It was a cold and rainy day last September as the actors and producers of the Showtime pilot “Hate” got together for a table read of the script in a meeting room at the Park Lane Hotel on Central Park South in Manhattan.
For many of the cast-headed by Academy Award-winning actress Marcia Gay Harden-and crew, it was the first time they would meet. (Other actors, including cop-show veteran Tony LoBianco, had not been signed up yet.) They were about to spend three weeks together, shooting in New York and Toronto, to create the $4 million, hour-long pilot, one of several projects vying for imminent series pickup at Showtime.
The importance of the show was underscored by the presence of some of the other people in the room. On hand was Matt Blank, CEO of Showtime, the premium channel trying again to make an HBO-sized mark in original programming.
Also in attendance was Robert Greenblatt, who came to Showtime as president of entertainment in 2003 and joined in the applause at the end of the reading. Mr. Greenblatt, an executive producer of HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” had been through the pilot process many times. But now he’s back on the network side. This time, he will decide whether the pilot takes off, or crashes and burns.
Fast-forward to January. “Hate,” based on the activities of hate crimes units of the New York City Police Department, is one of six pilots recently completed by Showtime under Mr. Greenblatt. Three are dramas, three are comedies. Four might go to series, he said, and the winners will be picked early this month.
For Mr. Greenblatt, the pilots he puts on the air will put his stamp on the network. Last month, he canceled “Dead Like Me” to make room for more new shows as he searches for a program that will attract the kind of attention that rival pay service HBO attracts with “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City.”
“I want to get new shows on the air and there’s only a few shots that I can do that. I felt that it was important to make way for the new things,” Mr. Greenblatt said.
Playing Down Rivalry
Underdog Showtime’s attempt to challenge HBO, a machine that made $1 billion in profits last year and racks up Emmy and Golden Globe nominations by the dozens, makes for a good drama on its own. But Mr. Greenblatt plays down any rivalry.
“I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how I can meet or surpass HBO in any way, really. I’m just trying to put on a few good shows and hopefully grow,” he said.
“Everyone likes to compare us,” Mr. Greenblatt said. But he added, “We couldn’t be more different in terms of scope and size.”
Indeed, HBO has 27.6 million subscribers, compared with Showtime’s 12.4 million, which translates into the kind of financial muscle that makes a big difference.
“They have a billion more [in] revenues than we do and a billion dollars is an enormous amount of money to put into programming and marketing and all the stuff that they do,” Mr. Greenblatt said. “And they [HBO] got into the series business way before we did, so they’ve had a long time to gain momentum and try shows that didn’t work and ultimately find their way into shows like `The Sopranos.”‘
Showtime has a harder time making noise with its programming. Its top-rated show, “The L Word,” grabbed some buzz with its lesbian theme. Its newest show, “Huff,” starring Hank Azaria as a psychiatrist with problems of his own, has attracted favorable reviews.
The network is also trying to make a big splash with “Fat Actress” with early press screenings of the comedy featuring former “Cheers” star Kirstie Alley.
“We’ve had some really good momentum,” Mr. Greenblatt said. “This new crop of shows will be the next big step forward, and getting them on will be the big agenda for the new year.”
He wants to signal that Showtime is aiming for high quality in casting, direction and writing.
“I think that’s the message we’re trying to send,” he said. “It’s already understood that the subject matter has to be edgy and unique and unlike anything else out there. It’s just a matter of how you execute that.”
It’s harder now to be different and edgy, because HBO is huge in that market and FX is making inroads with shows such as “The Shield,” “Nip/Tuck” and “Rescue Me” that push the content envelope for basic cable.
“Hate” came to Showtime from a team headed by executive producers Paris Barclay, James DeMonaco, Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen. Mr. Barclay, an Emmy winner for “NYPD Blue,” is the director of the pilot and wrote the script with Mr. DeMonaco, who also wrote the film “The Negotiator.”
Mr. Jinks and Mr. Cohen, Oscar winners for “American Beauty,” were working on their first project for television and waiting for their theatrical film “The Forgotten” to open. Some of the crew from “The Forgotten,” which was shot in New York, also worked on the set of “Hate.”
The producing and directing talent was one reason Showtime was interested in “Hate,” Mr. Greenblatt said. Also attractive was the show’s subject matter, which is “controversial and dynamic and edgy,” Mr. Greenblatt said. “It’s hard for us to do cop shows because everyone does cop shows. How do we do one differently?” A cop show dealing in crimes rooted in race and sexual bias would certainly make the broadcast networks, as well as some cable networks, squirm.
“It seemed pretty premium,” Mr. Greenblatt said. “We’re the last bastion of a place where the content is not second-guessed by advertisers or the FCC. We really have the luxury of not being restricted, which I think makes for the kinds of things you aren’t going to find anywhere else.”
Having an Academy Award-winning actress in the fold also makes the show attractive.
In addition to a promising script, doing “Hate” offered Ms. Harden, a New Yorker, a chance to work near home shortly after giving birth to twins. Ms. Harden, who won the Oscar for her supporting role in “Pollack,” was very pregnant at last year’s Academy Awards ceremony, when she was nominated for her performance in “Mystic River.”
She has worked with Mr. Greenblatt before, in a CBS pilot produced by Mr. Greenblatt called “Saints and Sinners” about a parole officer who is also a single mom. That pilot went nowhere, but the same season CBS picked up what became the hit “CSI.” The filming of “Hate” took place on several locations around the city, from One Police Plaza to Coney Island. “People ask me why we don’t shoot more of our shows in New York,” Mr. Blank said. “Maybe this will give us the opportunity.”
Mr. Blank visited the Police Plaza set, taking his old friend Mr. LoBianco to lunch. Mr. LoBianco said that today’s cop shows show a lot more than they did back in the “Police Story” days, with grisly crimes and more complicated personal lives for the officers.
Shooting at Police Plaza also made it easier for Ms. Harden and the rest of the cast to visit with the real hate crimes unit. “We wanted to make sure that what we were doing, we were doing accurately,” said Mr. Jinks, one of the executive producers. “And they were terrific. They were really happy we were doing the show we were doing.”
On top of that, “There’s so much flavor that you get” shooting in New York, Mr. Jinks said. “A couple of people who have seen the show have said to me, `How did you get to do the whole show in New York?’ And of course we only shot five of our 15 days in New York. We certainly made use of our five days in New York to get as many great locations as possible that fit within our story.”
While Ms. Harden is the star, the show also features a strong ensemble cast. The rest of the cast is mostly young and multi-ethnic, reflecting the mix of cultures to which a hate crimes unit would need to be sensitive.
Those actors include Eamonn Walker, Jeremy Davidson, Rosa Arredondo, Ken Leung, Daniel Saul and Aisha Hinds.
“You could tell stories with any of them,” Mr. Greenblatt said.
As they deal with crimes that are an affront to decency as well as political correctness, ranging from a broken window in a Korean grocery to dog droppings left outside a synagogue in an anti-Semitic act, we get to hear some of these cops’ less-than-sensitive thoughts through vo
ice-overs. Through them viewers quickly get additional insight into the officers’ personalities.
Besides being functional, the voice-overs are designed to distinguish the show from other police dramas.
“It’s hard to come up with new devices these days,” Mr. Greenblatt said. “It just instantly takes you inside their heads.”
He said letting viewers in on the characters’ thoughts was something the creators of the series had in their heads from the beginning. “We all have those moments, so it’s very relatable, especially when you’re in a work situation. You think about something that’s inappropriate, or something you would never say, and we have the advantage of hearing those,” he said. “It gives you humor, some pathos. We found it to be effective.”
Indeed, during the script reading in September, some of those thoughts drew the biggest chuckles.
Now, as a completed work, the pilot moves along briskly, introducing the cast members and throwing them into cases big and small. The main story concerns a killer whose M.O. is yanking the spine from the bodies of his black and homosexual victims. By the end of the pilot it becomes apparent that several of the cops are hiding secrets about their own racial attitudes and sexual preferences.
Mr. Greenblatt wasn’t on the set of “Hate,” but he saw dailies every day and sent notes to the producers, cutting some scenes down to keep viewers from becoming confused.
Going from script to pilot is never an exact science.
“You never know what a pilot is going to completely feel like until it comes together, and you’re often surprised. One thing that you thought was a shoo-in suddenly doesn’t feel like it’s as strong, and vice versa,” Mr. Greenblatt said.
One thing he looks for in a pilot is whether the show will have enough stories to support a long run. With a franchise cop show like “Hate,” he said, “You have endless cases that walk in the door,” so that’s not an issue. But there are other factors. “Is the cast right, is there chemistry, do you have the right producers, does it fit the balance of your schedules? There are a million things that go into the decision,” he said.
For Mr. Jinks, this is his first work for television. (He’s getting ready for another film, “Silent Star,” based on the true story of film actress Mary Miles Minter.) “Reaction [to the pilot] has been very positive,” he said. “But in terms of their mix and what they [Showtime] are looking for, I don’t know.”
Mr. Jinks said Showtime would be a good home for “Hate,” but acknowledged it won’t get the kind of exposure a show on HBO would get. “A show on HBO is marketed more than a feature film and it would be nice if Showtime had that. But they don’t.”
Mr. Greenblatt likes being on this side of the pilot process because he has control over whether a show gets on the air or not. On the other hand, for a producer, he said, “It’s very frustrating.” Though he has four shows on the air currently, there is one disappointment that sticks with him. UPN canceled his “Platinum,” the hip-hop music industry drama, after six episodes aired in midseason during 2003. “There was nothing we could do about it. They had lots of agendas, and cost issues. It wasn’t the quality of the show,” he recalled.
Mr. Greenblatt said the producers did “a really, really great job” with the “Hate” pilot, adding, “It’s beautifully done.” But he dropped few other clues about whether or not it would make Showtime’s schedule.
An early cut of the show was shown to focus groups and the reaction was “really positive,” he said. “It’s nice to have some objective points of view.” But the focus group input is mostly to see whether individual scenes are working, rather than, “Does the show work or not?”
All of Showtime’s pilots are being screened for a broad array of people inside the network, from senior management on down. “It’s not the only deciding factor, but it’s good to get feedback like that.”
Eventually, though, a decision will be made. “You sit in a room and think, What do we really need on the schedule and what kind of shows do we want?” he said. “My report card is how good are these shows and what do people think of them, which is an advantage. It’s so much better than worrying about what the ratings were, which is how you live or die at the networks.”
Among the drama pilots on Showtime’s slate other than “Hate” is “The Cell,” which focuses on a black American Muslim who joins an Islamic sleeper terrorist cell in the United States while working undercover for the FBI. It’s directed by Clark Johnson (“S.W.A.T.”), who directed the pilot for FX’s “The Shield.” The other drama pilot, “Brotherhood,” is directed by Phillip Noyce (“Clear and Present Danger”) and is about two brothers. One brother is a tough politician and the other is a brutal gangster.
The comedy pilots are “Pryor Offenses,” a half-hour single-camera comedy inspired by Richard Pryor’s stand-up material and his life; “What’s Not to Love,” a semi-autobiographical half-hour from comedian-writer-performance artist Jonathan Ames, who along with Mike Newell (“Four Weddings and a Funeral”) executive produces Showtime’s “Huff”; and half-hour comedy “Weeds,” starring Mary-Louise Parker as a suburban widow who starts dealing marijuana out of her home.
“Weeds” has already gotten a series order. Showtime also has made a 10-episode commitment to a comedy series adaptation of the film franchise “Barbershop.”
Even if “Hate” doesn’t go to series, the pilot will eventually make its way onto Showtime, though without much fanfare.
“We have to air it because we’ve spent the money,” Mr. Greenblatt said. “Even when it doesn’t go to series, there’s some great work that’s going on in these things.”