Pricetag could reach $200 mil

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TNT today will unveil for advertisers an ambitious 1998-99 original production slate that includes Magic Johnson’s debut as a telepic exec producer and Oliver Stone’s first conventional weekly drama series for TV — a lineup that effectively doubles the cablenet’s 1997-98 output and comes with a total pricetag estimated at between $175 million and $200 million, according to sources.

The sked includes 15 “TNT Originals” two-hour movies, a pair of four-hour miniseries and two new drama series: “Crusade,” from “Babylon 5″ creator J. Michael Straczynski, and Stone’s “Witchblade.”

“Crusade,” which will ultimately replace “Babylon 5″ on the TNT primetime schedule, is a sci-fi hour that depicts a futuristic Earth fighting a mutating plague that threatens all of the planet’s inhabitants. “Witchblade,” due to premiere on the web as a two-hour movie in early 1999, is described as an action-adventure hour about a New York detective who comes into contact with an ancient weapon that heals and gives power.

Basketball idealism

The Magic Johnson project, produced in concert with Quincy Jones, is called “Passing Glory,” based on the true story of an idealistic young black priest who uses the basketball court to challenge the social conventions of a segregationist town. It’s a co-production of both Johnson’s and Jones’ entertainment companies, using a pair of scripts from John Sayles and Harold Sylvester.

“Passing Glory” was original tied to Disney as a feature, but was won away by TNT executive VP of original programming Julie Weitz.

TNT prexy Brad Siegel told Daily Variety on Friday that the vast step-up in production (TNT made just eight movies last year and has increased its original production budget some 146% from what it was in 1996) has no tie whatsoever to the network’s losing its NFL football rights pact during recent negotiations.

Sports fallout

“Our losing the NFL was more than offset by the more than 100% increase we’re now paying for rights fees to the NBA,” Siegel said. “The growth of our network over the past few years has not come from the NFL or the NBA. Those are really important parts of our program strategy, but the real growth we’ve encountered is in original movies and all of the acquisitions we’ve made for network premieres.”

Included in that new TNT Original slate of movies are:

- “Legalese,” about a high-profile murder case and starring James Garner and newly added cast members Kathleen Turner and Gina Gershon that started out life as a New Line Cinema feature project. (Daily Variety, March 2);

- “Triumph of the Geeks,” based on the book “Fire in the Valley” by Paul Freiberger and Michael Swain that retells the true story of the battle to rule Silicon Valley; from Haft Entertainment;

- “Fred the Rooster,” described as a Capra-esque tale about a disillusioned man who is helped by a rooster in his efforts to save the world; from Citadel Entertainment;

- “The Color of Water,” the portrait of a black man’s exploration of his white Jewish mother’s buried past, based on the James McBride bestselling memoir; from Sanford/Pillsbury Inc.;

- “The Hunley,” a Civil War-themed film from writer-director John Gray that tells the little-known story of the first subma-rine successfully deployed in warfare; budgeted at an estimated $12 million;

- “Port Chicago Mutiny,” a docudrama about 50 African-American sailors who defied their commanding officers to perform life-threatening duties during World War II; from executive producer Paula Weinstein and Spring Creek Prods.;

- “Women of Courage,” docudrama about a group of women who became Air Force pilots during WWII, executive pro-duced by Stuart and Elise Benjamin;

- “The Heist,” based on the true story of the largest cash robbery in U.S. history — the theft of $8 million from JFK Airport; adapted from the novel by Ernest Volkman and John Cummings;

- “Purgatory West of the Pecos,” a Western thriller starring Sam Shepard and Eric Roberts; from Rosemont Prods.; and

- “Babylon 5: The River of Souls,” TNT’s third two-hour “Babylon” flick starring Martin Sheen, Ian McShane and the series cast from executive producer Straczynski.

Also in the mix (but previously announced) are:

- “Animal Farm,” based on George Orwell’s classic novel, from Hallmark Entertainment and Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. Cost of the effects-rich, talking-animals production is expected to come in at an astronomical $22 million to $25 million, making it the most expensive two-hour TV movie ever made.

“This film will be a technological feat that’s going to make ‘Babe’ look like a high school film,” Siegel predicted;

- The two-part Biblical mini “Jesus,” executive produced by Lorenzo Minoli and Judd Parkin;

- “A Dollar for the Dead,” a TNT Original Western starring Emilio Estevez that started production in March;

- “Houdini,” biopic about the legendary magician and escape artist starring Jonathan Schaech and directed by Pen Densham;

- “Hard Time,” the first of a trilogy franchise of films starring and directed by Burt Reynolds that finds Reynolds playing a veteran ex-con and ex-cop; and

- “Undaunted Courage,” a Hallmark Entertainment docudrama recounting the adventures of explorers Lewis & Clark.

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