Cable Gets Original Idea

Kris Kristofferson, decked out in beard and stovepipe hat, underplays Abe Lincoln in a drama about the family life of the Great Emancipator. John Goodman, employing his best down-home accent, bellows his way through “Kingfish,” a political bio of the Louisiana rabble-rouser Huey Long. George C. Scott plays it up as Cus D’Amato, the trainer who discovered Mike Tyson.

Those are only three of the attention-grabbing performances that signal the explosion in the volume of original movies being commissioned by cable networks desperate to flag the attention of viewers bombarded by unending media overload. The pictures also demonstrate that the era of schlock sex-and-violence melodrama may be giving way to more prestigious drama as cable networks try to embroider their appeal to more educated, upscale adults.

Although it’s not about to walk away from the batch of low-budget thrillers it slides onto the schedule every year, the USA network is stressing what Rod Perth, president of entertainment, calls special-event movies. USA has completed two of them: “My Antonia,” an adaptation of Willa Gather’s novel starring Jason Robards and Eva Marie Saint, and “A Mother’s Prayer,” with Linda Hamilton as a widow with AIDS who’s trying to place her 9-year-old boy with good adoptive parents before she dies.

Perth acknowledges that the formula action/suspense movies that USA traffics in have suffered a ratings slide in the last year or so because “all of the broadcast networks are playing these pictures, and some of the other cable networks as well. Viewers are pretty sophisticated; they may not like it when they keep seeing promos for thrillers that don’t deliver.”

USA plans to commission only 16 or so of those genre pictures this year, instead of the 24 it usually sets in motion, Perth says. But there’ll be at least three special-event movies in 1995, with more to come next year, depending on how well they do in the Nielsens.

Good ratings

For TNT, the serious, high-profile original movies it features (one each month) are getting such good ratings, says Allen Sabinson, TNT’s senior VP of original programming, that the average Nielsen for the first two-hour run of the 1994 made-fors is 50% higher than that of the comparable period a year ago. Instead of filling its lineup with topical melodramas that have limited shelf life, “we want to make movies that will be just as current 10 years from now,” he says. “It’s one good way to create assets for Turner Broadcasting.”

Some of the movies on TNT’s schedule this year include the four-hour “Andersonville,” about the Confederate prisoner-of-war camp, directed by John Frankenheimer; “The Heidi Chronicles,” based on the Wendy Wasserstein hit play, starring Jamie Lee Curtis; “The Good Old Boys,” directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones in a character study about a cowboy having trouble adjusting to turn-of-the-century America; and “Kingfish,” which has John Goodman as both star and producer. The production budget for the average TNT movie comes in at about $5.5 million, Sabinson says, making its output costlier than any other network’s movies except HBO.

The channel that’s embarked on the most freewheeling new-movie binge, Showtime, is ramping up to greenlight more than 50 firstrun pictures for weekly scheduling on the channel. “People are used to watching TV on a weekly basis,” says Jerry Offsay, programming prez for the Showtime Networks. “Our goal is to give Showtime subscribers a new and original movie every week that they can’t see anyplace else.”

“We’re more likely to get people who like thrillers to renew their Showtime subscription,” Offsay continues, “if we give them a dozen rather than just two or three. The same goes for classier movies – Showtime will put on 10 or 12 of them a year instead of just a couple.”

Another network shifting into high gear for movie production is Lifetime. “We’re making a major commitment in that, for the first time ever, Lifetime will schedule an original movie every month, beginning in June,” says Sheri Singer, VP of longform for Lifetime. She’s even cooked up a slogan for the pictures: strong women, strong roles, strong movies.

The budget of the pictures will be between $2 million and $3 million, and Lifetime’s two parent companies, Hearst and ABC, will produce all of them, Singer says. At the $3 million end will be what she calls event pictures like the March 8 “Choices of the Heart: The Margaret Sanger Story,” with Dana Delaney as the woman who advocated birth control in the early 20th century, and Rod Steiger as her nemesis Anthony Comstock.

The more modestly budgeted pictures include “Shame 2: The Secret,” a follow-up to the hit 1992 Lifetime movie with Amanda Donohoe as a feminist lawyer, “Dancing in the Dark,” starring Victoria Principal as a woman wrongly committed to a private psychiatric institution; “The Silence of Adultery,” a gritty look at the extramarital affair of a woman with two kids; and “Almost Golden: The Jessica Savitch Story,” a biopic about the anchorwoman who was addicted to pills and alcohol.

Bob Cooper, senior VP of film programming and homevideo for HBO, says the sheaf of Cable Ace nominations for such original HBO movies as “And the Band Played On,” “Against the Wall” and “State of Emergency,” added to favorable responses coming out of subscriber surveys, has caused HBO Pictures to expand its yearly output from nine to 12 originals. At least three more new movies a year will come out of HBO Showcase, says its executive VP Colin Callender.

HBO favors fact-based movies that “are not headline-chasing but reflective,” says Cooper, adding that their cost ranges from $4.25 million to $9 million. He cites the forthcoming “McMartin,” which focuses on the notorious child-molestation trial in California, starring James Woods and Mercedes Ruehl; “Tyson,” a biopic timed to hit HBO’s schedule just as the fighter is getting out of prison; and “Fiddler’s Green,” about a 1935 mutiny by U.S. Army officers, starring Don Johnson. The Showcase movies, each of which will cost about $4.5 million, include “In Hitler’s Shadow,” about the neo-Nazi movement in modern Germany, and “Black Tuesday,” which deals with racial discrimination among American troops stationed in England during World War II.

Disney Channel commissions about five original movies a year, ranging from the forthcoming four-hour adaptation of Dickens’ “The Old Curiosity Shop,” with Peter Ustinov, to the contemporary drama “Four Diamonds,” about a boy who creates a story about medieval knights that becomes a metaphor for his battle against the pain of cancer treatments. Bruce Rider, senior VP of original programming for the Disney Channel, says the contemporary movies cost between $3 million and $3.5 million, whereas the costume pictures can climb above $4 million.

Family’s ‘Lincoln’

Kristofferson plays Lincoln in the Family Channel’s “Tad.” Set during the Civil War, the movie focuses on Lincoln’s relationship with his wife Mary and their three sons, especially Tad, the youngest. Harry Young, VP of original programming for the Family Channel, says Family will expand its quota of new movies from three last year to six this season, and the budgets will go up from an average of $1.5 million a title to $3.5 million.

“We’re targeting movies because it’s a good way to help define the network, and get the attention of our subscribers,” Young says. “Besides, the advertising rates we can charge for original movies are far greater than for any other programming on our schedule.”

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