In a year without The Sopranos, the buzz about HBO seems slightly muted. That should end next month when the premium channel debuts its $60 million six-hour "movie event" Angels in America, an adaptation of Tony Kushner's powerful Pulitzer Prize-winning play that tackles issues of AIDS, religion and relationships.
Set in the 1980s, Angels in America
is HBO's latest creative gamble and boasts a cast that includes Al Pacino, Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson.
The production premieres in two three-hour parts on Dec. 7 and Dec. 14. HBO will also air the movie as a marathon six-hour run and in individual one-hour episodes.
Following Angels, HBO marches into 2004 with a blockbuster lineup that does
include Tony Soprano, plus the last eight episodes of Sex and the City
and the fourth season of cult comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm.
In March, The Sopranos
will serve as a lead-in for new Western drama Deadwood
from producer David Milch.
For summer, there will be a fresh season of Six Feet Under. All of that should turn up the buzz volume.
HBO has some worries. Its Emmy winners are entering their twilight (Sex
is ending its six-season run, and The Sopranos
will start its sixth season in 2005 or 2006), and HBO is under pressure to find its next generation of hits. The pay service, which counts about 32 million subscribers, is a big business for parent Time Warner, generating $2 billion in revenue last year.
Says Carolyn Strauss, executive vice president of original programming, "We have to dance with the one that brought us here." That means, she explains, "we have to stay open to the good ideas and the people that can execute them. That's what brought us Sopranos, Sex and the City, Six Feet Under."
When The Larry Sanders Show
finished its run, HBO execs like to point out, critics said the network was in trouble. Then came its current string of A-list shows.
Strauss points to up-and-comers like The Wire, recently signed for a third season, and this fall's Carnivale. She also has high hopes for Deadwood, and
HBO and the BBC are partnering on new series Rome
Pilots for two comedies are in the works: $5.15 an Hour, about a crew of restaurant workers, and Entourage, executive-produced by Mark Wahlberg, centers on a movie star and his followers. With period pieces Carnivale, Deadwood
and Rome, Strauss said she's looking to add some contemporary series now.
Of course, like any network, HBO has its stumbles. It scrapped two dramas earlier this year: Baseball Wives, from Oz
creator Tom Fontana, and Marriage, from Steven Bochco. What went wrong, Strauss says, is fairly common in television. "For a good idea to turn into good television, the stars really need to be aligned." These shows, she said, were missing that magic.
Producers, of course, like the nurturing. "Nobody is telling us we need to build the show in terms of numbers. We need to grow in content and meaning," says The Wire
creator and executive producer David Simon. "It is all about what story do you want to tell."
That HBO takes a shot at shows networks would run from is a "revelation," says Milch, whose credits include writing for Hill Street Blues
and producing NYPD Blue. At other networks, "every step of the way they ask you to justify your vision in terms of the commercial appeal." At HBO, Milch says, executives "don't want to see any fear."
That formula extends to HBO movies, too. HBO is lavishing $10 million per hour on the ambitious Angels in America. Broadcast networks, in contrast, might spend that much on an entire miniseries. With Angels, "there is enormous scope," says Senior Vice President of Movies Keri Putnam, noting the series' stars, direction and large-scale production. "If we believe in a project and think it has a place on the network, we'll support it."
Other big movies in line for next year include Iron Jawed Angels, about the women's suffrage movement; The Life and Death of Peter Sellers; a biopic of British actor Roger Lewis starring Geoffrey Rush; and Strip Search, a contemporary drama starring Glenn Close and Maggie Gyllenhaal.
Like HBO's series, its original movies aim to be distinct from mainstream offerings. "We try to bring a very distinctive voice," says Putnam. "So it doesn't feel like it has been put through the mass convention of the studio system and watered down."