From Godfather of Harlem: (back, from left) Chris Brancato, Forest Whitaker, Paul Eckstein; (front) Vincent D'Onofrio, Paul Sorvino and Chazz Palminteri
Harold Perrineau and Avery Konrad in From
"What took you so long?"
That was Chris Brancato's reaction to the news that premium cable network–turned–streamer EPIX — home to Godfather of Harlem, which the writer-producer cocreated with his college pal Paul Eckstein — was rebranding as MGM+. The move becomes official January 15.
"Frankly, it's less confusing than EPIX," says Brancato, who started writing TV in the '90s with scripts for Beverly Hills, 90210 and The X-Files and more recently cocreated Narcos for Netflix. "I've been asked a lot: 'Are you on FX?' So I think the rebrand is going to be just part of an overall Amazon–MGM–EPIX strategy that makes a lot of sense to me."
A little history: EPIX launched in 2009 as a joint venture of Paramount, Lionsgate and MGM, which bought out its partners in 2017 for a reported $1 billion. Amazon's deal to acquire MGM for $8.45 billion was settled earlier this year. In addition to the subscription streaming service Prime Video, Amazon operates the ad-driven streamer Freevee, which was known as IMDb TV until last spring.
EPIX's branding statement has been "Television for movie lovers," and the strategy for MGM+ will be to lean into the MGM legacy, according to Michael Wright. He became president of EPIX in 2017 after years at the helm of Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, and he'll continue as head of MGM+.
"We are the only linear network and streaming service that has MGM's iconic entertainment legacy in its DNA," Wright says via email.
Of course, the streamer will feature offerings from MGM's deep archive (James Bond, Rocky, et al.). Viewers can also expect an assortment of docuseries (the Emmy-nominated Laurel Canyon, Helter Skelter, NFL Icons) and premium movies (Licorice Pizza, House of Gucci). And it will present a growing slate of original series from EPIX, including Godfather of Harlem, which drops its season-three premiere the same day the MGM+ brand goes live.
The series stars Oscar winner Forest Whitaker (also an executive producer) as real-life gangster Bumpy Johnson, who clashes and colludes with the likes of Malcolm X (Nigél Thatch), Adam Clayton Powell (Giancarlo Esposito) and a mafioso played by Vincent D'Onofrio. The story — set in Harlem during the '60s civil-rights movement — follows Johnson after he's released from prison. As he strives to reclaim his drug-running turf from the Italian mob, he slowly comes into his full power.
Brancato is full of praise for Whitaker, calling him "a gentle giant of a man," and noting, "He's so generous and gracious and such an amazing actor, that as a partner I feel like his Zen vibe trickles down through the entire show."
Despite Whitaker's early commitment to the project and the rich subject matter — organized crime meets civil rights — the show almost never got made. After a series of rejections from various streamers, Brancato was resigned to chalking up the project as "a noble failure." But, as he told his partners, "In my career, noble failures have a way of coming back around."
Sure enough, about a month after their last rejection, Brancato got word that Michael Wright at EPIX loved his pilot script and wanted a meeting.
"I didn't want to let it get away," says Wright, who bought the idea in the room. "I felt right away that Godfather of Harlem... was a perfect expression of our MGM+ brand. It has that cinematic, entertaining and intelligent spirit we pursue."
As for Brancato — who also wrote the 1997 film Hoodlum about Bumpy Johnson in the '30s (played by Laurence Fishburne) — he has been dazzled by his entire cast.
"We have actors, both famous and non-famous, who are so good," he says. "Putting them in front of the camera is what distinguishes our show beyond anything that has to do with budget. That's the ethos at MGM+ — great actors, great scripts. If you have those two things, you're going to succeed."
And the show's musical component, Wright points out, was a huge piece as well. "The idea of mixing music from the era with a contemporary soundtrack curated by the brilliant Swizz Beatz — something we all talked about in the room that day — was exhilarating," he says.
Brancato raves about Wright and his team. "I've had all kinds of experiences, good and bad, with different companies, making shows," he says. "I find that the best people to work with as executives are people who have strong opinions, have a grounded, creative instinct — but also aren't so intrusive.
"They leave it to you to figure out how to solve problems that they see. They're not sitting there giving you notes on page thirty-two. Calls with EPIX last ten or fifteen minutes. Not two or three hours, like ones I've been on in the past. And the ones I've been on in the past that are two or three hours invariably yield the most watered-down, milquetoast shows."
Of Wright and the EPIX team, Brancato says, "Their input is designed to improve the script or the cut. And yet they want you to express your vision."
In a clear sign they want Brancato to continue expressing his vision, in September they greenlit Hotel Cocaine, an eight-episode crime thriller set in Miami circa the late 1970s and early '80s. Brancato will be the showrunner and an executive producer. Guillermo Navarro (Pan's Labyrinth) will also be an executive producer and will direct the pilot.
Equally elated by their EPIX experience are the makers of From, the sci-fi/horror series that will return for season two next year. "EPIX has been, from the beginning, an incredibly supportive home," says showrunner Jeff Pinkner (Lost, Alias, Fringe). "Everyone there on the creative side, the marketing side, the production side — everyone gets this show and has been wild champions of exactly what we're trying to do. They haven't ever for one second tried to change it into anything else."
For Wright, From wholly suited the network's cinematic, adult-oriented goals — "content that used to be more common in film," he says, "but has become less available in today's theatrical world of
high-concept IP and spectacle."
He calls the show "a perfect expression of our brand, being made by the right people." Part horror, part sci-fi, part existential journey, From explores community and fear with a diverse, complex cast of characters. It began as a spec script by neophyte writer John Griffin, whose project got a series of passes before Wright bought it for EPIX.
"I don't know what this show would look like somewhere else," Griffin, now an executive producer, says from Halifax, Nova Scotia, where From shoots. "And honestly, what it is — and what it was able to become with EPIX — is what it was always meant to be. We were allowed to make the best version of this show because of the partnership we had with EPIX and because of how involved they were. But also [because of] how trusting they were."
Pinkner says EPIX has given the optimal amount of feedback. "Michael Wright gave us two phenomenal notes at the beginning," he recalls. "'These are the things I care about,' he said. 'This is my rooting interest in the show. Keep doing that and you've got me forever.' And it was a great compass."
"We work hard to function as good partners," Wright adds. "Letting them work in their own voice, encouraging them to pursue their vision, being honest about what we think and feel about the work — without ever dictating to them how to tell their story. We want their voice on the screen, not ours."
Griffin recalls his reaction to the news that EPIX was being folded into a new streaming service called MGM+. "I was thrilled on both counts," he says. "I would not have wanted to make this show anywhere but EPIX, to be quite honest. And now the fact that that is potentially augmented by the MGM+ transition — it's thrilling."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #12, 2022, under the title, "Strike Up the Re-Brand."