'Mosaic': How an HBO App Lured Fans Months Before the Miniseries' Premiere

Steven ?Soderbergh’s Mosaic - Inset Stone-H 2018
ISTOCK; Courtesy of HBO

A "branching narrative" platform that lets users dictate how the plot unfolds for Steven Soderbergh's new mini, about the killing of a children's book author, hooked potential viewers starting in November, ahead of the Jan. 22 TV premiere.

Late in 2017, Justine Bateman spent an entire day glued to her phone, desperate to unravel the murder mystery at the center of Mosaic, the new miniseries from Steven Soderbergh — which HBO released in November, months ahead of its Jan. 22 TV premiere, via a free app that lets viewers dictate how the plot unfolds.

"The thing that drove me was the story," says Bateman of the Ed Solomon-penned and Soderbergh-directed project, which centers on the killing of a children's book author (Sharon Stone). All viewers of the "branching narrative" watch the same first clip, but after that they are asked to choose which character they want to follow through the story. By the time they are finished, each viewer will have seen a customized version. Bateman says she found herself compulsively asking "Then what?" at the end of every eight- to 38-minute chapter.

She wasn't the only one. Mosaic became one of the top 30 entertainment apps for iPhone on Nov. 9, the day after its launch, according to App Annie; it garnered 90 million impressions across mobile app stores. Critical response has been mixed, but fans include Tony Gilroy and Activision Blizzard Studios' Stacey Sher, who says it's "for anybody who ever mourned the end of a series and had questions they felt were unanswered about characters that weren't the protagonist — anyone you fall in love with can become the protagonist for you."

"It's an important step," adds Bateman of the app. "Even something as simple as a touchscreen allows you to think about your project in a different way. It gives you another creative level."

Soderbergh, Solomon and executive producer Casey Silver began working on the project in 2013, developing a 500-page script and creating more than seven hours of footage. Not all of the material appears in both the app and the HBO version — six one-hour episodes airing over five consecutive nights. "Steven literally rebuilt from the ground up," Solomon says of the TV version. "We built a new story."

For a network that is accustomed to keeping tight-lipped about Game of Thrones, Mosaic presented a new marketing opportunity ahead of its television premiere. Executives looked for feedback about which characters people were connecting with or storylines they were following, explains HBO Films president Len Amato. "You get a chance to see what rises to the top. That inevitably will influence what light we want to shine on different aspects of the story," he adds. 

Mosaic is no longer among the top 100 entertainment apps for iPhone, but that could change when the miniseries airs — and its model could soon be applied to other projects. "It's something we think has moved the needle a bit and whetted the appetite for more," says HBO Films president Len Amato, adding that there have been discussions about giving other creators a shot at the platform. "Everyone can put their own stamp on it."

Solomon says he, Soderbergh and Silver are just getting started. "The new [branching narrative] that we're working on is by orders of magnitude more complex and utilizes the form in a much more confident way," he says. "Steven often refers to Mosaic as the first version of this form."

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.