How Media Rights Capital Built Its ‘House of Cards’

/ Feb 14, 2014

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This article was originally published by VideoInk on February 14, 2014.

As you should be very well aware of by now, the second season of Netflix and Media Rights Capital’s Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning series, “House of Cards,” debuts today. All 13 hour-long episodes of the delicious drama starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are available for you to stream, at the expense of spending time with your loved ones on Valentine’s Day and Presidents’ Day Weekend.

To commemorate the occasion, we spoke with Modi Wiczyk, co-CEO of Media Rights Capital, the company that developed, produced, and sells the series you know and love today, about how it all came together.

Building the Deck

Media Rights Capital isn’t a stranger to producing content for digital platforms. Prior to “House of Cards,” the company was known for working with Seth MacFarlane on his animated series “Seth MacFarlane’s Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy.” Across its run, the program generated more than 100 million views on the web, and earned MacFarlane Webby Award in 2009 as the show’s Film and Video Person of the Year.

What MRC learned from that experience, as well as other digital projects the studio produced with the likes of AT&T, Nike, and Google, was that online video, the way it’s set up right now in terms of advertising and distribution, doesn’t support short-form content the way it does long-form. “[We realized that] the bigger business, in general, was for us to deliver television-form content over the web via a service that could support it,” he says. “The aggregate dollars available for short-form content is significantly smaller.”

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For a deeper look at the differences between short-form and long-form, or “web TV” versus “television on the web,” join VideoInk, Idea to Screen, and Social Media Week for what will be illuminating discussions in NY (click here) and LA (click here) next Tuesday.

Wiczyk describes MRC as a “director-driven” studio. The company likes to work with talented directors and creators on all sorts of premium projects and then find distribution on the platform that would serve that project the best. From this, Wiczyk says MRC “concluded that for our television business, we were going to make director-driven content designed for cable and subscription services.” From there, MRC began to look to acquire content that could be adapted with directors the studio already has relationships with.

“At the time, we had a ‘housekeeping’ deal with David Fincher,” says Wiczyk. “He was one of those handful of great filmmakers who was already in our orbit.”

Netflix was also on MRC’s radar. Ever since the studio’s deal with Google for MacFarlane’s animated show, MRC was aware of other digital tech/content companies like Netflix, even if the streaming service, at that time, publicly said it had no interest in original programming.

Finding the Ace

It all started with an intern. Well, not quite. It started with a critically acclaimed British mini-series about a ruthless politician, also titled “House of Cards.” But it was an intern at Media Rights Capital who discovered the show and kept talking about it at the company. “He said all of these anti-hero shows were cribbing from that show,” said Wiczyk. Soon after, Wiczyk watched the show, fell in love with it, and the company quickly discovered who held the rights.

Here, Media Rights Capital’s “director-driven” model came in quite handy.

“The British show was based on a book written by Lord Michael Dobbs, who was Margaret Thatcher’s chief of staff before being houseofcardsfincherunceremoniously terminated,” says Wiczyk. “The book was his way of emotionally purging his fury.”

Dobbs, who went on to become a successful businessman and industrialist, held the underlying rights to the property — and had no intention to license his work to a major studio. “Our reputation for giving artists final cut and a lot of support and creative freedom helped us win the rights,” says Wiczyk.

Fincher was also a huge fan of the British series, says Wiczyk, and came on board to executive produce alongside his sometimes-collaborator, Academy Award-winning screenwriter Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”).

With these initial pieces in place, now it came time to find the showrunner.

The Dealer

Joe Hipps, SVP of television production at Media Rights Capital, had seen “Farragut North,” Beau Willimon’s stage play loosely based on Howard Dean’s Democratic primary campaign for the 2004 presidential election. (The play was later adapted by Willimon and George Clooney into the Oscar-nominated film “The Ides of March.”)

Needless to say, Hipps was a fan, and in Willimon (a political operative turned writer) found a creator who could write a gripping tale about the seedier side of politics. Willimon joined the project and was introduced to Fincher, as both men began developing the “bible” for what an American version of “House of Cards” would be.

“We spent a year financing the show under the radar,” says Wiczyk. “A year later Willimon and Fincher come back with a finished script for the first episode and a bible for the first season.” With those pieces in hand, MRC outlined the budget and production/delivery schedule for the show.

This was followed by the casting of Kevin Spacey in the lead role as the Machiavellian Rep. Frank Underwood. Spacey’s production company, Trigger Street Productions, also joined the project, and Fincher committed to directing the first two episodes.

The Right Table

Media Rights Capital and “House of Cards” was ready to be shopped, it just needed the right network. MRC rounded up the usual suspects — HBO, Showtime, and AMC — as potential places to sell this show to. But before MRC met with any of them (who had interest in the series), the studio first approached the streaming network it already had a relationship with, Netflix. Maybe Netflix would want second-run rights to the show once it had aired on television.

Netflix had other plans. The company looked at its data and discovered that there was an appetite for political thrillers, as well as for films from Fincher and Spacey. What’s more, the original “House of Cards” was popular among subscribers. In other words, this was a no-brainer.

“There was a week-long auction, with a bunch of different networks interested,” says Wiczyk. “Netflix, though, came out of nowhere, sarandos2said that it was doing originals, wanted to buy the show, and offered to buy two seasons worth of episodes.” It cost Netflix a pretty penny, too, as the company famously ponied up $100 million to finance two seasons and 26 hour-long episodes.

“There was a little bit of a question mark because we hadn’t really done this before,” says Wiczyk. As he describes it, there was no information on the value of selling territorial rights to a Netflix Original outside of the markets the streaming service is available in. “What does it mean to be a Netflix show, beyond the value of how they are going to do distribution and marketing for the show — we didn’t know,” the co-CEO says.

MRC quickly realized, as many have to this day, that what Netflix offered was similar to what people are used to on premium cable. The only difference is that it’s delivered over the internet. “We decided to not get caught up in the delivery system,” says Wiczyk. “Here is a network with 25 million or so subscribers [at the time] — it was the third-biggest paid subscription service in the country with a projected upward trajectory.”

There was also another value in partnering with Netflix. “What ‘The Shield’ was to FX, and ‘Mad Men’ to AMC, and ‘The Sopranos’ to HBO, we could be that with Netflix,” says Wiczyk. “If you become a series that’s sort of intertwined with the identity of a network, it’s terrific for both the network and the series. That is precious real estate. So we took the chance, and it’s worked out amazingly.”

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On to the Next One

Wiczyk declines to share any details about the second season “House of Cards” — not that he would, but we had to ask! One thing’s for sure, though, MRC has no intentions to end the show anytime soon. Yes, it’s already been picked up for a third season by Netflix, but as Wiczyk tells it, “The intention is for this show to keep going for several seasons.”

And it looks like the show’s audience wants it. Per data from a Civicscience survey, 93% of respondents who watched season one plan to watch season two. For context, the survey of more than 10,000 respondents found that 5% watched all of season one. If it’s a good representative sample, per BTIG Research (login required), that means as many as 9.6 million US adults watched all of season one.

If you were a betting man, that number is only likely to grow.

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  • Bob

    Can we get more articles from this Sahil Patel fellow? I like the cut of his jib.

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