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BET taps Karago as film development VP

Exec emphasizing original pix

NEW YORK — BET Holdings has hired former Hallmark Entertainment executive Njeri Karago as BET’s first VP of film development.

Karago will be responsible for managing production, development and business operations for the movies produced to premiere on basic cable network BET and the company’s new pay TV channel, BET Movies/Starz!3.

BET’s chairman and CEO, Robert Johnson, recently set into motion a strategy that bets heavily on original film production.

Earlier this month, BET signed Roy Campanella II of Directors Circle Filmworks to produce 10 made-for-TV movies from the Arabesque romance book line, which BET recently purchased (Daily Variety, Aug. 10). Karago will serve as the executive in charge of production for these 10 films, which are scheduled to begin airing in 1999.

Veteran producer

In her 10 years at Hallmark, Karago served as producer of numerous film and television projects, including “Clover,” starring Elizabeth McGovern and Ernie Hudson; “Bridge of Time,” with Cicely Tyson and Susan Dey; “Bye Bye Birdie,” starring Jason Alexander and Vanessa L. Williams; and “The Great Elephant Escape,” featuring Stephanie Zimbalist.

In addition to overseeing Campanella’s 10 original, romance-based films, Karago said she will also develop movies in other genres, such as action and superhero films.

The 10 films from Campanella are each budgeted at less than $2 million, and Karago acknowledged that it will be a bit of an uphill battle for BET’s new original film division to draw the top black talent in Hollywood.

“Everybody knows BET for music videos, and it’s going to be a challenge to go out there with movies,” said Karago, a native of Kenya. “Those are the skills that I bring to the table.”

Karago said that because BET will produce black-targeted films that are not being made elsewhere, Hollywood’s top talent will work with the cable programmer despite the low budgets.

“The most important thing we have is very good stories to tell,” Karago said. “There have been a lot of gangster-type movies, but we’re going to focus on a different sort of experience. A lot of the top African-American talent in Hollywood feel the way I feel, and they want to be part of the experience of telling these stories.”

Boost sales

Johnson believes that originally produced films are important to BET’s future because it will be difficult for cable webs to raise their license fees going forward, and therefore, cable channels will be more dependent on ad sales. Johnson figures that original, exclusive films will increase ratings, which will draw increased sales revenue.

The films Karago develops will premiere on BET Movies/Starz!3, a joint venture with Liberty Media Corp.’s Encore Media, which has 3 million subscribers. The movies will then move to the 54 million-subscriber BET.

While she was at Hallmark, Karago was also part of the development team for “Gypsy,” starring Bette Midler, and “Gulliver’s Travels,” featuring Ted Danson.

Karago joined Hallmark after receiving a master’s degree in fine arts, theater, film and television from UCLA, from where she also earned a master of arts degree in human resource management.

“Film has always been my passion,” Karago said.

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