HBO opens its doors to A-listers

plepler_richard2_04Richard Plepler is co-presidents of HBO, the US-based cable channel operator and programmer that is responsible for some of the biggest shows on TV. Building on previous hit series including The Sopranos and Sex and The City, and ongoing franchises like True Blood and Entourage, the Time Warner-backed company has recently brought in a raft of Hollywood royalty to work on TV series, in many cases for the first time. Plepler talks to TBI about attracting Hollywood’s A-list to HBO

Boardwalk Empire had a pilot from Martin Scorsese, Al Pacino was in You Don’t Know Jack, Dustin Hoffman will star in Luck and Kate Winslett in Mildred Pierce – has there been a concerted effort to bring in more A-listers, talent that we’re more used to seeing on the big screen?

I think when Mike Lombardo and I, along with [HBO CEO] Bill Nelson and Eric [Kessler], assumed the privilege of our positions three years ago we were determined to open the window as wide as we possibly could, to bring in the very best talent behind and in front of the camera.

At that time the studios were starting to do more tentpoles and the networks started concentrating more on reality TV. A lot of talent was excited about taking on a canvas like HBO and our job is to create an environment that nurtures that.

Look at something like [upcoming miniseries] Mildred Pierce with Kate Winslet, Guy Pearce, Evan Rachel Wood and all of the talent that makes up a project like that – there are very few places that can do that. Temple Grandin, The Special Relationship with Hope Davis and Dennis Quaid, Barry Levinson and Pacino and Sarandon (in You Don’t Know Jack) – there’s an extraordinary array of talent.

We reached out to talent as widely as we could. Then we had the good fortune that they came through the door.

Boardwalk Empire has created a lot of buzz, what’s the back story?
Boardwalk Empire came about because Stephen Levinson and Mark Wahlberg optioned the book and took it to Ari Emanuel at William Morris Endeavor and then an extraordinary compendium of talent came together.

A-list talent and series with this kind of ambition do not come cheap. Is producing series of this magnitude a sustainable business?

One of the most important things is to be the first port of call for talent – there are a lot of ideas out there and we want to make sure talent thinks of us first.

It really becomes an exciting creative process and we have the business model to support that. We own our programming and that gives us the opportunity to net down some of the cost, in the business of international sales and DVD sales.

We believe if you invest in quality it becomes manifest in the brand. If you continue to invest in the brand you can monetise that, which is why we have such a vibrant business.

In an era of escalating budgets, especially in drama, coproduction is becoming the norm. Meanwhile, you seem to eschew that model and are determined to control all aspects of your programming.
It’s not about control. We believe we have the formula for our growth, particularly with all of the new methods of distributing content, but we’re always open to relationships with good partners.

You’ve mentioned the plan you set out when you and the other executives running HBO met a few years ago. What is the plan for the next three years?
Our desire was to have, for 52 Sundays a year, something new for our subscriber. Now for the first time we can say there are 52 Sundays of original programming. We can work from there.

First of all we want to focus on the franchises we have built, Boardwalk Empire, True Blood, Luck. These are the franchises we asked for and wanted and now we have to take care of them and continue to develop new ones.

Some people like Curb Your Enthusiasm, for some its Entourage, for some of the younger ones its Eastbound and Down. We remember there are a lot of claims on people’s leisure time and that we need the passion and engagement of different types of subscriber.