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July 08, 2016

The Bid Bang

Crackle's first dramatic series, The Art of More, ushered viewers inside the little-known world of high-end auctions. With season two in the works — and new originals on the horizon — the streamer is upping its bid in the increasingly crowded battle for viewers,

Sarah Hirsch
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"We sell such beautiful things, but it's such an ugly world."

Those words, spoken by an auction-house insider, rang in Chuck Rose's ears for months before he drew on them as a veritable logline for his series, The Art of More. "That dichotomy really stayed with me," says the creator-executive producer, "and then it all just coalesced."

It coalesced, too, for Crackle, the Sony streaming service that made Art of More its first one-hour original drama. Set in the dark and glamorous world of a would-be Sotheby's — and starring Dennis Quaid, Kate Bosworth, Christian Cooke and Cary Elwes — the show debuted late last year and got a season-two pickup only two weeks in.

Building on that success, Crackle will add a second drama this September, Startup, starring Martin Freeman and Adam Brody. Also in the pipeline is Snatch, based on the 2000 Guy Ritchie film. For Rose, the road to More began in New York, where the future screenwriter cut his teeth as an actor and playwright.

His love affair with the art world blossomed when he found that visiting museums and art galleries was one of the few pleasures possible on his meager budget.

A desire for greater opportunities in film and TV brought him to L.A., where he came to industry attention by way of several plays he had produced in town. One in particular, Faith — about the survivors of a terrorist attack — garnered a rave review from Variety.

"All of a sudden, people — who I'm sure had never even seen the play — started calling and saying how much they liked it," Rose recalls. "It certainly got me on the radar of some important people."

One was veteran literary agent Elliot Webb. He promptly signed Rose, who switched his focus from plays and features, which he'd also been working on, to television.

Serendipitously, Rose had a friend who worked at an auction house; she mentioned that the place could be cutthroat. "There was also a lot in the news at the time about artifact smuggling, and how it was becoming a big trade," Rose remembers. "And I thought, 'What if there was a guy who had been in that world and then tried to work his way into the auction world?'"

That guy ultimately became Graham Connor, the central character played by Cooke. An executive at Parke-Mason — Rose's fictional auction house — and an Iraq War vet, Connor shakes off his blue-collar background and finagles his way into a decidedly white-collar circle of billionaire art collectors.

There, he sets his sights on Sam Brukner (the Dennis Quaid role), a wealthy "white whale," which, in auction-speak, is a client worthy of the hook. Brukner is a real estate tycoon and presidential hopeful, but any resemblance to Donald Trump, Rose swears, is purely coincidental.

Rose brought his pitch to Crackle in late 2013, meeting in the new year with general manager Eric Berger, who is also executive vice-president of digital at Sony Pictures Television. Positive feedback from his Sony colleague Keith Le Goy, president of international distribution, assured that the series had international appeal.

"I moved into television at a time when it was really opening up," Rose notes. "Networks were looking for programming that wasn't your typical cop, doctor or lawyer show. Crackle was one of those networks. I wrote the pilot on spec, so people could see how I would make the auction world heart-pounding. And they went for it."

From Berger's perspective, it was eye-opening. "We got that 'Oh, my God' feeling when he came in and talked about the auction world, how unique it is and the lengths that people will go to collect things."

The deal done, the execs brought on pilot director Gary Fleder (also an executive producer, along with Rose, Quaid, Gardner Stern, Laurence Mark, Tamara Chestna and Brendan Kelly). Fleder, in turn, reached out to Bosworth, Elwes and Quaid.

"Right from the get-go he was very involved," Rose says of Quaid. "We would sit down and talk about the story and characters. He's very collaborative. He'll give notes on the scripts, he's there for all of the table reads and he made it clear to us that the show is a top priority for him. Even when he was in Iceland [shooting season two of Fortitude], he was on the phone, like, 'How can I help?'"

Quaid's interest in the series, though, began with Brukner.

"I'm playing a real estate developer and entrepreneur from New York who has political ambitions and a huge ego. Who does that bring to mind?" Quaid says, laughing. But, "I'm not playing Donald Trump. It was happenstance, which makes it a lot more interesting."

Indeed, the cast and crew were five weeks into production (Montreal subs for the Big Apple) when they learned of the presidential run by the real-life real estate mogul.

"I love working with Chuck, though," Quaid continues. "He created this character, and he's nothing like Sam, but I rely so much on him for what comes out of Sam's mouth."

Bosworth, too, has a role to sink her teeth into: Roxanna Whitman, an icy account executive for rival auction house DeGraaf. What the actress brings to Whitman, she says, is, "a tip of the hat to a femme fatale. Roxanna's not at the point yet where she's Lady Macbeth, but you're not sure if she's going to screw you or screw you over — or both. She might do both."

"Kate's character is just a terrific lead," Berger attests. "There aren't a lot of great roles like that in the marketplace. She's conflicted and tortured, and knows what she wants and will do what it takes to get it."

"I'm interested in riding the roller coaster of a character," Bosworth remarks. "I never judge them. I want to know why they make choices that are morally ambiguous, and why they believe that that's okay."

The same could be said of the entire cast of characters, a Machiavellian bunch who lie and cheat their way to the top. For Cooke — a Brit who uses a New York accent as Connor — that means stealing, smuggling, sleeping with the enemy and a bloody showdown or two.

"He's forced to go down a rabbit hole of corruption," Cooke says of his character, who finds the dangerous lifestyle appealing.

The element of danger is also enticing to Connor's mentor, Arthur Davenport, the British collector played by Elwes.

"They're dealing in stolen art, so it's an uneasy alliance," Elwes says. "But I think he feels excited to be back in that world. The gray area is much more interesting, I think, than trying to paint a character one way or the other. Ultimately, they're all motivated by greed."

The key for Elwes in playing Davenport was creating a backstory. "We decided he was almost from another era. And that he'd come from a broken home, had some alcohol problems, tried his hand at writing.... But then he entered the art world, and that's where he found his niche."

Collector culture is fascinating,” Berger says, "and not only because of the people, but because of the objects." Indeed, it isn't just paintings that make the auction world go round. The series occasionally features real-life items that famously went up for bid, like a Ferrari owned by Steve McQueen and a cache of stolen coins worth $10 million.

Crackle, too, is creating a collection — of original programming. As Quaid points out, "We were the first one-hour drama that came to Crackle, and now they're bringing on new shows and growing the network. Part of selling The Art of More was selling the brand of Crackle. And that's really my goal, to help the network branch out and expand."

One arm of the expansion will come with Startup, premiering in early September. The 10-episode, one-hour series takes place in Miami against the backdrop of a tech company dealing in dirty money.

Also in the pipeline is Snatch. Much like the Guy Ritchie movie that inspired it, the series will draw from a real-life London heist and a group of up-and-coming hustlers.

That makes two more gritty dramas for Crackle, which, for the second year in a row, chose to present its new series at the annual network upfronts, rather than the newfronts, the traditional choice for streaming sites.

"We found that we were closer to a television model," Berger explains. "We are producing premium long-form content: half-hour shows, one-hour shows and movies. So everything was much more closely associated with television."

And in the eyes of viewers, he adds, such distinctions are becoming less and less important. "Some brands have their origins in digital and streaming services and some are broadcast or cable companies, but we're all finding ourselves side by side on connected devices with icons and applications, and the consumer's becoming indifferent."

Crackle plans on rising above the competition, however, with the help of some tech innovations that it will integrate into its programming this year. One is a virtual-reality theater experience — to be available in both programming and advertising — which will let viewers stream the service's entire library in an immersive environment.

"It's a fascinating development that speaks to where technology and consumers are going," Berger says.

The company has also announced a new advertising model it's dubbed "break-free," which gives a maximum of five advertisers the same spot in all 10 episodes of a season. Clients may create story arcs that include behind-the-scenes content related to the show; car maker Infiniti has already signed on for season two of The Art of More.

Meanwhile, the streamer — which also touts Jerry Seinfeld (Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee) and Bryan Cranston (SuperMansion) as two of its stars — is getting praise from the principals of The Art of More.

"It's exciting," Bosworth says. "We feel like we're their first-born, and there's a special care and thoughtfulness that comes with that. And expectation, too, but I think that's a good thing."

Quaid concurs: "They let us make the show that we all wanted to make, and facilitated us at the same time. That's what I think a network should be, a facilitator."

And Elwes echoes: "They very gently nurtured us to explore different things, to be creative and experiment."

"I love the streaming experience," Bosworth adds. "The best comparison I can think of is when you're reading a good book and you're able to bookmark it and come back to it, as slowly as you'd like, or tear through it as quickly and ravenously as you want."

Looking forward to season two — expected to launch in the late fall — Rose is eager to delve more deeply into the characters. "The first season of any show, you're still discovering the world and the characters, and so are the actors.

Now that we've gotten through all that, we can get into how flawed they are, and the demons that are driving them. It's a bumpy road for all four of them. Their bad decisions are coming back to haunt them.

"But, hopefully, there's also some redemption along the way. I firmly believe in that. It's easy to do a downward spiral. But the more challenging thing is how people fight their way out of that." And then, there is the art. "I hope it also gets people talking about art and collecting," Rose says, before asking, "For example, why do we collect things? And what do those collections say about us?"

In the words of that auction-house insider, they might say we're searching for beauty in an occasionally ugly world.


To watch The Art of More, click here.

To watch Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, click here.

To watch Supermansion, click here.

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