Last September, HBO made a rare sweep of the top series categories at the Primetime Emmy Awards, with Game of Thrones winning best drama and Veep winning best comedy. Soon after that, Michael Lombardo started to contemplate an exit from the job as president of programming of HBO that he had held for eight years.
“It was a great time because winning the Emmys had been an enormous achievement in terms of what we have done,” he said in an interview with Deadline.
Besides the fact that it would be hard for him to top the Emmy achievement, Lombardo started to question his career path.
“I recognized that going forward, less and less of my time would be spent developing shows, that I would be spending less and less time with talent and more and more of my job is being a studio executive.” That involves “spending most of my day managing people, putting out fires and doing what being a corporate executive means.”
That was not what he wanted. “I had gotten a taste of being a creative executive, and I was feeling a desire to do more of that, but I am too far up the totem pole to be able to spend time with a writer and help crack a script.”
Lombardo admits the decision wasn’t easy. “I’m not someone who has had a lot of career changes in life. As someone who started as a lawyer and business affairs executive, I got to develop as a programming executive, someone who works with talent, which is a blessing. I would’ve never imagined that I would enjoy it, be competent at it and want to do more of.”
He approached HBO chairman Richard Plepler, and the two started conversations.
“What I needed to do was make sure there is a team in place that is pretty airtight,” Lombardo said. “We made changes in sports and the drama team.”
In December, Peter Nelson was named head of HBO Sports. In January, HBO’s head of drama Michael Ellenberg departed, with head of comedy Casey Bloys taking over comedy and drama. (He is now poised to succeed Lombardo.)
Lombardo would not comment on his successor, saying that it would be Plepler’s decision to make, but he noted that “the plan was always to have a team that can take over.” He added that “there are great executives, and I think Casey is a really talented executive.”
With a team in place, Lombardo started to work on his exit plan. The timing hasn’t been worked out yet, with the initial idea being for Lombardo to stay until the end of the year and help with the transition. With his pending departure now public, the timeline probably will be accelerated.
Lombardo began figuring out the specifics of his next gig about a month ago. No deal has been hammered out yet, but it is expected to be a producing agreement (likely with a consulting aspect to it) that would allow him to produce projects “for HBO and hopefully with HBO for third parties,” Lombardo said.
He called the setup, in which “we figured out an exciting way to continue my relationship with HBO,” a “dream.” “I love the HBO brand, and I believe in it,” he said.
Lombardo said that as a producer he would gladly join a project he had worked on as an executive but only if asked. “The last thing I want to do is force my way into a show filled with competent producers,” he said.
In addition to the two series Emmys last fall, Lombardo singles out two high points in his career at HBO. First was the unexpectedly big launch for vampire drama True Blood just after he had taken the reins of programming, which energized everyone. And the second was sitting down with Todd Haynes, whom Lombardo calls his favorite filmmaker. Haynes wrote and directed the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce.
“That’s when I got the bug to be in a room with a talented creator and help execute their vision,” Lombardo said. “It was an incredible high for me as a man and an executive.”
As for lows, Lombardo said they are inevitable in his job. He admits there has been “a string of disappointments,” pilots that he and his team thought should work and didn’t and left him with “a sense of failing” and wondering whether tweaking a script or a cut could’ve saved a project.
Did the rough times HBO recently had with some drama projects, including the difficulties getting a show with David Fincher off the ground, with his drama Utopia falling through over budget issues, the production problems on Westworld and the underperforming freshman run of Vinyl, play a role in his decision to leave? (The network also had troubles with the miniseries Lewis & Clark, which was sent back to development.)
“It wasn’t the difficulties you mentioned,” Lombardo said. “Westworld is going to come out and dazzle people after a couple of hiatuses to catch up on scripts. Vinyl didn’t launch in the way we were hoping it would; it’s disappointing, but it happens. I don’t see last year as more difficult or easier. I’m enormously disappointed that we couldn’t figure the financials for the David Fincher project, but that happens. That doesn’t have anything to do with how I’m feeling.”
Lombardo touted a “great lineup coming up, with our numbers higher than ever.”
“I care desperately that Bill has the launch of his show, and I care passionately that Jon Stewart will be launching the new Daily Show in a way he has dreamed about,” Lombardo said. “To see them come to fruition is very satisfying. I leave at a very high moment for me.”