Are Westerns and other American history films going the way of the American buffalo at Turner Network Television?
Numerous suppliers of historical fare say they’re being told by TNT brass that the web has begun to move away from the Americana films that have long been a staple of the network built by history buff Ted Turner, who himself appeared long enough to be killed as a Confederate officer in “Gettysburg,” TNT’s top-rated cable pic of all time.
While there’s not yet a clear mandate that TNT will kill off its Westerns, they’ve become a tougher sell for producers, who are instead being asked for contemporary topics and events from the past decade. Turner’s network has been defined as a major oater-eater, and producers of films in that genre who’ve caught Turner’s eye will be circling the wagons.
Despite what some producers have been told, TNT exec veep of original programming Julie Weitz denies that Turner’s mandate to make Westerns and other historical pics is history, although she indicated there might not be as many as in the past.
“We’re making more films per year than we’ve ever made, and we’re just spreading out into other genres,” Weitz said. “For instance, a year and a half ago, we made five Bible minis. This year, we’ve got eight. But we also love the Western, and will continue doing that and other historical dramas when we get great scripts. If the Americana films have been our foundation, our meat and potatoes, we’re just adding some chopped liver.”
One rumored rationale for the menu change is that the TNT audience has grown more urban as the network penetration has grown, and there’s a desire to boost its female demographic. Another reportedly is the difficulty selling Westerns and flag-waving historicals in the foreign marketplace. Weitz denied the latter as well: “There’s definitely an after-market, as well as a video rental marketplace. What we don’t want to do is a Western a month, or a historical drama a month.”
Though the recent TNT mini “The Rough Riders” brought the web its second-highest ratings, with an estimated 33 million viewers catching one of several telecasts, there are several more contemporary projects coming as early as the fall. That includes the John Frankenheimer-directed biopic “Wallace,” which stars Gary Sinise as racist Alabama Gov. George Wallace, the racially themed Goldie Hawn-directed drama “Hope” and the Dennis Quaid-directed “Everything That Rises,” a contemporary saga set in Wyoming. Weitz pointed to the Danny Glover-topliner “Buffalo Soldiers” — about an elite group of black soldiers assigned after the Civil War to massacre Indians — as a prime example of the kind of historical subjects Turner wants to tackle.
One producer who had been briefed about the new Turner mandate likened it to a gradual move away from biopics by HBO under the stewardship of John Matoian or NBC’s move away from disease-of-the-week pics under Lindy DeKoven. Another consideration is that history lends itself more to miniseries, and the mini has a rough time on TNT. That’s because Turner’s loath to preempt its top-rated Monday evening wrestling program, and is committed to run NBA games Tuesdays during the season. That means a mini that begins Sunday night can’t get another airdate until Wednesday, a long time between showings.
HOBBS HOBBLED, BUT HOPING: “Jane,” the story of a romance between an older woman and a young man in the music industry, seemed an easy sell with a $12 million budget and a cast that includes Melanie Griffith, Randy Quaid, Chazz Palminteri, David Spade and even Howard Stern, playing a gun-toting, substance-abusing record exec. Writer-director Lyndall Hobbs said her film had all that going for it, but fell apart anyway, just 10 days before shooting began. Producers Alan Mruvka and Marilyn Vance put together pre-sale deals that unraveled at the last second, said Hobbs, who is now trying to pick up the pieces and shoot the film in the late fall, when both Stern and Griffith will be available again. “The plug was pulled because Melanie had to do Woody Allen’s movie,” Hobbs said. “Howard had arranged a three-week window this summer, and he has another three-week window in December. It was too bad, because we were all set to shoot in this stunning Las Vegas hotel suite where Howard was going to charm Melanie, with leopard skin elevators, a revolving circular sofa, and a bathroom with a rock grotto fountain. I had Al Green and all these gospel singers ready to go. The good news is the option expired, I own the project and the actors are still committed to doing it.” Spade’s participation depends on his “Just Shoot Me” series schedule, but Hobbs said she’s trimmed the budget to $11 million, and is looking to seal deals that will let her begin shooting in L.A. on Nov. 17.
DISHINGS: It’s been a rough patch for Gallin/Morey Associates, the firm that scored a coup recently by signing Mariah Carey. The firm lost its second manager inside a week. Just as Marc Epstein was ankling, with clients Nicole Kidman and Rupert Everett expected to follow, comes word that Michael Greene has also left, with Martin Lawrence and Richard Lewis. Gallen/Morey won’t stand idly by, however. “Both employees exited the company with existing and binding contracts,” prexy Jim Morey said. “Our legal advisors, Irell and Manella, will pursue our rights and remedies in a court of law.”