EXCLUSIVE: Cinemax is recalibrating its original programming strategy, returning to the type of fare that launched its push into original primetime series: fun, high-octane, action, pulpy, straight-to-series dramas done in a cost-effective way primarily as international co-productions.
It is fitting that one of the first series under the new model is a reboot of the action drama that started Cinemax’s foray into original series, Strike Back. The network is reteaming with UK’s Sky to co-produce a new season of the action franchise with a new cast and characters. Also part of the new initiative is the recently picked-up limited series Rellik, a co-production with the BBC. While going forward, most of Cinemax’s original drama series will be lower-cost co-productions in the action/thriller genre, the network also plans to do some homegrown series, with current pilot order Warrior, a crime drama based on original material written by Bruce Lee, being considered for that. Additionally, Cinemax is in preliminary conversations about importing international action and martial arts shows and could consider half-hour comedies if they are cost-effective and on-brand.
Back in 2010, when HBO miniseries and Cinemax programming president Kary Antholis was tasked with giving Cinemax — then known largely as “Skinemax” for its late-night adult programming — a new original-programming identity, he and his team looked at the ratings for the theatrical movies Cinemax was playing in primetime. Not surprisingly for a network whose audience is largely male, with 60% being men over age 30 — they discovered that “high-octane, combat-oriented action pieces with big production values drove the ratings on the service in primetime,” Antholis said. So they set out to find shows in those genres with a similar look that they could do on a cost-effective basis.
British series Strike Back, starring Richard Armitage and Andrew Lincoln, had just finished its six-episode first season on Sky, which was planning to bring it back for a 10-episode second season. Antholis met with Sky executives and series executive producer, Andy Harries. “We liked the original Strike Back, but we wanted a bit more fun to it, less grounded, less somber,” Antholis said. “We wanted more production value to it, and we wanted an American character as a co-lead, and for that, we would bring additional resources so they could put more money on the screen.” Sky and Harrias were game, and Strike Back, starring Sullivan Stapleton and Philip Winchester, was picked up as co-production with Frank Spotnitz as showrunner, airing for four seasons and setting a template for a Cinemax original series.
It was followed by Spotnitz’s Hunted, with the BBC, which worked for Cinemax but not for the UK broadcaster, which opted not to renew it for a second season. Cinemax also picked up another international action series, Transporter, but didn’t go through with it after its production was plagued by setbacks.
The network changed gears in 2012 with a series order to a homegrown, more expensive drama series, Banshee, executive produced by one of HBO’s top creators, Alan Ball. It became a breakout hit and a game-changer.
“The idea going into this was that we would initially do these high-octane, cinematic shows at a price, and the way that we got to that price largely was by doing co-productions,” Antholis said. “What we discovered in doing Banshee was that we could increase our audience with the right kind of show. In other words, Strike Back and Hunted hit a certain audience level, but then Banshee took that to a substantially higher ratings number.”
Banshee was followed by another higher-end, homegrown drama, Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick starring Clive Owen, as well as Robert Kirkman’s Outcast and, most recently Quarry, which premiered this fall. “I have to say right now, The Knick is one of the most rewarding creative experiences of my career,” Antholis said. “Critics loved the show, and I can’t tell you how many studio executives around town have told me it’s their favorite show on television, but it did not find an audience at the level that Banshee did. Even though in terms of an HBO show, The Knick is a modestly priced show, in terms of a Cinemax show, it started to throw our budget out of whack.”
When Casey Bloys took the top HBO programming job in May, the programming strategy of Cinemax already was being re-evaluated. “Casey and I discussed the direction of Cinemax and agreed that the brand should return to what we were doing in the first place, which was cost-effective programming, often co-productions, adrenalized, pulpy material that has a real fun factor. The comment that I get most often about shows like Banshee and Strike Back is that they are fun, and people call them their popcorn or their candy on a Friday night.”
Antholis and his team found a script, Rellik, for a six-episode serial killer limited series from The Missing team of creators Harry and Jack Williams and New Pictures. “We were blown away by it,” Antholis said. “We felt it was fresh, we felt it was intense. It’s not a full return to the pulp of a show like Banshee or the adrenaline of a show like Strike Back, it’s more in the Hunted kind of area of an intense thriller that is propulsive and deeply involving.”
Cinemax then was approached by Harries about teaming with Sky on a Strike Back reboot that updates the franchise, which originally was inspired by 1980s action movies like Lethal Weapon, Die Hard and Rambo and dealt largely with the the remnants of Al-Qaeda. The new series, which will star Alin Sumarwata, Daniel MacPherson, Roxanne McKee and Warren Brown, takes inspiration from the diverse ensemble action movies of the 2000s and beyond, like the Fast and Furious franchise, and it is expected to reflect the global war on terror, informed by the rise of ISIS. “We found this really great core team of actors that I think are going to re-energize that franchise,” Antholis said.
How will these shows be incorporated into the new Cinemax strategy? “Ideally, we’d love to be doing four shows a year at least to begin with, and I would imagine that, at least initially, three of those would be co-productions or very cost-effective and one will be the kind of a marquee show with a Banshee-level of budget for the year, a homegrown project that we can tailor to what we think our audience wants and enjoys.”
Strike Back and Rellik will be two of the co-productions, with Cinemax in talks on other lower-cost action/thriller dramas with international partners. The network also plans to launch a new brand campaign around the debut of Strike Back in early 2018. Meanwhile, Warrior, which Cinemax ordered to pilot, is eyed for a potential straight-to-series order to fill the tentpole spot in the inaugural slate. It is written/executive produced by Banshee co-creator Jonathan Tropper based on original material by the late martial arts icon Bruce Lee. The Fast & Furious helmer Justin Lin executive produces with Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee. “It will be a very pulpy, fun, adrenalized, martial arts show,” Antholis said.
Since entering the original programming arena, Cinemax has done only two pilots, Outcast and Quarry, and going forward, it is expected to bypass the pilot stage to go straight-to-series. “It is a much more cost-effective way of doing things, and it does fit into this notion of running a frugal and value-oriented production slate,” Antholis said.
What will be the future of Outcast, renewed for a second season, and how will the horror drama, which struggled to find traction with viewers in Season 1, fit into the new Cinemax? “We’re going to see if we can grow its audience,” Antholis said. “I think part of the lesson there is that we assumed we could find Kirkman’s audience in our Cinemax audience, but we have to find better ways of doing that. We tried to guide the upcoming second season towards being more adrenalized. We love working with Robert and with Chris (Black) and with Dave Alpert, and we’re going to try to find a way to make it fit into this new plan.”
Could there be half-hour comedy series on Cinemax? “Well, yes, I’m open to half-hours, but we’ve got to be able to do them at a price,” Antholis said. “So I would be open to co-productions, particularly with the UK or Australian English-language co-productions, that are on brand. I’ve often said there’s one half-hour out there that felt like was an on-brand Cinemax show, HBO’s Eastbound & Down, and if we can find cost-effective ways of doing that — find, for example, whoever the next, cutting-edge Ali G is — I’m open to that. I think that kind of in-your-face humor is on brand for Cinemax.”