Johns Hopkins Gazette: October 24, 1994

Producer Takes Audience Behind Scenes of 'Homicide'
By Mike Field

Tom Fontana sits on the floor of the stage of the Downtown
Center's Berman Auditorium. His legs dangle casually over the
edge of the stage as he talks with a lunchtime audience of about
150 fans of the television show he produces, Homicide: Life on
the Street. Dressed in jeans, a white long-sleeve thermal
undershirt and a blue baseball cap lettered with the word
Mobtown, the three-time Emmy award winner appears completely at
ease before this audience of total strangers.
    But perhaps that should not be surprising. Earlier, when he
asked who watched Homicide, all the hands in the room shot up.
Tom Fontana is among friends. Just in case, he has brought along
Henry Bromell, co-executive producer of the Baltimore-based prime
time police story, to help him out. Bromell, who like Fontana is
bearded and vaguely literary-looking, sits on stage beside
Fontana. He seems distinctly less at ease than his more
gregarious counterpart. Together, the two men spend an hour
discussing television making in Baltimore as part of the
university's Downtown at Noon free lecture series sponsored
through the School of Continuing Studies.
    "This show has had an odd roller coaster ride," begins
Fontana after a brief introduction by Downtown Center director
Jan Moylan. "We did nine episodes our first season, then we were
extended, but only for four more episodes, which never, ever
happens in television. Usually you are extended for 13 more
episodes or not at all." 
    Additional episodes have since been ordered, though
Homicide's ultimate fate is still uncertain. The critically
acclaimed show, executive produced by Baltimore native Barry
Levinson, has been slow to gain the kind of large audiences
necessary for commercial success. Based on the book Homicide: A
Year on the Killing Streets by Baltimore Sun reporter David
Simon, it is, notes Fontana, "the first cop show with no
violence, no car chases, no gun battles. Those are the classic
tricks used in this genre since Dragnet. The question then
becomes, how do you get action into the drama without the action
of these tricks?"
    Levinson's solution was to adopt a jerky, hard-edge style of
photography that "violates all the rules of camera work," Fontana
says. "We break the rules because it gives the show a
reality-based grittiness and ugliness that has tremendous
impact." The camera style has been copied widely since the show's
premiere, he says. "It is a style that is becoming increasingly
common and people are learning to accept."
    After a few brief introductory remarks, Fontana shows a
12-minute segment of an upcoming episode concerning the death by
apparent suicide of one of the regular characters on the show.
The footage displays  the hand-held camera work, jumpy cuts,
quick edits and tight, close-up frames that have come to define
the Homicide style. As the episode unfolds--including a
spectacular nighttime helicopter shot of police recovering the
body from the waters surrounding the Fells Point pier--paper bags
rustle and soda cans pop in the darkened auditorium. Audience
members are eating their lunch.
    "It's perfectly alright for audience members to bring their
lunch to these events," said Jan Moylan in a subsequent telephone
interview from her Downtown Center office. "Most of our audience
comes from people who live or work within walking distance of the
center, and for them, this a lunchtime tradition."
      Typical audiences at the series number more than 100,
according to Moylan, and on at least one occasion the 222-seat
auditorium was filled past capacity. 
       Each semester, a brochure describing the upcoming speakers
series is mailed to about 10,000 households, and the individual
events are promoted on the university's radio station, WJHU. "We
also rent the Berman Auditorium out on occasion which brings
other people into the center," Moylan says. "I would guess that
all these events combined bring several thousand people into the
center each year, and that is extremely important for us. If we
are to succeed, people must know we are here."
       The strategy has paid off. While in recent years business  
    and real estate studies have suffered declining enrollments
nationally, at the Downtown Center, enrollments are up. Moylan
attributes the growth to the Downtown at Noon and similar
    At the conclusion of the video Fontana and Bromell answer
questions from the audience. "Do you think the writing is too
sharp?" asks one devoted fan, who adds he can't understand why
the show isn't more popular than it is. 
    "I don't think any of us are trying to think only in terms
of how to make the show popular," says Fontana with a laugh. "We
want to create the best show we possibly can. Whenever you try
something different, like our camera style, you run the risk of
putting people off. Hopefully, in our new time slot we'll be
allowed to build an audience."
       "Have you considered using nudity?" asks another fan,
referring to a highly publicized bedroom scene in an early
episode of NYPD Blue, the show most often compared with Homicide
for its tough, reality-based atmosphere and adult themes. "The
only way we would show a bare butt is if it would be [series
star] Ned Beatty's," Fontana replies without missing a beat. The
auditorium erupts in laughter and applause. Nationally, Homicide
may be struggling to find an audience. But in Baltimore, at
least, the show has friends.

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