HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ Cost $50 Million: How They Gonna Make It Back?

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Ever since David Chase blacked out Tony Soprano’s life mid-meal, HBO has been searching for the next Sopranos—a search rendered more desperate after AMC found it. So now, HBO is on the hunt for the next Mad Men, and it looks like it might have found it in Boardwalk Empire, a Sopranos/Mad Men mash-up that effectively cribs from both gangster and period genres. The first promo teaser hit the web yesterday, and it looks like the most cinematic show HBO has done to date. It all makes sense, since Martin Scorsese directed the pilot and will have a major creative role in the series’ genesis. This morning, Page Six ran an item pricing the pilot episode at $50 million, easily making it HBO’s most expensive show ever. Even in Movieland, that’s a fairly hefty price tag. You’d have your marquee stars, maybe some CG, and a major marketing push. But in television terms, Empire probably needs to be a Sopranos-size phenomenon to ever recoup that kind of investment.

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Set at the dawn of Prohibition, Boardwalk Empire follows Atlantic City’s birth and the gangsters, bootleggers, and rum-runners who spawned it. Steve Buscemi stars as the gangster Nucky Johnson, and Gretchen Mol, Michael Shannon, and Michael Pitt also appear. With Scorsese behind the camera, and Sopranos scribe Terence Winter as creator, the show’s pedigree is unrivaled. HBO has already proven it can do crime better than anyone in entertainment, and it has the luxury of a post-Mad Men TV landscape, with everyone just eating up that show’s period details.

But to put the $50 million price tag into perspective, the two-hour Lost pilot was the most expensive in ABC’s history, and it reportedly cost the network somewhere between $10 and $14 million. Page Six’s source does acknowledge that the rest of the series will drop in cost, “since they’ll reuse props, sets and costumes.” But in an age when many of us stream our shows online (especially our paid cable shows), it’s still a major risk. The last time HBO funneled this kind of cash into a show, it lasted just two seasons. That show was Rome, and HBO only spent $85 million for the first season (although the BBC did contribute $15 million). Although execs claimed that show’s two-season run as premeditated, insiders claim it was money that led to the fall of Rome, which Broadcasting & Cable called “notoriously expensive.” In the show’s afterlife, HBO has done everything they can to recoup their money spent by airing “sanitized” episodes of the show in Italy, ultimately angering that country’s audiences with its historical deviations.

However, HBO may not be modeling their expectations on The Sopranos, but another historical epic with a different legendary filmmaker as its driving promotional force. Band of Brothers was the ten-part, WWII miniseries that cost the network $125 million to produce, winning it six Emmy Awards and attracting some of the best ratings in network history. Of course, it had Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks’ names and imprint all over it, which might explain why it’s currently the 19th highest grossing DVD of all time. Boardwalk Empire was created by Terence Winter and is loosely based off Nelson Johnson’s book of the same name, but this is “Martin Scorsese’s new show.”

So what’s HBO spending all this money on? Back in November, Speakeasy payed a visit to the elaborate and minutely detailed Brooklyn set:

the built-from-scratch boardwalk set took three months to construct and features era-appropriate storefronts for fake businesses such as the Canton Tea Parlor (serving chop suey, of course), a spiffed-up Ritz Carlton, Babette’s Supper Club (where Thompson & Co ring in the start of Prohibition), and one of Winter’s favorites, a baby incubator display, which passersby could check out premature babies (”Come and see babies that weigh less than 3 lbs — 25 cents!”). Truckloads of sand were driven in to recreate the Atlantic City coastline, and a giant green screen (that’s actually blue) faces the length of the 300-foot boardwalk, which will allow the production team to digitally add in the ocean later.

Sounds expensive to us! The bottom line is, HBO probably wouldn’t be spending this kind of money on a show if it wasn’t going to be incredible (so far, only three episodes have been shot), and as we mentioned earlier, they’re desperate to take back the internet from Matthew Weiner and John Hamm. It’s been a while since HBO’s Sopranos/Six Feet Under/The Wire drama heyday, but if Boardwalk Empire lives up to its budget, the tides could be shifting. This can’t hurt, either.

And to see how $50 million is spent in two minutes, behold the following.

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