Summer sprint

Networks race to nab pic rights

NEW YORK — Hit movies are racking up network deals faster than ever before, and this summer the trend has gone into turbodrive.

The major studios are selling their blockbuster movies to the networks at such a fast clip that the top 10-grossing pictures between May and August have harvested truckloads of money from network buyers.

These fast-track deals don’t always result in huge scores for the studios, however; negotiators for “Godzilla,” for example, may well have sold themselves short.

Here’s how the revved-up scenarios have unfolded:

Once the word gets out that a potential blockbuster is storming toward the theaters, the studio launches an informal auction, making the rounds of the network execs and stoking their competitive fires.

The studio pounds home the message that pre-sold commodities like hit movies are still fairly reliable generators of brawny Nielsen ratings, particularly during a cutthroat sweep period when big audiences can set TV stations’ ad rates for the next three or four months.

A for Alphabet

ABC has emerged the winner among the broadcast networks for summer movie buys, locking up the three biggest grossers of the year to date — “Armageddon,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “Dr. Dolittle” — and the ninth largest, “Mulan.”

Three of the top 10 will go to NBC: “Lethal Weapon 4,” the fourth largest grosser; “Godzilla,” the sixth; and “The Truman Show,” the seventh.

CBS has snared two of the summer biggies: “Deep Impact,” No. 6 in the summer sweepstakes, and “The Mask of Zorro,” the 10th largest, and the only one of the 10 to fall shy of $100 million in grosses.

The Fox Network, unique among the Big Four in not carving out space in its primetime schedule for a movie night, will pick up only one, Fox’s “There’s Something About Mary,” currently the eighth biggest grosser.

“In an era when it’s becoming harder and harder for the networks to come up with a hit series, blockbuster movies are about as close as you can get to a sure thing in the Nielsen ratings,” says Larry Gerbrandt, senior analyst for Paul Kagan & Associates.

Sometimes the networks can find a bargain out there. Col TriStar offered “Godzilla” to the webs during the week before its May 22 release for $35 million.

But the buying fever Col TriStar anticipated never ignited, as the pic opened to mostly negative critical response and a $55.5 million opening weekend, well short of “Lost World: Jurassic Park” territory.

NBC wound up paying $25 million for five runs over five years, plus $1.5 million more because the final gross for “Godzilla” was $10 million above the $125 million base agreed on by NBC and Col TriStar.

ABC has pushed its way to the head of the line this year for at least three reasons.

No-brainer

First, in the category of no-brainer, its parent company, Walt Disney, distributed “Armageddon” and “Mulan.” Second, ABC agreed to finance DreamWorks’ entry into the production of network-primetime sitcoms in exchange for a first refusal on theatricals produced by DreamWorks, allowing the network to lay claim to “Saving Private Ryan.”

And ABC moved aggressively to get “Dr. Dolittle,” distributed by Twentieth Century Fox, because it’s the only network that has carved out a two-hour time period — Sunday at 7 p.m. — devoted exclusively to family-oriented movies. In the deal for “Dolittle,” ABC also agreed to take such other 20th theatricals as the Arnold Schwarzenegger “Jingle All the Way,” Sandra Bullock’s “Hope Floats” and the Jennifer Aniston vehicle “Object of My Affection.”

The “Dolittle” deal is also significant because most industry observers thought the Fox network would lay claim to it as a 20th production.

But Fox obviously needs fewer movies than the Big Three because it has no regular movie timeslot on the schedule. Also, “Dolittle” is basically a kiddy pic, and Fox tends to buy movies that appeal mainly to the young-adult viewers the network plays up to in just about all of its series development.

Balks at bulk

Because it doesn’t have to buy movies in bulk, Fox was willing to spend $80 million last year to get the rights to just one picture, “The Lost World: Jurassic Park.” The license fee is staggering, but Fox is buying both the broadcast-network window and the pay TV window, so it’ll be able to schedule the movie Nov. 1, the first Sunday of the November sweep, which is only 18 months after it hit the multiplexes.

Similarly, as part of the theatrical-release deal between 20th and George Lucas, Fox will get the new “Star Wars” movie within 15 months of its theatrical run, blowing out that pay TV window, too.

“Lost World” and the “Star Wars” movie are rare exceptions to the almost-ironclad rule that theatricals go to pay TV before they go to a broadcast or cable network.

But Disney may start bending that rule with its animated theatricals.

Both ABC and the Disney Channel are maneuvering behind the scenes to get the world TV premiere of “Hercules” early next year and “Mulan” in the first quarter of 2000. In the past, Disney Channel has always gotten first dibs on animated biggies such as “The Lion King,” “Aladdin,” “Pocahontas” and, most recently, “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” which ABC has scheduled for Oct. 18, seven months after its Disney Channel debut. The Disney Channel became, in effect, the pay TV window for the animated theatricals — Disney kept them out of its theatrical-output deals with the Starz pay network.

Good shot

But sources say ABC has a shot at grabbing “Hercules” and “Mulan” before the Disney Channel for at least two reasons: ABC is performing poorly in the Nielsen ratings so it needs high-profile programming more than the Disney Channel does; and the Disney Channel has successfully transformed itself from a low-circulation pay TV network three years ago to a (mostly) basic cable network with a subscriber base of 42 million. Only about 6 million of the 42 million still have to pay a separate monthly fee for Disney Channel.

NBC will ballyhoo “Lethal Weapon 4” and “Godzilla” as Big Event movies, like the two blockbusters the network bought last year, “Titanic” and “Men in Black.”

NBC’s pickup of “The Truman Show” falls into the category of happy accident because the picture was one of a group of Paramount titles NBC agreed to take in order to get the movie it really wanted, the John Travolta-Nicolas Cage “Face Off.”

Until last year, CBS was not an avid buyer of big-ticket theatricals, relying instead on its very successful made-fors.

Male order

But the network has agreed to pay $4 billion for the rights to National Football League games for the next eight years after losing in the bidding four years ago to Fox, so it’s no surprise that it decided to pony up big bucks for “The Mask of Zorro” and, late last year, “Tomorrow Never Dies.” Both movies will have strong male appeal, making them a natural for promotion during NFL games.

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