House of Cards is the next stage in an original content drive that has already yielded Netflix Lillyhammer and an upcoming reboot of Arrested Development. House of Cards, however, sets a new bar in terms of series that will launch on the internet by being the most star-laden and most expensive ever. Over the two series ordered, the total budget for the MRC-produced show is significantly north of the US$100 million widely quoted, according to insiders.
If pay TV and broadcast TV were already concerned about the advance of OTT services that could take their customers and eyeballs, the fact that David Fincher, Beau Willimon and Kevin Spacey’s first move into ‘TV’ was for a streaming service will not allay any fears.
But were the cast and crew mindful that one of the most ambitious pieces of small-screen content ever was ostensibly a web series? “It seems to be the direction it’s going in,” Spacey told TBI ahead of the series launch. “People are, for whatever reason, consuming large chunks of stories and plotlines [at once] and getting really involved in these big story arcs.”
Steve Van Zandt (Lillyhammer, The Sopranos) says that he was taken aback when he realised Netflix was releasing Lillyhammer all at once, after he had spent months working on it. Netflix has not hedged its bets with House of Cards, despite the bigger budget and profile and released thirteen episodes across North and Latin America, Scandinavia and the UK and Ireland on February 1.
Spacey says: “I had the experience of working on a film called Margin Call, which was one of the first to be released on DVD and in movie theatres at the same time and it did very well in both places. This is now one of the first series ever that will give out the entire first season in one day and maybe the film and television industry is learning the lesson the music industry didn’t.”
Spacey and the show’s writer Beau Willimon agree that part of the attraction was that House of Cards was not commissioned or run in the way a regular series would be: there was no pilot, an unprecedented straight-to-two-series order and no notes from channel execs, giving the producers and actors free reign. Netflix also offered the most money.
“It’s not the first time I’ve been offered TV and not the first time David has been offered TV, but for whatever reason we both waited and that was because maybe we were a bit nervous about the confines of some kinds of television,” Spacey says. “It seemed like this was the right moment and Netflix stepping up and outbidding everybody and saying ‘we believe in you guys and you don’t have to audition and do a pilot, but here’s 26 episodes’. We were like, ok, that’s pretty awesome.”
Willimon had not seen the original BBC show three years ago when David Fincher asked to see him about a remaking it. “Then I watched it and I could see the opportunity to Americanise it and update it,” he says. “It’s a different political system in the US and a lot has changed since the original including 9/11, the internet becoming mainstream and the 24-hour news cycle.”
He wanted to retain elements of the original, but not make a slavish copy. “I don’t want it to be a direct parallel; that can end up becoming distracting,” he says.
Spacey adds: “As we’ve been working on it, writing, shaping and moving it and in a sense using the British series as a launching pad, we’re going to go off in all different kinds of directions.”
One element of the original retained is the lead character directly addressing the audience, which has the effect of making the viewer an accomplice to Frank’s often dastardly actions. Spacey says a recent ten-month stint as Richard in Sam Mendes’ Richard III helped.
“You were specifically taking to the audience [in the play] and looking in people’s eyes and making them your co-conspirators and you see a kind of glee and relish and that they feel they are involved in something no-one else is involved in,” he says. “In the TV series the audience become the person Frank shares the most with, who he trusts the most and is willing to reveal himself to in ways he wouldn’t do to even his wife [played by Robin Wright].”
Rather than being the aristocratic Conservative, Francis Urquhart, in the UK version, Frank Underwood is on the left of the political divide in the US interpretation. Having the lead character as a middle-of-the-road Democrat avoided a sense that Liberal Hollywood was Republican-bashing, Willimon says.
Although made for Netflix, several pay and regular TV broadcasters have prebought the series. TBI was the first to report that Sky Deutschland (Germany), Canal+ (Spain) and Zon (Portugal), among others, have acquired the show from its distributor Sony Pictures Television. Canal+ in France had already announced it had struck a deal with SPT for the series.
Netflix will not recoup the huge investment directly in new customers. Some industry-watchers argue the money would have been better spent on getting a greater range of newer content. Whether it does represent value for money is a moot point and the debate about the sustainability of Netflix’s business model will continue among investors and analysts. But as Netflix faces increased competition in the US from Amazon, HBO Go and a host of others, House of Cards has given it a fantastic marketing hook, which was fully exploited in a widespread advertising campaign.
The creatives attached certainly like the model.
“We never saw it as ‘TV’ or ‘streaming’,” Willimon says: “People have been conditioned to thinking TV shows are an hour or half an hour and come once a week, but the distinction between TV and internet [shows] will fall away in the next few years. Netflix is allowing people to uncondition themselves: the idea of ‘seasons’ and ‘episodes’ and what is ‘TV’ and ‘film’ are blurring, in a good way. When you have that amount of creative freedom you actually feel there is a great responsibility on your shoulders to be bold and take risks and do things that on another show wouldn’t get past the first round of network executives. It’s a good business model because it will attract the best talent.”
The show is being well received critically although Netflix has yet to release any information about how many new customers it hauled in or how many of its existing customers have watched it. Both will help determine whether Frank Underwood et-al get another outing.
“Whether it’s Veep, Homeland or The West Wing — which is a more idealised version of democracy — people everywhere are fascinated by politics and people are fascinated by American politics, it’s fertile ground.” Spacey says: “At the moment don’t know if there will be a third season, but we’re open to it.”