EXCLUSIVE: With screenings and premieres all over the schedule, 2016 looks to become the year that the Sundance Film Festival becomes the Sundance Film & TV Festival. One of the big small-screen players this year is Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience, which will have its world debut Saturday at Park City’s Egyptian Theatre. After only having been seen once at TCA last week, check out the trailer above for the 13-episode Riley Keough-starring series based on Steven Soderbergh’s film of the same name – a pic that premiered at Sundance in 2009.
With the series set to launch April 10, Starz has set for Saturday a four-episode screening of the show directed by Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan and exec produced by Soderbergh. Before heading to this year’s Sundance, Starz CEO Chris Albrecht chatted with me about bringing TGE to the fest, working again with Soderbergh ,and rolling out the series all at once on some platforms.
DEADLINE: So how did The Girlfriend Experience end up making its and Starz’s debut at Sundance?
ALBRECHT: Well, we were invited, and it certainly was a first for us. Even when I was at HBO, we never got asked to do series there. We did some documentaries and some HBO films there. But this was an opportunity to have a first experience with premiering a series at Sundance, and, with Steven Soderbergh being sort of the father of the modern indie movement, if you will, Girlfriend Experience seemed like the perfect project. So we were flattered that they were interested.
Look, I’m excited. I haven’t been to Sundance in years, and this is the perfect way to go back, and I think a perfect intro for Starz, and an interesting format for our brand, and interesting venue for our brand.
DEADLINE: Obviously, Girlfriend Experience the movie made its debut at Sundance back in 2009, but what made you take this one on as Starz’s big show for 2016?
ALBRECHT: You know, it was really Steven’s belief in this. I had a chance to work with Steven on K Street at HBO in 2003. He and [George] Clooney were executive producers on that show and I loved the experience. I’d always wanted to do something else with him. He said last year, so, I got something perfect for you. He came in and talked about it. Steven was like, hey, give us the money. You got to trust me, which is not something you wouldn’t do with a lot of people, but you would do with Steven Soderbergh. Having his vision be the real indie approach, picking Lodge and Amy, and then choosing Riley, who is astonishing in this, so the fact that we got invited to Sundance just seemed consistent with the whole vision of the project from the beginning.
DEADLINE: Unusual for a drama, each episode of The Girlfriend Experience is around 30 minutes long. Was that a creative decision or a programming one?
ALBRECHT: Steven didn’t give us the episodes one at a time. He said I’m going to edit it like a movie, and I’m going to give you all the episodes. So the story is told over the six and a half hours, and I think the half-hour format is one of the reasons why, when you finish the first one, you go, I’ve got to watch the second one. Although there is a really strong narrative all the way through, this is almost like little slices of this young woman’s experience that just build, and build, and build, and build. So instead of having to craft within each episode a complicated story, the story is really told as pretty much one person’s story.
DEADLINE: Now, Girlfriend Experience will debut at Sundance, then it will air in April, but you are putting all 13 episodes up on your Starz Play and Starz On Demand platform from Week 1. Why?
ALBRECHT: What we’re doing is we’re highlighting the unique features of premium, which is different than streaming and different than broadcast of ad-supported basic. So we have all these platforms happy to program it for you. We have this On Demand platform, and we have the authenticated Starz Play platforms. So what we’re doing by doing it this way is we’re saying we are enhancing your ability to enjoy all these different platforms, and I think we’re pointing out some of the great features that make premiums distinctive, not just the programming, but how you get to access the programming.
It was my own experience of the show, when Steven delivered the episodes, which is what gave me the binge idea for this. On a Friday night, I get all the episodes, and I get up the next morning, and I think, all right, I’ll watch two or three and then I’ll go to lunch. Then I’ll watch a few more, and I’ll finish them up on Sunday. I started to watch it. Literally six and a half hours later, I was starving, but I couldn’t stop, and I just was so excited about what I had seen. And look, excitement is still something that feels pretty good when you get to feel it at work especially.
DEADLINE: You guys have put a lot of work with series like Outlander and others getting traction with women as a primary demographic, but a lot of people could see Girlfriend Experience as being aimed at a male demo. Are you worried, especially because of the sexual content, that there may be confusion as to who the show is for or even a backlash?
ALBRECHT: I’m not anticipating backlash. I think Steven and the filmmakers and Riley herself were very articulate at TCA that there’s no editorializing here. This is a view into the world of primarily one woman’s experience. So I think this indie film tone is something that suits this very well because it is that kind of subject matter.
Look, you can never tell, but I think the series speaks for itself. I think the intention from the beginning was to take a non-editorialized look at what could be a controversial subject and just present it out there for the audience to view and make their own choices. And, in the middle of it is great filmmaking and in my mind, an extraordinary, astonishing, brave performance by this young actress.