NAME: Francesca Orsi
TITLE: Executive VP and Co-Head of Drama
CAREER HIGHLIGHT: Orsi said developing Elena Ferrante’s novel My Brilliant Friend as a series has been “one of the most inspired experiences of my career.”
QUOTABLE: “The fact that the story captures the essence of my mother’s childhood growing up in Naples, Italy in the ’50s and the passion we shared to get the show authentically made, could not have been more rewarding. The ultimate success it’s had in its launch has only made the experience more special and meaningful.”
Francesca Orsi, executive vice president and co-head of drama at HBO, has a pretty good-sized premiere coming up. She oversees Game of Thrones, which offers its eighth, and final, season in April. HBO isn’t saying much about what’s in store for the last season, but Orsi said the series’ hardcore fans will come away “deeply satisfied” by the six-episode swan song.
“Their minds will be blown,” Orsi predicted.
Even when Daenerys Targaryen, Jon Snow and those dragons sign off forever, Game of Thrones leaves behind a towering legacy for HBO, and for Orsi. It will be some time before another series, from HBO or another network, shakes up popular culture the way Game of Thrones has. But every HBO series aims for that “something emotionally epic that Game of Thrones has, that essence it has,” Orsi said.
My ‘Gorgeous’ Friend
It’s a tough act to follow to be sure. But HBO drama My Brilliant Friend, which premiered Nov. 18, made its mark on several fronts. It is based on the novels by Elena Ferrante, which Orsi fell hard for well before the project came to HBO.
Critics adore the series. “Gorgeous and savage,” said The Atlantic. “The story of a febrile and rivalrous friendship between two girls in a working-class Italian neighborhood in the 1950s, it is as intimate as Game of Thrones is sweeping,” said The New York Times.
My Brilliant Friend has done “exceptionally well,” according to Orsi. “We are deeply proud of it.”
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While it represents HBO’s first foreign-language original series, Orsi describes My Brilliant Friend as “completely on-brand” for the network. “It depicts female friendship in a way that’s never been explored,” said Orsi, who describes the show as “a love letter” to her Naples-bred mother.
A few weeks after My Brilliant Friend premiered, HBO signed on for a second season, to be based on the Ferrante book The Story of a New Name. Casey Bloys, HBO president of programming, said My Brilliant Friend shows Orsi at her finest. “She took the project from inception to execution,” he said. “It’s a good example of what she can do when she locks into something.”
Orsi has spent almost her entire career at HBO. She came on board as an executive assistant to the head of drama in 2003, moved up to creative associate in 2005 and became director, development of HBO Entertainment in 2008. Orsi was named senior VP of HBO Programming in 2014, and earned her current title in 2016.
Orsi singles out Bloys as a mentor. “He helped me find my voice,” she said.
Bloys said “Frannie” has an uncommon set of skills among programming executives. “She has an intuition, a feel for material,” he said. “That, and her ability to execute on it, is a rare combination.”
Orsi has also been focused on Succession, a drama about a Murdoch-like family that holds a massive media empire. Members fight for control of the company as the patriarch’s health fails. She describes the series as grounded, with a fresh tone akin to that of Arrested Development or Veep, but unique in that it is a drama. “There’s something delicious about people you love to hate,” said Orsi.
She is looking ahead to 2019, when HBO will debut Gentleman Jack, set in 1800s England and based on the coded journals of a woman with some secrets; Watchmen, based on a comic book series that shows superheroes treated as outlaws; and Lovecraft Country, a thriller series about a road trip across 1950s Jim Crow America. Orsi describes the new series as “provocative.”
HBO forever was the undisputed home of sui generis TV series that made a lasting mark on society, whether it was The Sopranos, Sex and the City, The Wire, Oz or Veep. It has a recent rival in Netflix, which had the most Emmy nominations prior to the September awards show with 112, ahead of HBO’s 108. HBO had had the most nominations 17 years running.
After the awards were given out, both networks claimed 23, including both the Creative Arts and the Primetime awards. HBO won the most prestigious prize, Outstanding Drama, when Game of Thrones took that trophy for the third time.
Netflix’s production budgets are staggering; it spent a reported $12 billion to $13 billion on programming in 2018. Orsi said there isn’t a whole lot of talk about Netflix within the hallways at HBO. “We focus on the work itself,” she said.
While Orsi doesn’t have much to compare the HBO culture with, she said the network stands out for its “very deep dive” into its series. Other networks’ executives might offer a few notes on, say, the second act of a script, while Orsi said HBO’s executives weigh in on every aspect of a series’ season. “We focus on what the emotional journey is for the entire series,” she said. “We are intimately involved in a show.”
The mother of an 8-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son, Orsi, who is based in Los Angeles, is intimately involved in the design of her new house in Sherman Oaks. “It’s always incredibly chaotic at work,” she said. “I’m soothed by my new home.”
Casey Bloys describes Orsi as a lively storyteller with a big personality. She’s also an essential cog in HBO’s enviable hit-making machine. “When Frannie says, ‘I think there’s something here,’ ” said Bloys, “I pay attention.”
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Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.