Friction on 'House of Cards'

Illustration: Alex Fine

The demanding director fights over money on Netflix's $100 million series on the eve of production.

Netflix is getting a lesson in what it's like to work with a top Hollywood auteur. Looking to reinvent itself as a premium channel, Netflix shocked the TV industry in May by committing $100 million to a hefty 26 episodes of House of Cards, based on a British 1990 miniseries. Kevin Spacey is set to produce and star opposite Robin Wright in the American version, playing a politician who becomes corrupt as his ambitions grow. The series is scheduled to debut this year, but multiple sources say friction has developed between Oscar-nominated director David Fincher (The Social Network), who is executive producing the series, and independent studio Media Rights Capital over budget issues -- specifically, Fincher's desire for more money. Fincher is set to direct the first two episodes, but sources say the prickly talent has even threatened to depart over his displeasure.

Netflix referred inquiries about the production to MRC, which denies a dispute, expressing support for Fincher and the project. "Everything's fine and moving ahead," the rep says. The start of production in Baltimore, originally scheduled for March, has been pushed to April, though a source says that was to accommodate Spacey's schedule. Fincher has a well-established reputation for aggressively pursuing his vision despite cost concerns. "It's like, Netflix -- welcome to the content business," says a producer who has worked with Fincher. "You buy retail, you're going to pay retail." Actually, Netflix is only on the hook for a licensing fee, so budget overages are MRC's problem. The 6-year-old company has met with mixed success in television, producing the HBO series The Life & Times of Tim and The Ricky Gervais Show, the latter an animated version of the comic's podcasts, but losing millions in an effort to create a programming block for The CW.  Those who have worked with MRC say the company, which has made The Adjustment Bureau and the upcoming Seth MacFarlane vehicle Ted, is not known for hands-on producing experience. An executive says the usual MRC pitch is, " 'We're going to finance your movie; you're completely in charge, we're not going to mess with you.' And then the director has creative protection from the studio." In that context, Fincher might have been a particularly challenging partner. "David is fantastic, but David isn't easy," says Bill Mechanic, who ran Fox when Fincher made Fight Club. "If you don't know how to manage a budget, [using Fincher] probably isn't the smartest thing to do."