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 programs. 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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