Is "Boardwalk Empire" HBO's next 'Sopranos'?

Wed Sep 22, 2010 2:19am EDT
 
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By Fred Schruers

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - A line that resonates late in the opening episode of "Boardwalk Empire" comes when the central figure's protege brings his mentor up short with a stern bit of advice: "You can't be half a gangster, Nucky, not anymore."

The advice isn't welcome. The protege, Michael Pitt's emotionally wounded war veteran Jimmy Darmody, has been overstepping his bounds with the boss, Steve Buscemi's Nucky Thompson -- but it's clearly correct.

In similar fashion, when HBO set out to make the series -- which on Sunday attracted 4.8 million viewers (7.1 million including repeats), its most-watched premiere of any program in six years -- it realized you can't make half a gangster epic.

That's how HBO came to hire Martin Scorsese to executive produce and direct the 70-minute pilot and budget nearly $20 million for it.

Before that figure (about double the going rate for a TV pilot) was made public, there was a lot of guesswork as to what a month of shooting (about triple the typical schedule for a pilot) had cost HBO. The New York Post's Page Six threw a haymaker guess of $50 million, leading HBO to point querying media toward the Wall Street Journal's later, gentler $18 million estimate.

The subsequent 11 episodes now in the can -- they push the story, largely set in a carefully re-created boomtime Atlantic City, across nine months of 1920 beginning with the opening night of Prohibition -- averaged about $5 million to shoot. With the first ratings in, HBO was quick to order a new season, leaving the number of new shows unspecified (but very likely 12, matching the current cycle).

"It's more than a little victory," Standard & Poor's equity analyst Tuna Amobi said. "This makes it a potential juggernaut that's blown away even the more optimistic expectations."

The series debut's debate-snuffing number aligns with a generally -- but hardly unanimous -- upbeat set of reviews to let the network breathe much easier. Given the amount of earlier buzz, both in the industry and with the eager populace, HBO wasn't likely to get a standing ovation without hitting a home run.   Continued...