So Long, 'Skinemax'? 'The Knick' Takes HBO's Sister Net in a New Direction

Cinemax goes from prurient to prestige with a Steven Soderbergh drama designed to broaden its reach and move the pay cabler into a new era.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

HBO's new drama The Knick has everything viewers expect from the network: an Oscar-winning director and executive producer (Steven Soderbergh), a cinema-caliber star (Clive Owen) and a fresh premise (Victorian-era surgeons in New York). There's just one catch. It's airing on sibling network Cinemax.

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"I kind of wanted to be the big kid at a small school," Soderbergh told reporters in July at TCA, explaining that he suggested Cinemax as The Knick's home to HBO programming president Michael Lombardo. "He can get more of our attention and be a bigger player here," says HBO miniseries president Kary Antholis, who also oversees Cinemax's original efforts. "We take pitches together, and we always talk about which project is right for which brand in a way that I imagine Bob and Harvey [Weinstein] spoke about which projects were right for Dimension or Miramax."

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What's right for Cinemax, long known for its sexy soft-core fare, is "genre," says Antholis -- and not the strictly sci-fi definition that most networks employ. Cinemax is pursuing pulpier content (action, horror, noir), which certainly describes the brutal depiction of modern medicine's early days in The Knick. Following Strike Back and Banshee, the newcomer marks Cinemax's biggest move yet to shed that "Skinemax" moniker earned with decades of late-night titillation. It's getting a warm critical reception, and Soderbergh's decision to direct each of the 10 episodes offers built-in buzz. The show scored a very rare early sophomore renewal ahead of its Aug. 8 debut.

"I think we all feel excited about being part of something hopefully transformative for this network," says executive producer Michael Sugar, who reps Soderbergh and creators Jack Amiel and Michael Begler at Anonymous Content. "What's appealing is that we're working with the same executives, marketing and financial resources. People think that Steven's just a rebel, but he's not. He doesn't do things to be contrarian. It's the pioneer in him that persuaded him to lead us to Cinemax."

And the network is on the rise, adding 1 million subscribers in the past year for a total of 13.7 million, according to SNL Kagan. That might be dwarfed by HBO's 29.3 million subs, but Cinemax has the fastest-rising penetration in pay TV. HBO and Cinemax now average a gross $7.24 a month for every subscriber who pays for both channels, and more originals on Cinemax should encourage dual subs.

"The cable, telecom and satellite providers … have really stepped up in getting us into more homes," adds Antholis. "Having Cinemax as the pay channel of choice after HBO is really the goal."