Michael Lombardo on Leaving HBO, What He Will (and Won't) Do Next and 'Vinyl' Regrets

Michael Lombardo
Smallz + Raskind

Michael Lombardo is HBO's programming chief.

"I have a lot of relationships, there are people I’m excited to work with in different capacities in the future, and my intention is to do that for HBO," says the outgoing programming president

It's such a tradition in Hollywood that it borders on cliche: A top executive comes to the end of his or her run and, in exchange for stepping down, is given an in-name-only producing deal that neither the executive nor his or her (former) employer expects will be fulfilled. Instead, the executive simply bides his or her time until a new position elsewhere becomes available — hopefully.

"I promise you that’s the furthest thing from the truth," says Michael Lombardo, the HBO programming president who revealed Friday he will exit one of the most coveted jobs in television for, yes, a production deal with the network. Lombardo, who began his career with HBO 33 years ago as a business affairs lawyer and was elevated to the top programmer gig under CEO Richard Plepler nine years ago, insists he plans to pursue his creative passion as a producer with HBO.

"Look, saying 'producer' is really a term for entrepreneurial," Lombardo tells The Hollywood Reporter in an interview. "Do I think I’m going to be driving all over the valley and west L.A. pitching a script? That’s not my fantasy right now. [But] Richard has encouraged me to think big, and I’m going to do that."

That means Lombardo isn't interested in an executive job at another network, he maintains. "This is full of hubris, but the thought of doing this anywhere else — there’s nothing about that that sounds particularly intoxicating. HBO is in my DNA. I’ve done this a long time, I have a lot of relationships, there are people I’m excited to work with in different capacities in the future, and my intention is to do that for HBO."

Lombardo insists the decision to exit was his, and that he and Plepler discussed a transition months ago, after HBO cleaned up at the Emmys last fall (despite fierce competition from Netflix, Amazon and traditional rivals AMC, Showtime and FX, HBO won 43 trophies, more than all networks for the 14th year in a row). But despite the awards prowess and arguably cable's most-watched show in Game of Thrones, HBO has faced creative challenges in recent years, as chronicled in a February THR analysis.

Vinyl, the network's $100 million music industry drama, failed to impress critics and generated tepid ratings, which led HBO to replace showrunner Terence Winter for Season 2. The anticipated second season of crime anthology True Detective was massacred by the TV press and the future of the franchise is in doubt.

In addition, high-profile projects in development have hit snags: Westworld, a pricey sci-fi drama from producer J.J. Abrams, has been delayed several times. A Lewis and Clark miniseries from Brad Pitt's production company was put back in development last summer after several weeks of filming. Expensive pilots from Steve McQueen and Jenji Kohan have been shelved. And two separate projects from David FincherVideocyncracy and Utopia — were shut down after production began. Drama chief Michael Ellenberg exited in January and his duties were subsumed by comedy chief Casey Bloys, who is presumed to be getting Lombardo's job now. The HBO issues are a potential headache for Time Warner because the network contributed 27 percent of the parent company's operating income in 2015.

"Do I wish Vinyl was welcomed in a bigger way? Yes, I mean, come on, I put my heart into this stuff," says Lombardo. "Do I think with the team in place it has the chance of blowing people’s minds? I do." He expresses regret at not being able to make the Fincher projects work, especially Utopia. "I really loved working with David, we just couldn’t figure out the budgets," he says. "It was personally painful because I believed in his vision and I like him enormously."

HBO, which hasn't launched a breakout hit drama since Game of Thrones in 2011, has been criticized for lavishing huge budgets on A-list name talent while developing hundreds of projects that have little chance of making it on the air. But Lombardo says he is enormously proud of HBO's original content, noting how the network was perceived as past its Sopranos-era prime when he took over in 2007, just as AMC and FX were the "pretty new girls in town."

He does acknowledge the explosion in outlets — both linear and streaming — competing for high-end television product changed the way he approached his job. "It used to be if you didn’t buy something, you didn’t have to worry about someone else doing it and you going, 'Damn!' That’s no longer true," he says, laughing. "But that’s exciting, and it’s gotten more people energized about being in the space."

In fact, Lombardo, who began as a non-creative executive before eventually overseeing original series for both Cinemax and HBO, says the managerial aspects of the job were taking away from the creative parts he loved. And it's those parts he expects to pursue as a producer.

"I never intended for this to happen, wasn’t expecting it to happen, and I found myself all of a sudden the head of programming at this network I had been working at for many years," he says. "It’s been a friggin' joy."