but NBC eventually put it in turnaround. When Starz bought it, the budget was still undefined.
The network knew going in that the cost for Season 1 would exceed $2 million for each of the 13 hourlong episodes.
Starz committed to 13 episodes without even a pilot, and then had to move rapidly, to complete 149 days of production that began March 31, 2009. That was followed by almost four months of postproduction.
Steven DeKnight signed on as head writer and executive producer, moving straight from Joss Whedon's "Dollhouse" to "Spartacus" with only a weekend in between. "We had to hit the ground running because we were going into production so quickly," he notes.
Unsure how to tackle a hero made famous in Stanley Kubrick's 1960 film, DeKnight turned to the source material, but found precious little. "Literally, you can read everything that's actually known and written about Spartacus in about an hour and a half," he says. "It's about 40 pages and much of it is contradictory."
Two consultants were hired to help with accuracy, but details were sketchy. "My historical consultants often joke I took two lines from Plutarch (46-120 AD), and created 13 hours out of it," he quips.
As with "The Pacific," even a big budget had its limitations. "Spartacus" benefited from New Zealand rebates of 20% of what was spent there, and also a favorable exchange rate, but each episode still cost more than $2 million. Starz could not determine the final cost until the visual effects were finished, and at one point, Tapert admits, he had to ask for more money, which the pay TV service agreed to provide.
Although backgrounds and crowd scenes were done with CGI, intense battle scenes still had to be choreographed. "We beat the hell out of everybody on this show," DeKnight says. "Everybody was worn out at the end of the season."
It paid off. When production wrapped, Starz was so pleased it greenlit a second season even before the first aired (that became complicated when Andy Whitfield, who plays the title character, developed non-Hodgkin's lymphoma). Ratings confirmed Starz's decision: When it aired, "Spartacus" was the highest-rated show on cable in the 18-49 demo on 12 of its 13 Fridays.
Now Starz is moving ahead with a prequel to the series, and will continue with a sequel after Whitfield recuperates.
That's an advantage Starz has with an ongoing series that HBO, with a self-contained mini, does not. Despite the success of "The Pacific," which came in nearly $5 million under budget, Lombardo says the network won't replicate it anytime soon, but remains committed to doing one such event every other year.
"Consumers expect it," he says. "It's part of the brand."