ATTENTION, SPIKE LEE and Warner Bros.: You may not want to hear this right now, but you know that movie, “Malcolm X,” that you’re about to release in theaters all over the United States.?
You probably should have done it as a TV miniseries.
Now, before anyone starts to get agitated (Spike has been known to get testy when it comes to the press), let’s think about this reasonably and dispassionately for a minute. You guys are getting ready to release a three-hour-plus movie that will at best yield three or four screenings a day, has merchants and exhibitors antsy about security and will sorely test the butt endurance of those who come to see it.
By contrast, more than 35 million people watched the first three hours of ABC’s miniseries “The Jacksons: An American Dream” on Sunday, while nearly 24 million tuned in for the second part of the recent CBS five-hour biography “Sinatra,” all in the comfort of their homes.
Based on a loose calculation, if those “Jacksons”-watchers had been buying movie tickets, even with a sizable number of low-price kid admissions tabulated into the mix, somebody would be having themselves a very merry little Christmas.
On a practical level, Lee has fought to get his complete vision of Malcolm X’s story across, and television simply deals more easily — and sometimes more compellingly — with certain subjects than motion pictures can, chiefly because it allows the time to fully develop a period or personality.
The miniseries form has historically been an exceptional choice for creating detailed biographies and histories, from “Roots” (12 hours) to “Eleanor and Franklin” (11 hours) to the more recent and, by comparison, modestly scaled “Sinatra,””Elvis and Me” and “The Jacksons.” Consumers have become spoiled about in-home entertainment and acclimated to waiting to see movies on homevideo. As a result, it doesn’t take much — like a 200-minute running time — to scare them away from the theater.
Granted, “Lawrence of Arabia” doesn’t have quite the same impact on a 19-inch screen, and a story of that grandeur could hardly be told in a neat 95 minutes — all the more reason for television to become the medium for such fare, able to spread “the story of a lifetime,” as “Sinatra” was billed, over a few nights as opposed to a few hours.
The solid ratings for these recent miniseries reinforce the point that network TV can lure hordes of viewers back to the table, sometimes for long stretches, when they successfully put the “event” stamp on programming. That’s a lesson all would-be biographers should be inclined to remember, whether or not “X” succeeds in making its mark.
FANGS FOR THE MEMORIES: Speaking of the rift between the big and small screens, those (rightfully) disappointed by the just-released feature “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” may be inclined to look for a better telling of the famed vampire yarn. If so, their best bet wouldn’t be the Frank Langella version or even Bela Lugosi’s.
Nope, the most chilling sound version of the epic tale was a TV movie that aired on CBS in 1973, “Dracula,” starring Jack Palance as the granddaddy of all vampires.
Produced and directed by Dan Curtis, and written by Richard Matheson, what the telefilm lacked in opulent special effects it more than compensated for with Palance’s cruel, intense version of the Count (even without one-armed push-ups), exploring the same theme as the current movie — haunting passion for a woman bearing a striking resemblance to his lost love.
As the original Daily Variety review read, Jonathan Harker arrives in Transylvania shortly into the production and “the shivers start about then.” The ’73 version even closed with an eerie crawl about the legend of Vlad the Impaler , a warrior who, it was rumored, had triumphed over death through his mastery of the dark arts.
Then again, that’s hardly the only time television has surpassed features when it comes to bloodsuckers, particularly the 1972 ABC movie “The Night Stalker,” another three-Prozac affair that spawned a sequel and entertaining if misguided spin-off series.
Deprived of the drenching gore of feature films, TV has at times demonstrated the truth of the “less is more” adage when it comes to horror and the macabre. With the challenge of attracting viewers becoming ever more difficult, trying to scare up some ratings wouldn’t be a bad idea.
SPEAKING OF PARASITES, KCBS-TV earned dishonorable mention for running a feature about the Jacksons on its 11 p.m. news show Sunday, trying to cherry-pick viewers from the ABC miniseries.
It’s become accepted practice for local stations to air tie-ins to prime time fare on virtually every night of a major sweeps period, and KABC-TV was Jermaine-on-the-spot with its own Jacksons profile–almost as riveting as its earlier, incredibly timely sweeps piece on “the magic of ‘Monday Night Football.’ ”
Still, the idea of siphoning off audience from another station’s programming is as wrong-headed as it is ridiculous, as well as a big vote of no-confidence for the network’s programming department–from one of its owned-and-operated stations, no less.
The hastily patched-together KCBS profile included a stand-up in front of the Jackson family compound, a quickie interview with estranged daughter LaToya Jackson as she walked through an airport and an interview with Dr. Joyce Brothers, the noted pop music critic, who explained that our fascination with the Jacksons is based on the classic tradition of Horatio Alger rags-to-riches stories.
It seems KCBS’ sudden fascination could be more easily explained in terms of the riches part, though the station’s cynical news judgment suggests no shortage of rags.