BUSINESS

Epix movie channel hopes to break into scripted programming

It'll be tough for Epix network to grow, but investing in original content is its best option, analyst says

Sports documentary producer Ross Greenburg was feeling a bit nostalgic as he oversaw a crew of video editors crash on the first installment of his latest Epix series "Road to the NHL Stadium Series."

"I started my career at HBO and had 33 great years there," he said from a tiny office at a downtown Manhattan production facility. "Epix reminds me of where we were at HBO in the early '80s. You have to build it from the ground up with programming."

"Road to the NHL Stadium Series," which begins Tuesday night, takes viewers onto the National Hockey League ice, into the locker rooms and even into the homes of the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks in the weeks before the rivals meet outdoors at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on Feb. 21. "They don't like each other at all," Greenburg points out.

The four-part series is in the spirit of HBO's "Hard Knocks," the fly-on-the-wall look at NFL teams that was considered the first sports reality show when Greenburg created it in 2001. Viewers of the Epix program should be forewarned that NHL players are even more proficient at spewing profanities. "If we didn't have it, we would have very little audio to choose from," Greenburg said.

Greenburg's Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning documentaries made HBO more than a movie channel in the years before it transformed into a destination for distinctive series such as "The Sopranos" and "Game of Thrones." The three production studios with stakes in Epix — Lionsgate, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Viacom's Paramount Pictures — are hoping history will repeat itself as they attempt to get the premium cable channel into the original scripted programming business.

On that front, Epix recently hired Jocelyn Diaz, a veteran development and production executive who had stints on Disney's theatrical movie side and HBO. Within a day of her announcement, scripts for her proposed projects started landing on her doorstep.

She will also get help from the Epix partners.

Lionsgate Chief Executive Jon Feltheimer told The Times that each studio expects to have an original series on Epix within the next 12 months. The bet is one breaks through and drives more subscribers to sign up for the channel.

"You've seen so many networks defined by one locomotive show," said Feltheimer, whose studio is responsible for AMC's first breakout hit "Mad Men." "If one of the three shows were to stand out, I think we'd consider ourselves pretty fortunate."

Epix had a false start into the scripted programming arena in 2010 when it ordered and then passed on a pilot from Jenji Kohan, creator of the Netflix hit "Orange Is the New Black." Feltheimer said Epix is now financially better positioned to make a bigger investment in scripted series, thanks to cable operator and satellite provider deals that make it available to 50 million homes — Time Warner Cable and AT&T U-verse signed on last year.

Epix was launched in 2009 after the three studios failed to come to terms with CBS-owned premium channel Showtime on new deals for the rights to their movies. At the time, the partners said they were prepared to put $150 million in the venture. When talking to Wall Street last year, the partners touted strong gains from the investment.

But Epix, with just under 10 million subscribers, has a ways to go to catch established premium cable channels HBO (32 million), Showtime and Starz (each approaching 23 million).

(The Los Angeles Times partners with Epix on "Hollywood Sessions," a series featuring Times reporters Rebecca Keegan and Mark Olsen talking with Oscar contenders.)

Epix has tried to gain on the premium cable pack by being aggressive in offering its service through digital streaming devices. According to CEO Mark Greenberg, Epix is now available on 450 of them. Those users can access the channel's programming, and a library of 3,000 theatrical films that includes the James Bond, "Iron Man" and "Star Trek" franchises.

But coming up with a breakthrough TV series gets tougher as more entrants move into the business. Within two years, Amazon has gone from online retailer to Golden Globes winner with "Transparent," the audacious comedy that stars actor Jeffrey Tambor as a transgender woman.

"It's really difficult," said Deana Myers, principal analyst for media research firm SNL Kagan. "You have so much competition to get quality content."

Myers adds that while it will be tough for Epix to grow, investing in original content is its best option.

"It's necessary," she said. "You can't just be a movie network anymore. Movies are everywhere."

Greenberg and Diaz said they want to give creators plenty of room to roam to find something distinctive.

"It has to be high quality and it can't be duplicative of anything else," Diaz said.

Even with its documentaries, Greenberg has been willing to go the extra mile.

When Epix made a documentary last year on music promoter Arthur Fogel, the CEO of Live Nation, Lady Gaga was among the pop luminaries who attended a screening of the film in Hollywood.

At the after-party that followed at Chateau Marmont, she expressed her disappointment at not being included among the stars who were interviewed about Fogel.

"We pulled the premiere that was set for the following week," Greenberg said. "We opened up the documentary, shot some footage and put her in it."

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