Published January 14. 2013 4:00AM
As the opening credits of the new Cinemax series "Banshee" begin, the dial of an old steel safe spins, tumblers locking to reveal a combination that viewers can use to crack open "the vault" on the show's website.
This is where each week the creators of "Banshee" will spill the dark secrets hidden in haunting photographs that appear on the distressed surface of a wooden bar in the show's title sequence.
"Fast forward at your own peril," the show's executive producer and showrunner, Greg Yaitanes, said of TV viewers who might be tempted to skip the opening credits.
With the help of a Silicon Valley start-up, Yaitanes is trying something that has rarely - if ever - been attempted in TV: He is using the title sequence to push the borders of the fictional world of "Banshee" beyond the TV screen and onto desktops, smartphones and tablets.
"Television shows like 'Banshee' are designing worlds so rich, it takes multiple screens and viewing environments for the worlds to be fully realized," said Steve Anderson, associate professor of cinematic arts at USC. "But this is the first time I've seen that kind of content being delivered in a TV title sequence."
Television shows want to do everything they possibly can to hold on to TV viewers, especially younger adults who are increasingly multitasking on tablets and phones while watching TV. Eighty-five percent of tablet and smartphone owners use their devices while watching TV at least once a month, with nearly 40 percent of them doing it daily, according to Nielsen. And, nearly half of 18- to 24-year-olds use their smartphones while watching TV at least once a day.
"Any kind of visual entertainment aimed at that generation can only be a good thing," said Jeffrey Okun, chairman of the Visual Effects Society.
"Banshee," the new series from Alan Ball, executive producer of HBO's "True Blood," debuted Friday on Cinemax, a premium pay channel and sister network to HBO that is owned by media giant Time Warner Inc. It tells the story of Lucas Hood, a master thief who gets out of prison and tracks the woman he loves to a small town in Pennsylvania Amish country. Hunted by the gangsters he conned, Hood, played by Antony Starr, steals the identity and badge of the new sheriff of Banshee, where no one is who they seem.
With just 12 million American households subscribing to Cinemax, "Banshee" needed a digital edge to build a following. It got that edge from Tin Punch Media. The new Silicon Valley company started by Yaitanes' brother Jason and Twitter co-founder Biz Stone created the opening titles.
"We wanted the title sequence to extend the universe of the show onto the Web and beyond," Stone said. "Every week there is something new: a clue, a twist or some kind of complexity."
Opening credits used to be an afterthought in television. TV title design reached its zenith in the 1960s then mostly languished for decades. Financial constraints kept TV titles "horrifically static," Okun said.
Television has made a dramatic comeback over the last decade - and with that comeback have been higher budgets, giving producers a new way in the first few seconds to hook their trigger-happy audience with their fingers just inches from the remote.
Now a new generation of digitally savvy showrunners such as Yaitanes is using the opening titles to try to hold viewers' attention long after the final credits roll.
When he directed Fox's "House," Yaitanes had just a five-second title sequence. With "Banshee" he had 75 seconds. Yaitanes said he was determined not to waste a single one of them.
"For me it opened up the question: Why hasn't anyone really used that real estate to tell a story?" Yaitanes said. "That's more than a minute of storytelling that could be used to enrich the viewers' experience."
Yaitanes already planned to tell the story of "Banshee" across multiple media channels - a graphic novel, a Twitter feed @BansheeDeva and the "Banshee" website, which will feature 13 prequel videos - more than 30 minutes of unseen material - that shed light on the back stories of key characters.
But he also had ambitious plans for the opening titles. He wanted a different sequence for each of the 10 episodes to keep viewers glued to their screens, and he wanted to give the show's fans a digital "rabbit hole" that they could tumble down and explore.
He challenged Tin Punch Media, a three-person shop in San Francisco and Boston, and other title houses to come up with a groundbreaking concept.
After reading the script, Yaitanes, Tin Punch Media's creative director, said he seized on the power of still photographs: the final image of Jack Nicholson in Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" or the series of black-and-white stills of Jake's boxing matches in Martin Scorsese's "Raging Bull."
In one of the photographs in the "Banshee" pilot's title sequence, Sugar Bates, an aging bar owner down on his luck - played by Frankie Faison - is captured in his youth when he was a boxing champion. It conveys Bates' deep longing to climb back into the ring of life, something he thinks may be possible now that Hood has come to Banshee, Yaitanes said.
"There's something magical about a still photograph, and I pictured this as an album of this town on a table, and someone is sifting through the photographs for clues about who these people are," Yaitanes said.
The images that flash quickly on the screen are jarring. They are all "Banshee-ized," shot in such a way that they obscure far more than they reveal, giving the whole sequence an unsettling, almost sinister look and feel that sets the tone for the show, Yaitanes said.