Monday, August 28, 2006

The New York Times



August 28, 2006

Generating Buzz in All the Right Places, 'Entourage' Fills a Gap for HBO

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 24 — On the elegant office set representing the headquarters of Ari Gold’s new palatial Hollywood talent agency, Doug Ellin sat in the glass-walled ersatz conference room, about where the fictional ├╝ber-agent Ari might sit, talking about the utterly unexpected phenomenon of the series he created, HBO’s “Entourage.”

“I do not say this arrogantly, but people in this town are talking about the show,” Mr. Ellin said. “I was sitting in a restaurant this week and these three people are talking, and literally I hear this one guy say to another guy, ‘Stop talking about “Entourage” already.’ ”

Mr. Ellin, also an executive producer of the show, doesn’t want anyone to stop talking about “Entourage,” and neither does HBO. The series, about a young movie star and his three hanger-on friends, wrapped up its latest batch of episodes last night (though of course that last episode will be repeated on HBO and its various channels all week). The show has become the subject of more and more fascination among viewers, who have been lamenting in Internet chat rooms and blogs what feels like a too-short season. (There were 12 episodes this summer as opposed to last season’s 14.)

It has also become the object of greater affection at HBO, which, like Ari and his agency, needs a new hot property in the worst way.

Mr. Ellin said he had picked up that message from HBO executives: “They say: ‘We love you. Keep doing it.’ They will call and say: ‘Are you O.K.? You tired? Are you happy? Do you think you can do this many episodes?’”

“This many” means as many as Mr. Ellin and his staff and cast can churn out in the next 12 months. Even as this summer’s season was winding down, Mr. Ellin and his cast were on the set working on the eight episodes HBO had ordered in addition to the 12 to 13 tentatively scheduled for next summer. The eight episodes were intended to bring the show back as soon as January, paired with the supreme HBO attraction, “The Sopranos.”

Now, in part because of a leg injury to “The Sopranos” star James Gandolfini, that show will not be back until later, perhaps March. When it returns, Mr. Ellin was told, HBO would like to schedule “Entourage” after “The Sopranos,” which will be in its final eight-episode run, the better to expose as many viewers as possible to a show that is looking more and more like the next signature series for HBO.

Carolyn Strauss, the president of HBO Entertainment, has been making that point for months. Before the current “Entourage” season started, she called the series “the future of the network.” The truth is there is not a lot of competition for that designation at the moment. “Sex and the City,” HBO’s first great popular comedy, is long gone. So is “Six Feet Under.” Besides “The Sopranos” a batch of other HBO series are heading into their final seasons. “Deadwood” will have just a four-hour coda next season.

Even though its first season was both exciting and promising, HBO has already announced that “Rome” will have just one more season. HBO managed to talk Larry David into bringing back “Curb Your Enthusiasm” for one more go-round, but that will likely be its last.

The drama “Big Love” won wide critical acclaim in its first season, but its long-term prospects remain uncertain. Which leaves “Entourage,” a show that has clearly achieved a central goal for a series on HBO, a pay channel that depends on people feeling that they can’t afford not to pay the monthly fee: “Entourage” gets people talking.

Mr. Ellin said even his own friends had become so involved with the series that “they would rather hang out with Kevin Connolly than with me.” Mr. Connolly plays Eric Murphy, best friend and manager of the matinee idol Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier), the hot young actor in Mr. Ellin’s fictional Hollywood.

The signs of the “Entourage” phenomenon are growing. The cast members are recognized everywhere. Emmanuelle Chriqui, who plays Sloan, a supporting character, was instantly mobbed when she went to a bar in North Carolina this summer. Joe Kernan, the morning anchorman of the business cable channel CNBC, confused many in the news media when he jokingly reported that first weekend grosses for the “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequel had broken the record set by “Aquaman,” a fictional film starring Vincent Chase.

Mr. Ellin noted that references to Johnny Drama, Vince’s brother (played by Kevin Dillon), and his catchphrase, “Victory!,” had become all but standard fare on ESPN’s “SportsCenter.”

“They’re always saying: ‘Victory!’ ” Mr. Ellin said of the sports anchors. “Or when Johnny Damon hits one for the Yankees: ‘Johnny Drama: Victory!’ ”

Still, audience totals, the tangible evidence of a show’s success, are not quite there yet. This season “Entourage” has averaged about 2.6 million viewers for its Sunday premiere showing at 10 p.m., up from about 1.9 million last year. Significantly, it is a bump up from what “Deadwood” scores at 9, about 2.1 million viewers.

But placed next to HBO’s ratings monsters, like “Sex and the City,” which reached more than 10 million viewers for its finale, and “The Sopranos,” which has gone as high as 13 million, “Entourage” still seems to be playing in a lower league.

Mr. Ellin says the comparisons are not completely valid. “I think the numbers tend to be silly for this show,” he said. “I know they say ‘The Sopranos’ gets 10 million or whatever. And listen, ‘The Sopranos’ is the greatest show in the history of television. But I still think most people watch that show by themselves. I think people gather to watch our show. They watch at parties. They also steal it. They get it online.”

He added that he believed “the right people” were watching the show, meaning not only that it has a younger audience profile than most other HBO shows, but also that it has been embraced by Hollywood. Certainly “Entourage” has had little trouble landing celebrities for cameos as themselves, including Scarlett Johansson and Jimmy Kimmel, and the directors James Cameron and Paul Haggis.

Even Ari Emmanuel, who heads the Endeavor Agency and is the obvious model for Ari Gold (and who represents both Mr. Ellin and the show) has no objections to Jeremy Piven’s over-the-top, widely celebrated portrayal of Ari Gold. Maybe only the producer Robert Evans, whose credits include “The Godfather,” has taken offense. A report in The Daily News last week said he was upset by a new character, Bob Ryan, played by Martin Landau, who seems to be a washed-up producer.

Mr. Ellin disavowed basing the character on Mr. Evans. He said: “Bob Evans is still out there working successfully, lining up films. Martin’s character has not been doing that for a long time.” He acknowledged that one reason the connection is being made is that the series used Mr. Evans’s real home as the character’s home in one scene.

This is an occupational hazard of a series about Hollywood that uses so many Hollywood people. Initially, Mr. Ellin said, he thought he would be mainly telling stories about “a day in the life of these guys.” But he was stunned by how involved viewers became with Vince’s career path.

“Now people are dissecting the plots and some people are saying this episode didn’t move the plot forward,” he said. The sudden downturn in Vince’s movie prospects set off all kinds of concerns. “All my friends were calling me this season saying, ‘I feel so bad for Vince,’ ” Mr. Ellin said. “I’m like: He’s out of work for three weeks. He just made $5 million. Why do you feel bad for him? Feel bad for me. I’m working seven days a week.”

That schedule is not likely to let up, given HBO’s expectations for the series. Mr. Ellin will wrap the next eight-episode run next week. Then he said he might take three or four weeks off before he begins to write episodes for the next run.

“We’ll see how I’m doing,” he said. After that, HBO would like as many as 15 or 16 for the following summer, unless the show is moved to a higher-profile midwinter run. How long does Mr. Ellin believe he can keep telling stories about four guys from Queens living the fast life in Hollywood?

“I think you can keep doing the Hollywood stories,” he said. “But this show could be another ‘Sex and the City.’ We could do a season about their relationships. We could have Vince take a year off and they could go live in the Hamptons.”