November 8, 2004

Curtain's up at Showtime

The cable network's top exec, Robert Greenblatt, has spent his first year revamping its lineup. He's about to find out if his instincts earn applause.

By Lynn Smith, Times Staff Writer

No one would have blamed Robert Greenblatt if he had fallen asleep. Exhausted from travel, he was fighting a cold. And, unlike most of those in a dark Westwood theater watching the screening of Showtime's "Huff" the other day, the network's president of programming had already seen many times over the images telling the story of a Los Angeles psychiatrist in crisis: the bloody death of one patient, the narcolepsy of another, the domestic bickering, the schizophrenic brother and the mysterious homeless Hungarian.

But then Greenblatt noticed Blythe Danner, playing the tart-tongued mother of Hank Azaria's psychiatrist, as she tossed a zinger at a quiet, caged canary: "Tweet, dammit!" And the Showtime exec suddenly laughed out loud.

That's the thing separating Greenblatt from many of his peers, say colleagues of the man picked last year to make over the network's lackluster image. He's a big-picture guy who gets caught up in the smallest details from the punctuation in a title to the number of violins in a score. Unlike most of the others, "he likes television," says screenwriter Alan Ball, who created HBO's hit "Six Feet Under" and won an Oscar for his screenplay for "American Beauty."

"A lot of people in power positions don't really like [television]," Ball adds. "They look at it purely as programming and see things from only a technical or marketing perspective. That's when stuff gets safe and boring."

Now, subscribers are about to see whether Greenblatt, after his first year of greenlighting new projects, can surprise them enough to pay for the premium cable service. Besides "Huff," which debuts tonight at 10, Showtime is developing a handful of pilots including dramas about a mom who deals pot in the Valley ("Weeds"), two seemingly opposite brothers in Providence, R.I. ("Brotherhood"), and a group of ordinary-looking folks who actually constitute an L.A. terrorist cell ("The Cell").

Also on the slate: a six-episode comedy about a fat actress ("Fat Actress" with Kirstie Alley), a special with edgy comic Dave Chappelle, a series based on the life of Richard Pryor, and a movie about outspoken comic and social critic Lenny Bruce. Not to mention a big, brassy film version of the musical satire "Reefer Madness" and a movie ("Our Fathers") about pedophile priests.

Greenblatt says he doesn't want to push boundaries just because he can on pay cable, which is unfettered by the FCC or advertisers. But it's no accident that the shows are provocative and promoted aggressively. "I'm just trying to get some attention. Not because we're screaming louder but because we're screaming louder and, hopefully, the shows are interesting."

His mandate to build the Showtime brand and send new signals is complicated by a television landscape that has become saturated with original programming, he says. Showtime, lumped with Cinemax and Starz as far as paying subscribers go, has creative aspirations, like Emmy titan HBO's, for innovative original movies, specials and series. But before Greenblatt took over a year ago, Showtime was perceived as a niche-oriented, movie-heavy network with a few notable series ("The L-Word," "Queer as Folk"), but at the end of the day driven more by budgets than artistic concerns.

The question is, can Greenblatt turn Showtime into a power player with quality shows made with less than half the budget of HBO?

The new roster is already sending a strong message to the television community that Showtime is looking up, some say. Andy Fickman, director of "Reefer Madness" (he describes it as "Rocky Horror Show" meets "Grease"), says he's happy to say "Yes" when writers, producers and directors call to ask if there's truth behind the buzz that Showtime has become a good place to bring new material. "Bob is making a home where talent can grow," he says.

In the past, the 44-year-old executive broke ground as a producer at Fox ("Beverly Hills, 90210" and "The Simpsons") and as an independent producer with David Janollari ("Six Feet Under"), often launching new young voices like "The X-Files' " Chris Carter. Their company is winding down now, but he and Janollari (now entertainment president for the WB Network) remain involved in their products, including HBO's "Six Feet Under" and UPN's "Eve."

"The common thread for me, and I learned it from Peter Chernin at Fox, is 'Do the kind of shows that nobody else will do,' " he says.

Greenblatt is a perfect match for Showtime, Chernin says, because he knows how to generate buzz. "Pay cable, unlike networks, is all about profile, not ratings," he says. "The point of programming is ultimately to drive word of mouth. You want people to call the cable operator," says Chernin.

"Huff," the latest Greenblatt effort to arrive, may not be the most audacious series on cable. Some early criticism has labeled it both odd and not strange enough. But where else will you find a show with parents confronting their sweet teenage son about a sex party? Or full frontal male nudity? Showtime has already ordered a second season.

Tall, trim and tailored, Greenblatt has an unusually unassuming and self-contained air, one that lacks what one colleague calls the "lurking subtext" of many in the Hollywood milieu.

Openly gay, he lives alone with a mixed-breed Doberman named Newman in a showcase Craftsman home in West Hollywood. Obsessed with work, he says he operates at a full but not frantic pace, sleeping six hours a night. Weekends, he works and goes out to movies with friends.

The Rockford files

His devotion to theater and television harks back to his hometown, Rockford, Ill., whose small Catholic high school had an unusually dedicated drama department. When he wasn't playing piano in the orchestra pit or working backstage, he says he just watched the plays, enthralled.

The close-knit group of students grew up into a close-knit group of writers, directors, actors and producers who still work together and support one another's shows. Greenblatt hired schoolmate Kevin Stites to conduct the orchestra for "Reefer Madness." Showtime is also producing the Broadway one-man show "Laugh Whore," directed by Rockford buddy Joe Mantello, and has a film version planned for next year.

Greenblatt earned graduate and postgraduate degrees in theater management and business, but looking for a way to stay engaged creatively, he moved to Los Angeles to enroll in a USC television producers' program. (He helped pay his way by playing piano in a Hamburger Hamlet in Westwood.) An internship landed him at Fox. "He was extremely smart, original and daring," Chernin says. "A younger version of what he is now."

Grabbing lunch in his low-key, high-rise office overlooking the site of the Hamburger Hamlet of his piano-playing days, Greenblatt says: "Our job is to find creators who have strong passions for something and put them on the air in as undiluted a fashion as possible."

In addition to some untested writers, his projects tend to feature much admired but underused actors such as Mary-Louise Parker (the mom in "Weeds"), Marcia Gay Harden (the captain of an NYPD bias unit in the series pilot "Hate") and Jason Isaacs (in "Brotherhood"). The actors as well as some feature film directors not only appreciate the work but prefer an environment relatively free of restraints. "Brotherhood" attracted film director Phillip Noyce ("The Quiet American.")

Fickman says Greenblatt threw himself into every step of "Reefer Madness," from enhancing the Busby Berkeley-style dance numbers to the Art Deco visual style, to the recording sessions. "He'd say, 'Can we bring up the violins here, pull back the guitars there?' "

In the end, Fickman says he felt more inspired than micromanaged.

Likewise, "Huff" creator Bob Lowry, producing his first project based on his own script, says he was especially grateful that Greenblatt never sent him a note asking, "Can we make 'Huff' fly?"

Lowry, who claims Greenblatt is right 90% of the time, lost one creative difference of opinion, however, over an exclamation point in "!Huff." "I put it there for many reasons. It suggested noise and chaos and excitement," Lowry says. Now, "It's gone. [Greenblatt] said he felt it was confusing and would perhaps confuse the launch. I said OK."

After years working with some of TV's shrewdest executives, Greenblatt is sharply attuned to the value of marketing and publicizing his products. "Build it and they will come," is an adage that no longer works in a television world where a multitude of branded networks spend millions to successfully hawk new programming, he says.

Greenblatt admits to HBO envy, especially marketing budgets. According to Kagan Media Research, HBO reported $2.5 billion in revenue in 2003, compared with Showtime's $950 million. Cash flow at HBO was $708 million, and $242 million at Showtime.

Even so, Showtime is spending a record amount to advertise "Huff" in a variety of venues, from ads on both network and cable to the pages of USA Today and Vogue magazine. A DVD of the pilot is included with this week's Entertainment Weekly magazine.

But by their nature, many of the new shows will deliver media attention without paid marketing.

Take "Fat Actress," the reality show starring the 200-pound Alley. "It's a concept in two words," Greenblatt says. "Everyone went, 'Omigod, I can't believe she's doing that.' We've had more awareness of this show than anything we've had in a long time, and it's still six months away."

Although Showtime has a long road ahead in terms of catching HBO financially, the good news is that many viewers have turned from broadcast to pay and cable networks for original programming in the past several years, says Kagan senior analyst Deana Myers.

Greenblatt doesn't expect to accomplish his mission quickly or without failures. Much success in television is simply the result of luck, he says.

"The important thing I learned from Barry Diller at Fox is that failure isn't the worst thing in the world. The worst thing is you get so affected by it, you get stopped in your tracks."

In the end, he says, "there's nothing more thrilling than looking at what you've put together when six months ago there was nothing but an idea."

   
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