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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

How ‘Minx,’ a Comedy About ’70s Porn, Survived a Hollywood Shake-Up

When news broke in December that Max (then HBO Max) had decided to effectively cancel Minx, a collective shudder went through Hollywood creatives. It wasn’t just that Minx—a charming, dick-filled comedy about the launch of a Playgirl-style magazine in the ’70s—was a critically successful show. It was that Minx had already received a second season order from the network and was, in fact, on the last week of shooting that season. Showrunners, writers, and casts were left wondering, “If HBO could up and back out of a show it had already put so much money and confidence into, then who’s to say it couldn’t happen to us?”

What Max did with Minx is called “writing down,” and it’s becoming increasingly common. Networks, looking to cut costs, can declare that an asset (in this case, a show) has depreciated more rapidly than anticipated. They “write down” the value of the show on the books, making it worth less than it was initially, subsequently ending up with an overall loss on their balance sheet and a sizable tax deduction. It works for existing shows and for previously commissioned work, hence why so many Paramount and Disney originals have been disappearing from their streaming services in recent months. (In fact, Disney recently reported that it took $1.5 billion in write-offs this spring, which experts have attributed to all that vanishing content.)

Some Hollywood suits would be quick to remind creatives that it’s called “show business,” not “show security,” and there are other reasons networks write down content, from trying to avoid licensing or residual payments to the cash they get from shuffling content over to a FAST (free, ad-supported streaming TV) service like Pluto TV or Tubi.

Still, none of that really helped ease the pain when Minx showrunner Ellen Rapoport had to tell her cast and crew about the show’s potential cancellation. She’d heard about it a few days before from the show’s production company, Lionsgate, who’d urged her to keep it to herself. The company had kept the news from her as long as it could and tried to put a positive spin on it, saying that HBO would pay to finish out the second season and couldn’t bar them from taking it elsewhere. But still, Rapoport says, it felt like “a shit sandwich inside of a croissant, like, ‘We love the show, you're canceled, but you're going to find a new home.’”

She kept the news to herself as she prepared to direct the finale, the whole time wondering if that week was the last one she’d ever spend on a Minx set. She finally got the go-ahead to tell the actors on a Friday, when Lionsgate started to sense that news would break in the trades the following week. “My biggest nightmare was that we’d be on set and an article would come out,” says Rapoport. She took the time that weekend to call the show’s six series regulars—Ophelia Lovibond, Jake Johnson, Lennon Parham, Oscar Montoya, Jessica Lowe, and Idara Victor—as well as recurring guests Rich Sommer and Elizabeth Perkins. “Everyone was surprised, because this had never even been in the ether,” Rapoport says. “We’d never even talked about it.”

In fact, Rapoport says, neither she nor anyone else involved with the production of the show had ever really gotten viewership numbers from Max. Those kinds of stats are held notoriously close to the vest at streaming companies, which is frustrating for actors and creators, who are left pretty much in the dark about the status of their show (and, as actors currently striking will tell you, the status of their paltry residuals). “They told us that we had a very high completion rate of about 90 percent, which was amazing, and they told us that our audience was evenly split between men and women,” Rapoport says. “That’s all they really said, other than that our viewership was on par with shows like Julia and Hacks.”

The week after Rapoport told her actors, she got a call from Lionsgate telling her that the story was about to break and that she had to tell everyone else working on the show. “I tried to keep morale up,” she says. “It's obviously very startling to think that the thing you've been working on for months and months and months could just be disappeared, and no one will ever see it, but I tried to make the point that HBO Max distributed us in North America and Latin America, but Lionsgate owns us and distributes us throughout the world.” She was confident Minx would find another distributor.

Rapoport says that when news broke that Minx was off Max, Lionsgate was having serious talks with about four different potential buyers. While she knew that the chances of it landing somewhere else were pretty solid, she wasn’t allowed to explicitly tell anyone working on the show. “I just tried to reassure them that I felt like it would be OK,” she explains.

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Rapoport also encouraged the crew to go all out on the season 2 finale, which HBO was still paying to produce. “I was like, ‘Do we need a crane shot?’” she says. “Usually on our budget we only get one day with a crane, but for the finale, we got three, and our wrap party was shockingly nice. It felt like we were getting a divorce but still had access to the credit cards.”

Ultimately, the show did find the buyer Rapoport hoped it might. Just before the new year, word came that Minx had landed at Starz, and the news broke to the world in January. Rapoport says she’s glad the show landed at the network, because of its commitment to programming that appeals to underrepresented groups, but also because it means Minx has found a home amongst similarly provocative content.

That doesn’t mean she’ll get any more insight into Minx’s viewership anytime soon. Sure, Starz is a premium cable company that reports to Nielsen, but those figures don’t include streaming stats—a delivery method that has to account for a sizable portion of Minx’s overall viewership. While any numbers she gets will be nice to have, she says, they’re going to be incomplete.

Rapoport says that, as a former corporate lawyer turned showrunner, she’s come to understand why Max made the decision to write down the show from a business perspective. “I get it,” she says. “But I also feel that in order to encourage people to do their best work in a creative field, you have to create an environment that's conducive to that. It's not just about an algorithm running calculations.”

Which means there’s now a bit of showbiz apprehension involved for everyone working on Minx, because, like Rapoport, they know what it’s like to have the Hollywood rug ripped from under them. “It just feels like all your hard work can be erased at any time, and that’s really disorienting,” Rapoport says. “I find it pretty disrespectful too. It’s hard to do your best work when you know that it could all just end up in the trash heap based on a number on a balance sheet.”

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