Kevin Spacey lends Edinburgh a golden Netflix glow
The big cliffhanger: will investors love its original content strategy?
Kevin Spacey at the Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival. Photograph: Rob McDougall.
The “golden age of television” cited by Kevin Spacey at the Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival is defined by flawed characters and multi-stranded plots. But the actor’s presence at the industry conference late last week was uncomplicated in its starriness. His keynote address had a simple, singular message: trust “the talent”, because in the long run they will make you money.
Taking risks and submitting to what his acting mentor Jack Lemmon called “a sense of total abandon” will keep traditional broadcasters in the game at a time when they face increasing competition from Netflix, YouTube and other “television” content that no viewer has ever had to tune in or fiddle with an aerial to watch.
Spacey was invited to the annual event, which was attended by more than a thousand industry professionals including representatives of RTÉ, TV3, the Irish Film Board and several Irish production companies, because as the lead actor in Netflix’s first original production, House of Cards, he has become the face of the streaming service. The cut-throat political drama opens with a scene in which Spacey’s “diabolical” character strangles a dog.
For Spacey, a good deal of the joy of working with Netflix revolved around its willingness to commission 26 episodes of House of Cards without the need for a pilot - not only did Spacey and producer-director David Fincher not have to make a 45-minute audition, but there was no need for head writer Beau Willimon to follow the typical pilot format of setting up the full cast of characters and ending on “arbitrary cliffhangers” in episode one.
Rather than having the guts to say “we like this idea”, the US industry spends $300-$400 million every year on pilot season, with only a small percentage of shows progressing to a full series - some 35 of 113 pilots were commissioned last year, and only 13 have been renewed for this season. Too bad if those that fell by the wayside were Breaking Bad-style slow burners that needed time to find their audience.
Though not anywhere near as embedded here, this US tradition has recently become more common on this side of the Atlantic - a fact TV3 hopes to exploit by inviting UK companies to shoot pilots for competitive rates in its new HD studio.
Spacey surmised that a more nervous, pilot-seeking funder than Netflix might have said “umm, we are very concerned about the fact that Kevin strangles a dog in the first five minutes of the show” - and yet that scene “set the tone for the entire series”.