Is Epix ready to commit to a scripted series order? That is what creative types have been pondering in the past few days, following the demise of the fledging premium cable channel/broadband service’s first scripted pilot Tough Trade. It was groomed to be Epix’s first original scripted series. But 20 months after originally greenlighting it, Epix, a partnership of Lionsgate, Viacom and MGM, has pulled the plug on the project. The show, created by Chris Offutt and produced by Lionsgate TV, revolved around three generations of a Nashvile music dynasty and starred Sam Shepard, Trace Adkins, Cary Elwes, Lucas Black and Joey Lauren Adams. The project, which was once set up at TNT, also boasted big names behind the camera: Weeds creator Jenji Kohan was executive producer/showrunner, Gavin Hood directed the pilot, T-Bone Burnett served as executive musical producer, and Sean and Bryan Furst also executive produced.
Originally, Epix brass had said that they expected Tough Trade to premiere as a series in 2010. The project, whose pilot was shot 9 months ago, appeared on track with an order for 4 more scripts and an extension of the actors’ options. The pilot, which was recut several times, was reportedly screened around the country and did well. But then last Thursday, Epix officially passed on it. According to Epix CEO Mark Greenberg, the network’s executives spent a long time trying to fix what they considered some flaws in the pilot, including possibly recasting some roles, and worked on the additional scripts but faced a number of challenges, including Kohan’s unavailability as she’s been busy with her long-running Showtime series Weeds. “It was a combination of running out of time and dealing with distractions, and at some point we had to make a decision whether it works or it doesn’t,” he said. “At the end of day, it just didn’t work.” FX’s recent pilot order to similarly-themed drama Outlaw Country had nothing to do with the decision to pull the plug on Tough Trade, Greenberg said, adding that the network and producer Lionsgate TV are considering retooling the Tough Trade pilot into a mini-series.
Whether or not Tough Trade makes it on the air in some shape or form, Epix’s decision to scrap the series is raising questions in the scripted circles. “The overarching issue is that as a network, Epix is not ready to make series orders yet,” one person said. “This sends the wrong signal to the development community that they are not capable to pick things up.” Greenberg countered that Epix fully intends to pick up a scripted series though he admitted that there are no immediate plans for other pilot or series production orders. He also stressed that EVP of original programming and development Laverne McKinnon will continue to build a development slate or series and minis, which already includes a potential comedy series from Larry Charles and a drama from Oliver Stone. Epix, whose current original programming portfolio is comprised by documentaries, concert and comedy specials, is now available in 30 million homes through carriage deals with Verizon FiOS, Cox Communications, Dish Network, Charter Communications and Mediacom, as well as a groundbreaking but controversial distribution pact with Netflix. Epix is yet to strike pacts with the top two cable operators Comcast and Time Warner Cable as well as with satcaster DirecTV. Direct TV and TWC executives have expressed reservations about adding the new channel to their lineups, especially following its deal with Netflix that allows Epix movies to stream on Netflix 90 days after they debut on traditional premium TV. Speaking at MIPCOM today, Lionsgate CEO Jon Feltheimer suggested that the length of the window may be tweaked while also touting Epix as a success story. “Epix is working,” he said. “It has achieved one of the fastest accelerations from startup to profitability of any channel in history — profitable after only 10 months of operation”.