Go See Napster: Mark Greenberg on The Future of Epix

The CEO of the new movie channel talks TV on the Xbox and their big Avengers build up.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


Epix CEO Mark Greenberg does not want to be the next Napster. He’s got big plans for making his movie channel a vital competitor to the HBOs, Showtimes and Starzes of the world. This month Epix is showing the Marvel superhero movies leading up to The Avengers: Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. At a luncheon with the press, Greenberg showed off the Xbox interface for Epix and the Epix iPad app. We sat down with Greenberg to geek out over cable TV menus and get the real scoop on their upcoming original movie plans.


CraveOnline: How did you get the Marvel movies from the mainstay pay channels like HBO and Showtime?

Mark Greenberg: Well, Paramount owns our channel. They’re a major owner of who we are so what happens is every pay outlet has its exclusive deals. Showtime has a deal with Weinstein and CBS Films. Starz has it with Disney and Sony, and HBO has it with Warner Brothers, Universal and Fox. We have Paramount, Lionsgate and MGM and then smaller ones with Goldwyn and Roadside.


I remember when Paramount switched from HBO to Showtime.

The ‘80s.


So now they’ve gotten into business for themselves?

Well, listen, part of it was a combination of reasons but the most important one is that we all saw an emerging audience on the internet. When we created this venture four years ago this month, it was really with the eye that the world’s evolving, the world is changing and if we don’t find ways to make the content available in a legal way, an honest way and one they can monetize, then it’s going to get stolen. Go see Napster and the music industry, right? So I think it was really protecting its intellectual property, saying we need to find ways to let honest people be honest. To that end, a better way to do it was to not lease your content but own your content and sell it through there. So Marvel was obviously part of the Paramount deals they’ve done.


It’s a good things all the pre-Avengers movies were before they switched to Disney so you could have this Marvel Heroes Weekend.

But The Avenger is also going to be on Epix. It might be a year from now but that’s part of why we’re able to do a big stunt around it and help support the campaign. We think that our prequel advertising, part of this is we’re building this as a business because we think it’s the right way to reach a younger demographic group that wants to watch it on that device. If you have a good idea and you don’t make it available, people will find a workaround. I think we all saw it happen in the music industry. A lot of those parents had great CD sound systems and Napster’s quality was never nearly as good as a CD but it was cool, it was fun, it was convenient. I think that’s what happens in this world.


There is an issue with streaming quality versus Blu-ray quality. Where does Epix stand on raising the quality of streaming product?

That’s a great question. So today on our website and on these devices, you’re going to see the Xbox do in essence a multi-bitrate player. Which means every 10 to 15 seconds we’re shifting and we have six different versions of Epix that we’re loading at the same time, from a high of 720p to a low of 500k because people’s consumption in their home affects it. The last thing you want to when watching a movie is see “Loading, loading loading.” So we keep on shifting the technology, it’s like a car, fourth gear to third gear, second gear back to third gear. We don’t want you touching the brake. We only want you to control the speed with the stick. We sort of do the same thing with the multi bitrate player. We have the ability to go to 1080p right now which in essence is Blu-ray but there’s lots of complications that deal with our cable industry and telco providers of what happens between the bandwidth going out and the CPU that’s being provided with the set top box and is it fast enough to be able to deliver that content in that way today? So I think a lot of those issues are what we’re dealing with but as the architecture gets built out in a more robust way, we’ll definitely be at Blu-ray quality.


Cable has those issues. What about the on Xbox?

The devices are definitely better but it still comes down to going through a modem into the home and being redistributed out. When you’re doing six megabits it’s hard. When you start offering more than 20 megabits, it’s actually an opportunity for the industry to start selling that. I’d like to say in one of these presentations 20 megabits of home banking is really a bad idea, watching my checkout go out faster. Whereas at least a Blu-ray quality is there. So those are things we have in development. We’ll be hopefully in the next year or two ready to roll it out and it‘s really trying to marry up what happens with cable guys and telco providers in terms of are they ready to be able to deliver a 1080p quality? Because you don’t want to build it and spend the money and reach one home.


Like HD in the beginning.

Listen, I was at HBO in 1985/86 and I was working on a high definition preview. I think maybe one person could see it and it took another 15-20 years before it really became a commercial experience. That sort of tells you the adoption curve. Now I think technology is changing at a quicker rate today than we’ve ever seen before.


What are Epix’s plans for original shows?

So today we have music and comedy has been a big mainstay.


But when you see the “Mad Men”s on AMC, does that motivate you to create your own?

Of course. Listen, “Mad Men” is created and produced by one of our partners, Lionsgate.


I should’ve referenced “The Sopranos,” when original shows on movie networks became big.

And I think every network wants a “Sopranos.” It goes without saying. I think for us it’s the evolution. So we start out comedy, concerts, live events. We’ve had boxing, mixed martial arts, documentaries. Our original movies are Attack of the 50 Foot Cheerleader, we did last year the William Shatner Captains documentary, and then we have a Monty Python animation that we’re producing that we’re going to have on in November.


Are you able to show the Roger Corman movie Attack of the 50 Foot Cheerleader in 3D?

The answer is yes. Verizon, Cox, there’s a number of our providers who do 3D right now. Now I won’t tell you there’s a lot of households that can get 3D but the answer is we shot it in 3D because we do believe in the long run it’s important for us to have that asset in 3D. A lot of our movies are now starting to come in 3D so I think build it and they will come. Like high definition, as a premium provider you have to be ahead of the curve. That’s what people want. So the answer is yes, it will in 3D, yes it will be on some of our distributors in 3D and I think that’s really cool. Now how many people will have the glasses and find them when it comes time? It looks beautiful in 2D because it needs to be. You can’t just sit there and say, “We’re only going to do a 3D show.”


With William Shatner’s Get a Life and the animated Graham Chapman movie, is it your plan to start something with Shatner and Python and stick with them with more projects?

On that side of it for us, it will be a major part of what we do. We think Shatner was great for that franchise of Star Trek. He did The Captains. We’re talking about his next documentary which will be out this fall which will be will be on the fans and the fandom of what goes on. We think there’s different ways to tell those stories. We were excited about the Pythons because we think it’s a great way to assemble them and put it back together. We will be featuring those movies on our network when we do that and we have access to those through some of our partners and outside some of our partners. So I think those are franchises we like to build. We also did one for the Lionsgate movie The Expendables. We did a documentary on that as well that played prior to the release of the movie.


You can add some Van Damme and Chuck Norris movies to your rotation for the sequel.

Yeah, there’s a lot of franchises. We keep talking to MGM on what we can do with the Bond franchise. We had 20 Bond movies. We did an old Bond doc which everyone does which is let’s talk about the Bond girls which is always great. But I think there’s other ways to tell the story of what goes on in Bond and we’ll look at that with them. I’m hoping as we get to the second Hunger Games we’ll do a documentary on that as well. So I think it’s a way for us to extend what’s there. We’re on the sets of all of our movies and we have what I call our own version of DVD extras. Instead of on Iron Man 2 talking to Robert Downey Jr. and saying, “How was the experience?” and he’s great, he means it, the cast and crew was great and you see it on “Entertainment Tonight” and on “E!” Our audience wants to know what did Robert Downey Jr. eat every night? So we’re talking to the guy in the food truck. We’re talking to the guy who made the Arc reactor and how does that work? How do you make it work during the movie? We’re there the day they took the set down. We have 7500 video assets on our website and all these devices. The fans are able to engage in the fandom of what goes on and we’re able to deliver something they can’t see anywhere else. If I were to aggregate all of those as one movie, it’s one of the five most watched parts of what we offer. It’s a different kind of original programming. It’s more short form but it’s fun to get.


You’re on Xbox now. When will you be on PS3?

We’ve been in discussions with them, hoping to be soon. It’s always interesting, everyone has a different timetable on some of the strategies and authentication and dealing with that. I think Sony has a strong desire to be in that business. Our expectation is that we will be there at some point in time.


And Wii?

I think you’ll get all three of those devices. I grew up watching broadcast television. My kids grew up watching cable, satellite and telco. I think all those become relevant and remain, but there’s other ways that people want to see content. We knew that multiplatform and different ways of experiencing that were going to be important. Although people go to the internet, it’s less on their computers, it’s more on devices. So the Xbox, the PS3s, the Wiis and now tablets have become what I think are the way today that people are going over the internet to get that content. Right now we’re on about 300 -400 different devices. We’re on the iPad, we’re on the iPhone, on the Android devices, we’re on the Samsung TV sets and Blu-ray players. We’ve been on the Roku device for over a year now. We’re deploying these things and all these devices because people want to watch content that way.


Those devices are on demand, so you don’t get the linear programming?

One could do that. I think there’s a lot of questions at Xbox whether they want to be or not be in that. So right now, everything that’s on the linear channel is on our on demand service. So we sort of break it down into three parts. There’s a linear channel, 24/7, east coast, west coast just like HBO and Showtime and Starz. We have an on demand offering that’s more hours than they do, especially on movies. So we have 300 hours of on demand programming on the cable, telco and set top box. On the internet delivery, on authentication, we have over 3000 movies on right now. We think the user interface makes it really easy and convenient. Having owners like Paramount, MGM and Lionsgate, they have 15,000 titles in their library. We went pretty deep.