Sue Naegle's New Recipe for HBO
WHO: Sue Naegle, President of Entertainment, HBO
WHERE: Le Pain Quotidien, Studio City, Calif.
WHEN: April 2009
THE DISH: It’s just a few weeks shy of a year since Sue Naegle made her big career shift when we meet for breakfast at the casual, quiet Le Pain Quotidien in Studio City. She left her 16-year stint at talent agency UTA to become president of entertainment at HBO on May 1, 2008, and the results of her first bit of development for the pay-TV network are now rolling in. At the same time, she’s also entering her second period of pilot production.
“After going through it in the fall, I feel better about doing it,” she tells me over breakfast in early April.
But the pressure is on. The executive trio of CEO Bill Nelson and HBO co-Presidents Richard Plepler and Eric Kessler took over the network in 2007 after former chairman Chris Albrecht was ousted. Michael Lombardo took over the programming group at that time. They took a gamble by installing an agent with no programming or development jobs on her resume to rejuvenate the programming lineup.
Her bar is as high as that of any executive, as success at HBO is measured by much loftier standards after hits like The Sopranos and Sex and the City made it one of the top creative places in television. Naegle hopes pouring more time and money into more pilots than ever will help HBO get its mojo back.
Naegle is taking a, pardon the expression, big shot with the first series developed entirely under her aegis, dramatic comedy Hung, about an unusually well-endowed schoolteacher-turned-male prostitute. (See trailer below) Call it the former agent’s debut HBO “package.” It premieres in July alongside new seasons of sophomore True Blood and veteran Entourage. Her second and third entries, comedies Bored to Death and How to Make It in America, are slated to debut in the fall and 2010, respectively.
After slugging out the often-frustrating broadcast development cycle for years as an agent, Naegle quickly employed a process at HBO for creating series that diverges both from how the broadcast networks do it and how HBO has developed in the past.
“I did have the feeling what the company needed to do to right the ship required money,” she says. “There hadn’t been enough in the pipeline, and there wasn’t enough choice. So [failed series] John From Cincinnati comes along, and you just have to put it on the air. That went right to series; they didn’t even pilot it.”
The new regime was committed to ramping up development when Naegle arrived, and she wasted no time executing on the strategy, getting an unprecedented number of projects rolling at the company.
“We needed some choices,” she points out. “In the past they would make a pilot, then pick it up and wait to try something new. It resulted in some amazing shows, but also left the pipeline empty and too much pressure on certain shows to work. To have so much pressure on something to go to series was not what I thought was an ideal way to work.”
The broadcast development process is one thing Naegle doesn’t seem to miss — at all. “The last few years of me being an agent,” she says, “I would have that sick feeling in my stomach of, ‘I don’t know if this is going to find its way through this maze. I don’t think I can find my way through the maze. I don’t think the people running these places can find their way through the mazes.’”
“Now all I have to worry about is how to make HBO work,” she says. “And that is a great feeling.”
VIDEO: All about Hung.
She’s confident the new regime’s new ways of doing things will return HBO to glory. “We have all the right ingredients to make great TV,” she says.
That includes patience. As we dine at the beginning of April, filming is wrapping on the pilot Treme, a heavily researched post-Katrina New Orleans drama from The Wire creator David Simon. Naegle has scripts for several additional episodes in hand and expects the show will go into production as a series this fall. But it’s not ordered yet.
Nor is there a series order for Boardwalk Empire, the 1920s-era drama written by Terence Winter (Sopranos) and directed by Martin Scorsese, the pilot for which will start rolling in late May. Or Game of Thrones, a fantastical drama based on the George R.R. Martin books. She’s also piloting a fourth project, comedy The Wonderful Maladys, between now and the fall and “may go into production on others,” she says. “They’re moving as if they’re moving into series.”
However, going forward on these projects will be a deliberate, collaborative process. There will be a period of time for each project to get the pilot right. “If we need to edit, make changes, reshoot anything, we want to have time for all of us to tinker,” she explains. “It’s not just for us, it’s for them [the creators]. We’re in it together, to make sure it’s working. It’s not at all because we need Terry Winter or David Simon to pass some test; it’s more that we want to be very careful about being smart with money and production and making sure we’re prepared.”
After production snafus with Rome and what by most accounts was a premature birth for John From Cincinnati, HBO is avoiding mad dashes to the screen. Treme, for example, has to shoot around hurricane season in New Orleans.
Naegle has been assembling her series slate with an eye toward offering something for everybody who watches HBO, she says. Her first three comedies-Bored to Death, with Jason Schwartzman and Ted Danson, How to Make It in America and Hung, starring Thomas Jane-all have male leads, though she sees Hung as having a lot of appeal for women viewers as well. Wonderful Maladys, starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, is a family comedy about siblings.
So the one thing Naegle wants to find is “a good girl show. I’d love to find not a new Sex and the City, but a show that has the same kind of appeal, the same strong loyalty audience. I used to get together with my girlfriends to watch the show. I’d love to have a show that has the same sort of experience.”
VIDEO: More on what Naegle is looking for at HBO.
She says her first year has been far better than expected, even though the learning curve was “straight up.” She discovered when she got to HBO that the network was already in business with several people she had long wished to work with: “It was like walking into a house with a bunch of clothes already there for you to try on.”
DINED ON: When the HBO opportunity popped up, Naegle’s husband told her: “Sometimes when you look to the left and you see an open door you just have to walk through it.”
“But I’m resistant to change!” she told him. “I come to the same restaurant and have the same meal, wake up at the same time every day. I’m very regimented about certain things and thought, I’m not going to change my job, that’s crazy. I’ve been doing this for a long time, what if it doesn’t work? These jobs have a shelf life.”
That same restaurant and same meal is oatmeal with berries, a soft-boiled egg and mint chamomile iced tea at Le Pain Quotidien, the Belgian food chain with shared tables. (We sit at our own, which she says is the size of the model for the boardwalk set of Boardwalk Empire.)
She says she likes this spot since it’s quiet, parking is easy, the food is good and it’s near home in Studio City. She’s from New Jersey originally, but her whole family now lives within blocks of each other in the area.
Naegle doesn’t generally like chain restaurants, and is a self-described “food snob.” Most of the time she’d rather do the cooking herself. She knows what she’s doing in a kitchen. Most of her jobs before landing a gig in the UTA mail room years ago were in food service. Among them, she was as a waitress at Marie Callendar’s. Another job often had her baking cookies and brownies through the night.
The valley has its charms, she says, but finding great restaurants is generally a challenge. She’s knows what she likes and holds out for it. “I’m willing to stand online for the best taco truck. But it’s got to be for the A taco. Not the B or C taco,” she says.
Now that she is no longer in the broadcast TV game, she still watches a ton of television but watches religiously the most “well-made” stuff. “I can watch broadcast shows and enjoy them and I do. I watch a lot of TV, I love it,” she says. “But I can watch selectively. Much like I am with my food!”
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