The 2013-14 Upfront

Syfy Bets $105m on a TV Series and Video Game [Updated]

Takes big swing on apocalyptic space Western

Grant Bowler is sheriff Jeb Nolan on the TV series (above)… and plays a digital version of Nolan in Trion’s video game (below). Photo: Jeremy Goldberg; Styling: Margo Didia

At the risk of stating the obvious, $105 million is a lot of money. That’s about what Comcast and NBCUniversal have shelled out on the new Syfy series and video game Defiance, a hybrid unlike anything you’ve seen on television. I mean your computer. Wait, make that your PlayStation.

Look, it’s new. It doesn’t fit into any one box in your living room.

Still, $105 million is the rough budget for the project, which includes a staggering $40 million for the TV series alone (for perspective, HBO, the gold standard for expensive TV, shelled out $60 million on Game of Thrones' first season). The balance pays for the $50 million it cost to make the video game, developed with software company Trion Worlds, which shares the financial burden (NBCU owns half of the game with Trion), and the show's huge marketing budget—upwards of $15 million. 

[UPDATED: The budget breakdown for Defiance has been revised per new information from Syfy, which initially provided Adweek with erroneous numbers. Though the overall figure is correct, NBCUniversal bears less of the financial burden than it originally indicated.]

That budget alone indicates just how big a swing Defiance is, not just for Syfy but for NBCUniversal’s whole cable division. Sources say the show, which debuts April 15 at 9 p.m., is being given as high a level of internal promotional attention as Universal Studios’ feature films. “[It’s] top-priority across Comcast for March and April, up there with Fast & Furious 6,” says one insider.

In other words, Defiance had better hit big.

But seriously, what is it? Think of the TV series as the love child of Joss Whedon’s posthumously venerated half-season wonder Firefly and Syfy’s own five-season small-town dramedy Eureka. The elevator pitch: It’s a post-apocalyptic space Western, set 40 years in the future, that pushes all the geek buttons. The show creator is Rockne S. O’Bannon, whose credits include a cult Syfy show from the late 1990s called Farscape. Actors with genre TV chops man this ship: True Blood vet Grant Bowler plays reluctant sheriff Jeb Nolan, Dexter thespian Julie Benz plays town mayor Amanda Rosewater and relative newcomer Stephanie Leonidas plays Jeb’s adopted alien daughter Irisa, who is angry with him for allowing the two of them to get waylaid in Defiance (formerly St. Louis).

There’s a lot more to it than that, including an ongoing conflict among several different varieties of alien and alien crossbreed—the pilot is roughly half introductory whodunit and half future-war background primer. And it’s crammed with expensive special effects.

The video game is a massively multiplayer third-person shooter that features voice work by actors from the TV series; it goes live and will be available in stores April 2. The game also keeps pace with the events of the show, referring to series plot developments as it goes on. The show returns the favor; as your character fights mutants and aliens on another front, your army’s major victories will make an appearance on the show. More on this later.

Syfy president Dave Howe calls the experience “true transmedia,” and though he’s excited about it, he is aware of what’s at stake. “I’ve lost a lot of sleep over this project, as you can imagine, especially since we’ve delayed it twice,” admits Howe. Defiance has been in development for five years—an eternity for a TV series but not unheard-of for a game (although plenty of games get pounded out in a year or two).

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