MINNEAPOLIS: 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 may 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 made available 13 episodes of the first season on Friday, a strategy that will be repeated later this year with more shows, including a new round of Arrested Development and a 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, Calif.-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 Piper Jaffray, a Minneapolis-based investment-bank firm.
Even if House 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 American 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 a while for House to come to fruition, but viewers can take in all 13 initial episodes in a couple days, a great 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 D.C., vanquishes his next victim.
“I’d love to get emails 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 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.”
Next for Netflix
Kevin Spacey isn’t the only star getting into the Netflix business. Other projects expected to launch this year:
Hemlock Grove: Eli Roth brings his particular brand of horror to this tale about how a rich kid and a possible werewolf team up to solve a grisly murder. (April 19)
Arrested Development: The Bluths are back — and they’re as dysfunctional as ever. The entire cast returns, although they’ll be spotlighted in separate episodes with a more traditional reunion movie in the works. (May)
Orange Is the New Black: Weeds creator Jenji Kohan further explores her fascination with women in trouble with the law in this prison series. Taylor Schilling, Jason Biggs and Laura Prepon star. (No release date)
Derek: Ricky Gervais plays a good-hearted attendant at an old-folks home. Gervais’ longtime foil Karl Pilkington is along for the ride. (No release date)