Kevin Spacey in 'House of Cards'

Kevin Spacey in 'House of Cards' (Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon)

It was a steamy weeknight in July on Centre Street, and the extras in black tie were flagging.

The $100 million series "House of Cards" was prepping a crowd scene outside the Peabody Institute, across from the Midtown BBQ & Brew. For more than two hours, nothing happened. Extras were herded about, lights were adjusted, and onlookers complained alternately about the heat and lack of action on the set.

Then they snapped to attention. A current moved through the crowd.

There was Kevin Spacey, in the middle of the barricaded street.

People edged closer, nudged partners, pointing in the direction of the two-time Oscar winner, who chatted and laughed with members of the crew. He was smoking a cigarette, wearing tuxedo pants and a T-shirt, suspenders hanging down around his knees. And for all the suffocating humidity, he was looking Hollywood-makeup-artist cool and fine between takes.

Star power. You might think gifted Peabody students and professors in the crowd would be mostly immune to it. But not in the case of Spacey, who had been filming on campus for several days.

"I just graduated in May, and going up in Peabody the last four years, all you heard about are all the famous people and cultural icons who have passed through the halls: Charles Dickens, Tchaikovsky and [Leonard] Bernstein," said Robert Sirois, a teacher in the summer program. "But now to see stars like Kevin Spacey. … To witness that is exciting. I'm not going to lie."

Spacey's mere presence was a lesson in star power — a power that executives behind the production hope they can parlay to draw a significant audience to an untested platform for original content: Netflix.

TV that's not on TV

Based on a brilliant 1990 BBC mini-series, "House of Cards" focuses on House Majority Whip Francis Underwood (Spacey), who is promised the job of secretary of state — only to be passed over by the new president he helped elect on the basis of that deal. The drama tells the story of the revenge Underwood extracts from the administration that did him wrong. He is helped by his beautiful and cold-blooded wife (Robin Wright) and an ambitious and ethically challenged reporter (Kate Mara).

The resulting series is the most compelling and wise televised depiction of Washington realpolitik to come along in decades.

David Fincher ("The Social Network") serves as executive producer and as director of the first two episodes. Beyond him and Spacey, much of the talk surrounding "House of Cards" has been about its potential to usher in a radically new business model for the way TV programs are made and delivered to audiences.

As Spacey puts it, " 'House of Cards' is the new television series that isn't on television."

Media Rights Capital, the global production company that financed and put the series together, abandoned the old model, in which producers shop a pilot script around to a network or cable channel, trying to get money to make the pilot.

Instead, once Fincher, Spacey and screenwriter/executive producer Beau Willimon ("Ides of March") were on board, the production company made an unprecedented commitment for two seasons' worth of 26 episodes. And bypassing TV altogether, it sold the first-run American and U.K. rights to Netflix, which began offering its more than 20 million subscribers every episode of Season One streamed online as of Feb. 1.

Welcome to the world of new media. But financing and selling a series with a such a groundbreaking distribution model would not have been possible without the kind of star power Spacey brings to the project.

"There are very few actors alive who can be so intelligent and so charming and so intimidating and so dark and complex," Modi Wiczyk, CEO of Media Rights Capital, says of the 53-year-old actor. "This guy [Francis Underwood] has to be one of the most brilliant and despicable people in the world, and you have to absolutely love him and laugh at every joke he makes."

Underwood is constantly on screen. He addresses the audience directly, a la Richard III. (In a similar Shakesperean undertone, his wife will evoke Lady Macbeth in the minds of some).

"It's an incredibly complex role to play, because we are involved in the show in a way that we are not in others, as he keeps turning to us and telling us what he's going to do. We have a relationship with that character that's very intimate," Wiczyk says. "And there's just no one else who could do it. It was so obvious that it had to be him. When David [Fincher] came on board, the first call he made and we made was to Kevin."