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Starz - Interview with CEO Chris Albrecht + new Steven DeKnight pilot

=> Multichannel News : This is the third time Starz has renewed a series before its linear launch. I'm not sure if that's an industry-first, but it's interesting nevertheless. What do you like about Magic City?

Chris Albrecht (former CEO of HBO, current CEO of Starz) : The work that has been done is really good and continues to get better. We love the world, love the cast. Mitch Glazer did a really good job. We've already put together a writing staff for next year. Mitch did all the writing for the first year. We're putting more resources into the show. The work deserves to be supported. One of the benefits of being in premium television is that you don't have a scorecard that's kind of an exit poll and base all your decisions from that. It's emblematic of the brand we're looking to build at Starz. I think people tend to read more into these decisions than there is. We like the work, let's keep going.

=> How does Magic City exemplify the Starz brand?

I like the shows at Starz to take audiences to another world, if you will, to be transported into a place they want to spend time in and come back weekly and watch the show, or all at once on demand. I think it's fun, very theatrical, film-like in the way it looks and the way it's shot. It's very entertaining. We would like our brand to be something that has those consistent elements to it, not necessarily trying to do dark, deep heavy drama or light comedy. We're out to do these cinematic-type shows. All eight first-season episodes of Magic City have been finished. All done, all in.

=> In your remarks about the renewal, you said Magic City has been sold into 70 territories. How important is that consideration for your series and how does that stack up with Spartacus?

The international market is increasingly important as you look to invest more money in programming. These shows are not cheap. The ancillary markets, which in this case are international and home entertainment in the US, those are places we can offset significant portions of the cost of the shows. It's very important that shows be received well internationally. We're off to a good start. Spartacus has been out there longer, so it's in more territories. But we're very confident that Magic City will end up performing at the top rung of how these shows need to perform internationally.

=> How pleased are you with the domestic audience performance of Spartacus and Boss?

We're pleased that people are watching. Spartacus : Vengeance was a risk in a certain respect. We made the decision to not only recast the lead character, but the title. That's fairly unusual in television. We're really happy the audience didn't just stay with us, but came back. We knew going in with Boss that there was going to be a bit of marketing challenge, to tell everybody that it was certainly not about the mayor of Chicago. We got off to a solid start, the episodes were watched a lot on demand. We're looking forward to bringing the show back with more notoriety, now that Kelsey won the Golden Globe and the show was nominated. I think a lot more people are aware of the show. It's always a challenge for a premium network to launch show in 4th quarter when so many other things are launching. It's a very, cluttered environment. We're shooting the 2nd season, it will be on the air sometime in the 3rd quarter.

=> You mentioned marketing. You're doing some interesting things with multiple episodes of Magic City being available across different platforms. How important is sampling for premium cable shows?

It's increasingly challenging to break through all the different noise and messages that are out there with regard to media. The sampling tool which is one that we can use on linear channels, but also one we can open digitally on the Internet is unique. It's something that's been tried for a while with a 1st episode. To my knowledge, no one has done what we're doing with 3 episodes, and in opening it up beyond our affiliates' closed systems and putting it on the open Internet with some pixilation and bleeping of some words. As a premium channel, noise is very important and we think Magic City is a show to get a lot of people talking about Starz and our brand. This is a really good way to get a jump-start and let people know it's out there.

=> What can you say about the development stages for DaVinci's Demons and Marco Polo?

DaVinci's Demons is in preproduction. We're writing, we're casting. We've set a few roles. I think production is scheduled to start in mid-June or beginning of July. I don't remember off the top of my head, I get confused because the dates all move around. It's a big project. We're shooting that in the UK. What's even a tougher task is what Electus and The Weinstein Company have taken on with Marco Polo. We have a team in China right now doing a scout, talking to Chinese production companies there who would be the partners in helping to execute the show. The writing is going great on that. We've hired some casting directors. We're going to start the search for the actors. There are obviously a lot of non-Caucasian roles, a lot of Asian actors.

=> What's going on with Noir, a live-action project based on the Japanese anime series about female assassins?

The production challenges on that just became sort of enormous, so we have hit the pause button on that. We reworking on that because the team (Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert and Josh Donen) went back to work on Spartacus, about to start shooting the new season. We are in a bit of holding pattern on Noir.

=> Is there anything more out of the Torchwood camp? I know you're close with the people there.

Russell Davies is so busy. We're in touch with the BBC all the time. They are our partners on DaVinci's Demons and Harem (Ottoman Empire miniseries). We told them, we stand by ready for any news, but I think it would be a while before Russell came back to Torchwood.

=> Is there a goal to the number of original hours you want to have annually?

We've said we would like to have about 50 hours a year. It would be great to have one new hour of original programming a week. For premiums, the way you program them across the week, across the plexes, and the on-demand platforms, that's a great model for us, for the time being. We're investing in some originals on Encore as well. Obviously, we have the robust movie slate from the exclusive output deals that we have with Sony and Disney as well. The 50-hour goal is one that will we'll sit comfortably at for a while and see if the opportunity comes to do more.

=> You have TV Everywhere deals with Comcast, Dish and AT&T U-verse. Where do you stand with other distributors?

Some of our affiliates have authenticated rights that they have negotiated for with us already. And the affiliates that don't, all seem to be interested. As discussions go on for extensions, renewals, new deals, whatever, certainly there isn't anybody out there that isn't interested in authentication to their own platforms or interested in the Starz authenticated platform we are developing.

=> Starz added 600,000 subscribers in the 4th quarter to finish 2011 with some 19.6 million. Your rivals in the space also did well. So much for cord-cutting in the premium world.

These brands in the premium space are very strong with good companies behind them, investing a lot of money in content. They are talked about a lot. They pull through a lot of other products for the affiliates. Starz, in particular, has a good story to tell because it hasn't been as widely distributed. We're certainly rooting for the premium universe to expand. It would be great to see HBO and Showtime in 35 million homes because we would be close behind. I'm hoping that all of our respective attentions are focused on getting the operators to realize the value and to get behind the marketing these channels. As I have said before, we don't really see competition in that space. We look forward to seeing the whole category grow.

Source : Multichannel News (thanks, Tagne).

Past Starz original programming include :

- Head Case : comedy, 3 seasons (28 episodes), 2007-2009.
- Crash : drama, 2 seasons (26 episodes), 2008-2009.
- Party Down : comedy, 2 seasons (20 episodes), 2009-2010.
- Gravity : dramedy, 1 season (10 episodes), 2010.
- The Pillars of the Earth (miniseries) : historical, 1 season (8 episodes), 2010.
- Camelot : fantasy, 1 season (10 episodes), 2011.
- Torchwood : sci-fi, 1 season (10 episodes), 2011.

Present Starz original programming include :

- Spartacus : action, 3 seasons (29 episodes), 2010- ? : renewed for a 10-episode 4th season (premieres in Jan. 2013).
- Boss : political, 1 season (8 episodes), 2011- ? : renewed for a 10-episode 2nd season (premieres in August 2012).
- Magic City : drama, 1 season (8 episodes), 2012- ? : renewed for a 10-episode 2nd season (premieres in Spring 2013).

And future Starz original programming may include :

- Da Vinci's Demons : production will start this Summer in the UK with Tom Riley as the lead. Premieres in mid-2013.
- Marco Polo : they're scouting in China for production partners, they hired casting directors. Not until late 2013.
- Harem (miniseries) : in development stage. Nothing is done so far. Not until early 2014.
- Noir : on hold. The creative team behind the project is back working on the new season of Spartacus. Not until 2014.

And will future programming also feature a new Steven S. DeKnight series ? Writer on seasons 5 & 6 of Buffy (2001-2002), seasons 4 & 5 of Angel (2002-2004), seasons 4, 5 & 6 of Smallville (2004-2007) and season 1 of Dollhouse (2009), the Spartacus creator/showrunner/executive producer has written an "epic, mind-blowing pilot" (his words), expected to hit the air in 2014 if Starz chooses to pick it up to series (but I imagine it would hard for them to say "no" to DeKnight, who put them on the map (of original series on premium cable) with the huge success of Spartacus).


The Futon Critic reports that Laura Haddock (Samantha in How Not to Live your Life) got the part of Lucrezia Donati in Da Vinci's Demons. She joins Tom Riley who plays the famous painter. Filming of this upcoming drama series from David S. Goyer (Blade, FlashForward, Ghost Rider II) begins in Wales this July. It will premiere on Starz in mid-2013 (at best).

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