HBO have a problem, they've had it for a couple of years and it's getting more of a pressing issue as time goes on. In 2018, Game of Thrones will end and HBO will be left, for the very first time since 1998, without a big hit show that everyone is talking about.
Way back in 1998 HBO, still new to the original scripted drama game, debuted Sex and the City. It was a massive success, got lots of people talking and won HBO a huge number of subscriptions. HBO doubled down on this a year later when it began airing The Sopranos, a violent crime series about the life of mob boss who tries to keep his business running under constant surveillance. Over the next decade HBO aired many critically-acclaimed and popular dramas (including Six Feet Under, Carnivale, Deadwood, Big Love, Rome and The Wire, as well as mini-series like Band of Brothers, The Corner and John Adams) but The Sopranos and Sex in the City were the jewels in the network's crown.
Sex and the City ended in 2004. The Sopranos followed suit in 2007 and it looked like HBO might have to survive without a big, successful show on the air. However, by luck the following season they debuted a TV drama series about vampires. True Blood would go on to almost match the success and buzz of The Sopranos (although not quite the same level of critical acclaim). And just at the point that True Blood's critical and commercial success began waning in 2011, they debuted Game of Thrones, which would go on to become the most successful show in the network's history.
According to HBO, they've never "needed" a massive, genre-defining show to lead with. They get a lot of subscriptions for their sports and movie channels, and their original drama and comedy programming has really been an added bonus on top of that. Their top executives seem relatively sanguine about the possibility that they may end up in a situation where they have no massive, subscription-encouraging series on the air for a few years. How the reality of that feels after twenty years of being the top dogs will likely be a different story, however. More of an issue for HBO has been that original scripted cable drama used to be very much the field they owned exclusively, but now other channels such as Starz (Black Sails and Outlander), AMC (The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad) and Showtime (the new Twin Peaks) are fighting for that space, not to mention the competition posed by Netflix and Amazon with their original programming. HBO isn't the automatic "go-to" network any more for talented creators who want to get a pet project on the air any more.
Paradoxically, despite HBO making quite staggering amounts of money, they have also become more risk-averse. They have cancelled shows after producing pilots and canned projects that should appear to be slam-dunk successes. Embarrassingly, some of these projects have gone on to great success on other networks and in other venues (most famously Mad Men, which HBO turned down and went to air with AMC).
More impressive is the fact that HBO turned down no less than three absolutely killer shows based on books which would have been a perfect fit for them and perfect follow-ups for Game of Thrones, being fantasy shows but "different" kinds of fantasy to Thrones. The first of these was The Dark Tower, based on the Stephen King novels. HBO developed this both as a joint TV-film cross-media project and then just as a TV show. However, HBO got cold feet and dropped it. It's been picked up by Sony Pictures as a major film project and shooting starts in a few weeks with Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey starring. The second was Preacher, based on the violent but critically-acclaimed graphic novel series by Garth Ennis. The series was in an advanced state of development when HBO apparently (and uncharacteristically) got cold feet over the show's controversial stance on religion and dropped it. AMC picked it up and shooting has wrapped on the first season, which should debut in a few months. Early buzz on pilot screenings is extremely positive, and the show should make an excellent companion series for The Walking Dead. Finally, there was American Gods. HBO had developed multiple pilot scripts with Neil Gaiman, the writer of the novel, and had looked virtually certain to greenlight it when they very abruptly dropped it, to the puzzlement of just about everybody. Starz has since picked up the series and production is currently underway in Toronto.
So, we have to ask, what does HBO have on its development plate right now, what is available and what could they do to produce a follow-up hit show to Thrones? Let's take a look.
Westworld is based on Michael Crichton's 1973 film of the same name and is set in a futuristic theme park where the robot exhibits start to break free and take control. This has an absolutely stellar cast, with Sir Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden and Thandie Newton starring and Jonathan Nolan writing and directing. The series is in the final stages of filming right now for a debut airdate expected at the end of this year. However, the show has experienced major production problems including a four-month filming shutdown amidst rumours over writing problems and controversy over some of the actors' contracts. In addition, the show seems to be mainly a cerebral affair about the future of artificial intelligence and consciousness, which will make for a stirring SF series (and this is HBO's first-ever outright science fiction show) but is unlikely to win over a mass audience.
Director Zack Snyder (The 300, Man of Steel, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice) actually made a movie of Watchmen in 2009, to a mixed critical reception (I liked it). However, even the most ardent admirers would have to admit that the film had to rush a lot of Alan Moore's material from the seminal 1985 graphic novel to fit into just two hours, so Snyder has gone to HBO with the intention of re-staging the story as a TV show (possibly drawing on some of the materials published since, such as the Beyond Watchmen project). HBO seem to be interested, but have not formally greenlit the project yet. With Snyder committed to Superman and Justice League movies for some time, this would likely be handled by other writers. To be honest, this could be a really good series, but I suspect it would only work as a mini-series rather than an ongoing, multi-year project.
Jonathan Nolan has proposed a TV adaptation of Isaac Asimov's seven Foundation novels to HBO, who have optioned the book rights ahead of further discussions and seeing a script. HBO took the step of buying the rights whilst they were already held by Roland Emmerich (who was developing a film before the buy-off), so seem to be pretty serious about this project. However, Nolan is now working on Westworld so this project has likely been kicked down the curb a fair ways.
Foundation is one of science fiction's most famous series. Set 22,000 years in the future, it chronicles the collapse of the vast Galactic Empire and the attempt by a scientific thinktank, the Foundation, to preserve scientific knowledge and wisdom through an estimated thousand years of barbarism to follow. The novels span roughly the first half of this period, culminating in the rediscovery of the long-forgotten homeworld of humanity, Earth.
This could make for an interesting series, especially if HBO adopt an anthology approach and jump forward decades or centuries between seasons a la True Detective. However, there will have to be a lot of invention for the series as Asimov's view of the future is seriously outdated by this time.
As has been said a few times, Game of Thrones feels very much like a spiritual successor to Bruno Heller's excellent historical drama series Rome, which aired for two seasons and 23 episodes between 2005 and 2007. Rome was cancelled due to budgetary concerns, something HBO later regretted when they checked the DVD and foreign screening sales. However, HBO left the elaborate outdoor set in Italy standing as a tourist attraction and a filming location for other series and documentaries. In 2011 HBO announced that they were developing a fresh adaptation of Robert Graves's classic novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God, previously filmed by the BBC in 1976. Given that the original plan was for Rome to jump forward to this story in its fourth or fifth season had it stayed on the air anyway, this could be very much a clever way of getting Rome back on the air, potentially using the same sets but sadly (due to a time-skip forward of several decades) not the same actors. However, HBO have not commented on the project in some years, so the enthusiasm for it may have fizzled out, which would be a shame as a new series set in Ancient Rome would be very welcome.
The Warlord Chronicles
HBO don't have the rights to this book trilogy, but Bad Wolf Productions do, having optioned it a few months ago. Bad Wolf also have a co-development deal with both HBO and the BBC, but the BBC are likely too busy with Bad Wolf's His Dark Materials series to take this on as well. Hopefully, HBO will give this a look. Written by Bernard Cornwell (The Last Kingdom, Sharpe), The Warlord Chronicles are a "realistic" take on the legend of King Arthur, set during the 5th and 6th Centuries in a Britain riven by religious and political turmoil. The Roman Empire has collapsed, but some of the Roman settlers and armies remain. The native Britons are trying to re-establish themselves, but the first waves of Saxons are starting to invade from the east. Roman religious cults and the newly-arrived religion of Christianity are struggling against the native pagan druids and other old faiths. It's a time of great danger, enhanced when King Uther Pendragon dies and the protection of his infant son and heir Mordred falls to Uther's bastard child Arthur. Unable to ever become king, Arthur instead takes on the mantle of Warlord.
It's a rich and atmospheric take on the legend of King Arthur, noted for its much greater focus on realism. There were no knights (in the medieval sense), massive stone fortresses or armies in the tens of thousands at this time, so the focus is on fighting with spears and shields, holdfasts are mostly made of wood and a formidable army might only consist of a few hundred - or even a few dozen! - men. Merlin is a randy priest of the old faith, Guinevere is a warrior chief and Lancelot a warrior with tremendous PR skills. The whole story is being related in exacting detail by a warrior of the Round Table, Derfel Cadarn, to some monks. To his horror, they start "sexing up" the stories with magic swords and ladies in lakes, forming the legend as we currently know it.
This would make for a great follow-up to Game of Thrones, especially if handled by a good writer. It might only be a three-season project (the books are quite slim) but there's still plenty of excellent material to get onto the screen.
This would be a very different kind of story to Thrones, but potentially one with broad appeal. This series of short story collections and "mosaic novels" began in 1987 with Wild Cards and now extends across 23 books and several comics. George R.R. Martin created the universe, edits all of the books and has written several stories for the series, but the stories are the actual creation of many other writers. It seems likely, especially if HBO decides not to proceed with Watchmen, that they'll want to dip their toes into the superhero genre at some point and this story of flawed people who are more likely to be broken or corrupted by their powers than turned into paragons is right up HBO's alley. It would also tie in with HBO's development deal with Martin and give them lots of stories to adapt as well as the freedom to create their own material. The rights were until recently held by SyFy, but are due to lapse imminently.
The premise of the series is that in 1946 an alien virus is released on Earth. Thousands of people are affected: 90% are killed, 9% turn into malformed "Jokers" with useless powers and abilities and 1% into "Aces" or outright superheroes. An alternative history of the 20th Century unfolds as the Aces and Jokers take part in historical events, face discrimination and try to make their own lives in a changed world.
This is a bit more of a stretch because HBO's name has not come up in relation to it. However, it would be a good fit. Years ago, Peter Jackson eyed Naomi Novik's Temeraire novels with the intention of turning them into films. However, first the Tintin trilogy and then the Hobbit movies got in the way. With two Tintin movies still to make and other projects on the fire, Jackson is likely years away from even getting close to making this as a film. A few years back he acknowledged this, combined with the problem of adapting nine books, and confirmed he was repurposing it as a TV series with him only taking a producer's credit.
HBO joining forces with Weta Workshop to make a TV show about dragons fighting for both sides during the Napoleonic Wars? That's a high concept that I think would be up HBO's street and I think could make for an entertaining (if highly-budgeted) show.