Netflix tries to build a new model with 'House of Cards'

  • Article by: NEAL JUSTIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 31, 2013 - 5:28 PM

Kevin Spacey and David Fincher built a “House of Cards” that could serve as a model for future masterpieces.

“House of Cards,” a super-smart new series about a Richard III-type politician methodically tearing down his enemies, will almost certainly appeal to viewers who enjoy meaty drama served with a generous portion of relish. It marks a triumphant TV debut for director David Fincher and offers star Kevin Spacey the juiciest role he’s had since “American Beauty.”

But decades from now, “House of Cards” may best be remembered as the show that changed the way we watch television.

That’s because “Cards” is being dealt by Netflix, the subscriber-based service that will make available 13 episodes of the first season on Friday, a strategy that will be mimicked later this year with additional highly anticipated projects, including a new round of “Arrested Development” and the latest mockumentary series from Ricky Gervais.

“In my mind, this is pretty game-changing,” said Carlos Cordero, the director of service provider practices for Cisco Systems, a San Jose-based networking technology company. “I think broadcast and cable TV should be very nervous.”

Wall Street agrees. Netflix stock shot up 42 percent on Jan. 23, its biggest one-day gain since going public in 2002. The company is doubling down on creating its own content, revealing earlier this week that it’s looking to raise $400 million for more shows that can compete with the best that pay channels have to offer.

“These shows don’t need to spike initially with new subscribers, but with positive press and word-of-mouth, it could really take off over a multi-year period,” said Michael Olson, a senior research analyst for the Minneapolis-based investment bank Piper Jaffray.

Even if “Cards” doesn’t become the sensation it deserves to be, the show’s all-star team is getting something almost as valuable as eyeballs: Total artistic freedom.

Media Rights Capital, which produced “Ted” and “Babel,” met with Netflix a few years ago in hopes that executives would consider airing the show first on a traditional platform such as HBO or Showtime and then making it available two months later. Instead, Netflix brass campaigned to be the home for the U.S. version of a BBC series that was a smash hit in England during the 1990s. In exchange for the gamble, Netflix would guarantee two full seasons on a total budget of $100 million, and absolutely no creative interference. That was music to the ears of Fincher (“The Social Network”), who directed the first two episodes, and showrunner Beau Willimon.

“Netflix made an extraordinary commitment that let us know we could do things in season one that we could come back to next year in a very satisfying way,” said Willimon, who received an Oscar nomination for his script for “The Ides of March,” another political thriller. “You couldn’t do that with a network.”

The fact that Netflix isn’t on any firm timetable allowed Willimon and his team to develop a game plan over the course of a year, an eternity in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business.

“They said, ‘Go take your time. You don’t have to worry about pilot season,’ ” said Modi Wiczyk, co-CEO of MRC. “That allowed this project to be fully, fully realized.”

It may have taken more than 18 months for “Cards” to come to fruition, but viewers can take in all 13 initial episodes in a couple days, a tantalizing option for such an addictive show in which you can’t wait to see how Spacey’s Francis Underwood, the House majority whip in modern-day Washington, D.C., vanquishes his next victim.

“I’d love to get e-mails from people saying they watched seven episodes this weekend,” Wiczyk said. “The world is changing rapidly and binge viewing is absolutely taking off. There’s a lot of upside to doing it this way.”

Robin Wright, who plays Underwood’s wife as if she’s Lady MacBeth reincarnated, said audiences may actually have a richer experience watching several installments in a row.

“In essence, we’ve made a 13-hour film,” she said. “If you watch them all at once, you can experience the arc as you would a two-hour movie. You can invest and delve into characters on a deeper level.”

Spacey doesn’t discourage viewers from going the marathon route — although he wonders about anyone who would want to spend that much time with him.

“Anyone who wants to watch 13 hours of me over a weekend,” he said, “Well, that’s just off the charts.”

 

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