Telefilm sales outdo features

The line between film and television products is blurred

HOLLYWOOD – No longer the poor stepchildren to theatrical releases, telefilms have evolved far beyond the “the disease of the week” genre and often outperform hit independent theatrical films. And as broadcast networks worldwide invest millions in producing event product, telepics now boast theatrical talent, behind and before the camera, and subject matter that has an international resonance.

“The distinctions have blurred between what makes something for television and what makes something for theatrical,” says Showtime Networks’ Matt Riklin, executive veep of Program Enterprises. “Lolita” premiered on Showtime. It had a $55 million budget and a theatrical worldwide release. Conversely, just because a studio releases a movie, that doesn’t make it theatrical, Riklin adds.

Producers on over half of Showtime’s non-family original movies have a 60-day window after delivery to shop for theatrical distribution. Because Showtime contractually allows the films a true shot at theatrical release, it’s easier to attract brand name talent to projects. Such was the case with “Gods and Monsters” (released by Lions Gate Films) and “Down in the Delta” (picked up by Miramax).

But often the mere participation of a TV or cable backer taints a film’s theatrical release potential? “It is an unfair banner to rank TV movies lesser than indie film or theatrical film,” counters Trimark’s Andy Reimer. “The themes tackled in original movies for TV are serious subjects, challenging issues, and with theatrical writers and actors.”

Offers Riklin: “Why not take a film in the $5 million to $6 million budget range out to the marketplace? Screen availability and economics will make the decision on how the film will be best distributed. It’s the same way with pure theatrical plays, it’s a product and territory decision.”

With the lines blurring between TV and film markets, some indies take the pragmatic approach with buyers and ask “What do you want it to be?” At a TV market, it’s a TV movie, at film markets its theatrical or video. “Everything’s intertwined when dealing with features,” says Scott Jones, prexy of Artist View Entertainment.

Showtime has taken that philosophy one step further by screening its telepics at A-level film festivals. “The Passion of Ayn Rand” played at Toronto and the Emilio Estevez-directed “Rated X” had a premiere screening slot at Sundance 2000. Positioning among quality indie fare sends a message to buyers and to the creative community that is “more about perception of what films are rather than where they end up,” Riklin says.

For international sales, Showtime partners with a number of sales agents. New Regency, known for its theatrical output, is handling the international distribution of “Noriega: God’s Favorite” starring Bob Hoskins. Other partners include Granada, BBC, Paramount and Hallmark.

But while a theatrical release may have an alluring ring to filmmakers looking for marquee exposure, sellers say revenues from TV sales are driving the international marketplace and telefilms will with a notable cast will usually outsell an indie film of a comparable budget.

Moreover, the absence of a theatrical window might be more advantageous because of “accelerated revenue streams,” says foreign sales veteran Barbara Mudge, prexy of Worldwide Entertainment. “A telefilm can attract better name stars, it can attract sell-through and DVD in addition to TV sales. TV movies are a slam dunk.” It’s no coincidence that AFMA now invites TV companies into the organization, adds Mudge.

Andy Reimer, senior VP, Trimark Pictures Worldwide TV, agrees: “For indie producers, TV is an ever more important piece of the puzzle and matters significantly in the economic formula.”

Video is an other golden window for telepics. “The vibrant video markets have a big appetite,” says Stan Golden, prexy of Saban Intl. “Distributors can’t fill their slate with just theatrical product, they’re supplemented with American telefilms. The small percentage that work perform quite nicely: In a territory like Japan, it’s a respectable six-figure business.”

Recognizing that “no one can afford to produce for their own market,” UFA Intl. prexy Konstantin Thoeren says his company has upped telefilm co-productions. The Babelsberg, Germany-based outfit develops English-lingo projects inhouse for worldwide sale, and has partnered with Fox on “Terror in the Mall” and co-produced “The Contaminated Man” with Promark. And this trend only looks to continue, as Thoeren cites a number of growth markets: Eastern Europe, China (in five years) and new media and video-on-demand at play in two years or more.

No matter the territory, the competition is the same: ever-expanding and dominated by studio product. “We’re fighting for screens and for primetime in every country. We can only fight if our quality of product matches that of the studios,” explains Sergei Yershov, senior VP intl. sales for Trimark Pictures. Theatrical distribution is a “pure numbers game” in many countries, he adds. Trimark expects its HBO co-production “Xchange,” starring Stephen Baldwin, to have a theatrical play in at least five territories.

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