Netflix goes all-in on 'House of Cards'

Posted 8:16am on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013

In Netflix's bid for a flagship original drama of its own -- a Sopranos to its HBO -- the subscription streaming service is presenting a high-class adaptation of a British political thriller offered up all at once, with its first season immediately ready for TV-viewing gluttony.

The show, House of Cards, is a bold attempt to remake the television landscape with the kind of prestige project that cable channels like HBO, AMC and Showtime have used to define themselves. But House of Cards, produced by David Fincher and starring Kevin Spacey, won't be on the dial of that refuge of quality dramas -- cable television -- but streamed online to laptops and beamed directly to flat-screens through set-top boxes and Internet-enabled devices.

"It's sort of like we're the new television series that isn't on television," says Spacey.

On Friday, all 13 hours of House of Cards will premiere on Netflix, a potential landmark event that could herald the transition of television away from pricey cable bundles and toward the Internet -- a process well under way at YouTube, Hulu, Yahoo and others, but not yet tested to the degree of House of Cards.

The show is no low-budget Web series, but an HBO-style production for which Netflix reportedly paid in the neighborhood of $100 million for two seasons.

"When we got into original programming, I wanted it to be loud and deliberate," says Ted Sarandos, head of content at Netflix, who only will say that the cost was in the "high end" for a TV show. "I wanted consumers to know that we were doing it and I wanted the industry to know that we were doing it so we could attract more interesting projects. Doing it in some halfway, some small thing, it wasn't going to get us there."

Rookie season

The revered British original aired in three seasons from 1990 to 1996 and was adapted from the books by Michael Dobbs, a notable politician and adviser to Margaret Thatcher. It starred Ian Richardson as Frances Urquhart, a scheming, manipulating politician who shared his power-hungry strategies directly into the camera. With a darkly comic antihero as protagonist, it was a forerunner to characters like Walter White of Breaking Bad and Dexter Morgan of Dexter.

Independent studio Media Rights Capital, a producer of films like Ted and Babel, purchased the rights to House of Cards and paired Fincher with the project, along with Beau Willimon, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of another political drama, The Ides of March.

When MRC approached different networks (HBO, Showtime and others), it reached out to Netflix about adding the show to its digital library following a run on TV. But Netflix wanted House of Cards as a statement show to launch a crop of original programming.

Sarandos says Netflix's wealth of data on user viewing habits proved there's a large audience for Fincher, Spacey and political thrillers. As licensing rights have gotten pricier and harder to land, and the streaming business has grown more competitive, Netflix has focused on adding exclusive programming to entice viewers.

"When you look at The Sopranos or Sex and the City on HBO, or Mad Men on AMC or The Shield on FX or Weeds on Showtime, if you have the opportunity to earn your way into becoming that sort of anchor flagship show that defines a network, it's a very special thing," says Modi Wiczyk, co-CEO of MRC. "I'm sure going in, all of those folks that produced all of those shows said, 'This is not an incumbent. What's it going to look like?'"

A general spirit of rookie experimentation pervades House of Cards, the first TV show for Fincher, the director of Fight Club and The Social Network.

"I walk into this as a total neophyte. I don't watch much TV," says Fincher, who directed the first two hours and has overseen the whole series. "What was interesting to me was the notion of having a relationship with an audience that was longer than two hours."

Obsessively bingeing on a serial, whether it's The Wire or Battlestar Galactica, has become a modern ritual in DVR-emptying bursts, on-demand catch-ups or DVD marathons. In releasing House of Cards all at once, Netflix will sacrifice the attention generated by weekly episodes to cater to these habits. Sarandos notes that in the first 24 hours that Netflix had the second season of AMC's The Walking Dead, about 200,000 people watched the entire season.

Netflix, being outside the purview of Nielsen ratings, doesn't plan to release viewership figures for House of Cards. Instead, it hopes to retain and add to its 27.1 million domestic subscribers, a number that hasn't always grown as quickly as some Wall Street investors have wanted. (A positive earnings report Wednesday, though, sent the stock soaring.) The audience for House of Cards will be immediately global: It premieres in 50 countries and territories.

"We want to have a situation where these shows have time to find their audience," says Sarandos. "We're not under any time constraints that we have to get all of America to watch this show Monday night at 8 o'clock. There's no differential value in people watching it this year, let alone Monday night."

Thoroughly modern villain

Transferring the tale from Thatcher-era London to contemporary Washington, D.C., held obvious challenges for Willimon, who sought to broaden the show's scope. The wife to Spacey's Francis Underwood, played by Robin Wright as a kind of Lady Macbeth, has been fleshed out. The reporter whom Underwood exploits to both his and her advantage (played by Kate Mara) is now a blogger.

Urquhart's great catchphrase in the original version -- "You might very well think that, but I couldn't possibly comment" -- is plainly British in manner. But Willimon had the breakthrough that if he made Francis a congressman from South Carolina -- where much of Willimon's family lives -- a Southern drawl would make the phrase more natural.

Part of the thrill of House of Cards, the original and the adaptation, is its use of direct address. Just as Richardson did, Spacey occasionally turns devilishly to the camera to explain his Machiavellian politics. It's a device famously used by Shakespeare in Richard III, which Spacey fittingly played in a touring show before shooting began on House of Cards in Baltimore.

"I'm not sure I would have known how to play it because you're just looking down the barrel of a lens, but I had just had the experience for 10 months and 198 performances of looking into the eyes of the audience around the world," says Spacey, who's also a producer on House of Cards. "I really learned a lot about that relationship."

The timing is good for House of Cards in that it presents a corrupt congressman at a time when Congress is viewed by many as the antihero of American life. A recent poll by Public Policy Polling found that Congress, in its inaction and party rancor, is currently less popular than root canals and the band Nickelback.

That makes Fincher recall his first collaboration with Spacey, who played the elusive serial killer in his film Se7en: "Now that John Doe's in Congress, he's so much more evil," Fincher says, laughing.

Yet Spacey's Underwood gets things done, a Lyndon Johnson-style practitioner of strong-arm politics. Willimon believes the show is thus one of the most accurate political dramas "in terms of how the real world works."

"We give you Francis Underwood, a truly effective politician," says Willimon. "Are we willing to accept that side in our politicians that can be ruthless and self-interested if the result is progress?"

An earlier Netflix original, Lilyhammer, starring Steven Van Zandt, was created for Norwegian television. In May will come the highly anticipated rebirth of the former Fox cult comedy Arrested Development. There are also upcoming shows from horror filmmaker Eli Roth, Weeds creator Jenji Kohan and comedian Ricky Gervais. Another slate will follow in 2014.

Says Sarandos: "This is definitely just the start."

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