Kate Mara, who plays a reporter, and Kevin Spacey, who stars… (Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix )
Kevin Spacey calls “House of Cards” “the new television series that isn’t on television.”
And therein lies one of the biggest media stories of the year: Whether spending $100 million to hire an Oscar-winning star and one of the most gifted feature film directors in Hollywood can lead to a TV series compelling enough to change the way viewers have been watching television most or all of their lives.
In one of the biggest media gambles of the decade, Spacey, David Fincher, Netflix and a production company you probably never heard of named Media Rights Capital are betting that the 13 episodes of a political drama they created in and around Baltimore last year can alter the basic TV business model that’s essentially been in place since the 1950s.
Predicting lifestyle and entertainment industry change in these tumultuous times is a fool’s game. But after seeing the first two episodes in this Shakespearean saga of Washington betrayal and revenge, it is safe to say that if it were on television, “House of Cards” would be the best series the medium has to offer.
The two episodes directed by Fincher, the only ones Netflix made available for screening, can stand shoulder to shoulder with the first two hours of “Mad Men” or “Homeland.” In fact, visually, “House of Cards” is far superior to both. And I say that after watching on a standard computer screen.
Starting Friday, Netflix subscribers will be able to go online and stream all 13 episodes of Season One. The thinking is that the quality of the production and the ability to watch a full season without being at the mercy of a network or cable channel that parcels the series out one episode a week will be enough to get viewers to join Netflix and change the way they have essentially consumed TV since the late 1940s.
“House of Cards” will not be on TV in the U.S., the U.K. or Scandinavia, where Netflix bought first-run rights usurping cable channels like HBO, Showtime and AMC that have come to own the quality TV game since the 1990s, when the broadcast networks surrendered the territory in favor of cost-effective reality TV.
Modi Wiczyk, CEO of Media Rights Capital, says the last thing his production company expected to do was change the way TV is bought, sold and consumed.
“All we did was set out to make the best TV show we could with the best people we could,” says Wiczyk, who characterizes MRC as a production company centered on relationships with star film directors like Fincher. “Our initial assumption was that it would go to any one of the usual suspects of the pay cable services.”
But, Wiczyk says, that plan changed once MRC talked to Netflix about buying secondary rights, after an anticipated premiere on a cable channel like HBO, Showtime or AMC.
Netflix had its own agenda and wanted to start owning original content just like HBO, Showtime and AMC.
"So, they read the script and said, ‘We absolutely love this, we want to go into original content ourselves and we want to make this our anchor show,’" Wiczyk says.
“They gave our artists two things: The broadest canvas possible with a 26-episode commitment, and absolutely no interference whatsoever,” Wiczyk says. “That’s a very unusual dynamic for television.”
The commitment from Netflix to 26 episodes without a pilot being made is more than unusual. It’s unprecedented. But without it, they probably wouldn’t have had a chance at a production with artists like Spacey, Fincher and screenwriter Beau Willimon (“Ides of March”).
It was a happy development for Baltimore and Maryland once the producers decided to film here for reasons of geography, state incentives and the history of successful productions like “The Wire” and “Game Change.” Much of the $100 million is being spent on crews, local actors, building supplies, housing and food as Baltimore stands in for Washington.
Because of the length of commitment, the production could put down roots, building 150,000 square feet of soundstages in Harford County.
Comparable to a Hollywood studio backlot in size, the soundstages house congressional offices, West Wing offices, Capitol Hill and Georgetown apartments and town houses.
The producers also built a soundstage at The Baltimore Sun to film scenes involving a young reporter who plays a key role in the series.
And the production filmed at such area sites as the Baltimore Museum of Art, the War Memorial Building, the Peabody Conservatory and the Engineer’s Club – all of which appear as Washington locations on screen in the first two hours. Production on Season Two is tentatively scheduled to start April 15 in Baltimore.
In the end, money spent doesn’t matter unless viewers can see it on the screen. In this case, they can — and then some.