Emmys comedy, drama & longform: Major contenders face off in mini race

'Anne' and 'Judy' vie for Emmy

It’s been only a few years since the likes of Gulliver and Odysseus ruled the computer graphic-laden landscape of TV’s miniseries. Recently, however, networks have offered little in the way of special effects-driven mega-minis, opting for projects based on true events and the lives of the famous.

ABC’s “Anne Frank” and “Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadow,” two leading candidates for Emmy nominations, were the top two miniseries ratings-wise of the 2000-01 season, though neither posted overwhelming numbers.

“There was a period of time, say three years ago, when whatever the networks were offering as far as minis were perceived by audiences as big events, something they needed to make time for,” says Susan Lyne, ABC’s executive VP of movies and minis. “Unfortunately, there were a lot of knockoffs and less good minis that made people feel they had seen whatever was being offered and they didn’t need to tune in. Because of that and the intense interest in reality television, the excitement moved.”

If networks and producers want to spur the flagging interest in minis, they may have to show some restraint; less could mean more.

Hallmark Entertainment chairman Robert Halmi Sr., largely responsible for the 1990s miniseries glory days with “Gulliver’s Travels,” “The Odyssey” and “Merlin,” which all scored huge numbers and handfuls of Emmys, failed to meet expectations with recent fare “The 10th Kingdom” and “Monkey King.”

“Miniseries should not be something that can be seen every weekend. It should be something seen two or three times a year, then it’s an event,” says Halmi. “Unfortunately, I am partly at fault for making the mini a more common thing because I started making a mini every second month and eventually people got tired of it and thought it was the same thing.”

Halmi, who says he will now produce only one or two minis a year, has not given up on the genre and scale that worked for him in the past. His next project, “Dinotopia,” a six-hour mini based on James Gurney’s bestselling fantasy books, carries a reported $80 million budget and will air on ABC in 2002.

While there still may be a place for “Dinotopia”-type projects, the key to mini success may lie in the networks mixing up their offerings. While biopics and true-event minis may be hot, not all did well this year. CBS’ “Blonde” chronicling the life of ever-popular Marilyn Monroe and based on the historical fiction of Joyce Carol Oats, was a ratings dud.

“You need variety. When you make half-a-dozen minis a year, you have to vary the concepts. They can’t be all one thing,” says Sunta Izzicupo, CBS’ senior VP of movies and minis. “So one has to be mindful of what the trends are, what the competition is and then what’s an all-around appealing story that has many of the elements you think will succeed.”

CBS likely will air “Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story,” which contains over 560 special effects, in November.

Alliance Atlantis’ Peter Sussman, executive producer of “Garland,” as well as Emmy hopefuls “Nuremberg,” which aired on TNT, and “Haven,” a CBS offering, says the subject matter and genre of a mini are only partly responsible for its success.

“I think there’s a place for anything that’s good, but because these minis cost a lot, stakes are high so it’s important that it’s marketable,” says Sussman. “If nobody watches a really good miniseries, (it’s) a bad miniseries, no matter how good it is.”

Cable networks have added to a saturated market. TNT offered the Golden Globe-winning mini “Nuremberg” last year, and will offer one of summer’s highly anticipated projects, “The Mists of Avalon.”

A&E continues to raise the bar with its beautifully mounted “Horatio Hornblower” sea epics, and will be in the spotlight again for Alfonso Arau’s adaptation of “The Magnificent Ambersons.”

Last season, Showtime aired “A Girl Thing,” which consisted of four separate stories of women dealing with life, and “Armistead Maupin’s Further Tales of the City.” The cabler’s upcoming mini slate includes “Anne Rice’s The Feast of All Saints” in November and “Fidel,” an exploration of the dictator’s life, next year.

“We’ve never relied on the fantasy-laden, special effects-driven miniseries,” says Gary Levine, Showtime’s executive VP of original programming. “We’re more interested in substantive minis with compelling emotional stakes or historical significance that require a longer format.”

The networks may want to look at HBO for the Emmy-winning formula. Last year HBO won with the six-part dark drama “The Corner.” In September, it will air early 2002 Emmy front-runner “Band of Brothers,” a 10-part mini based on the Stephen Ambrose bestseller, and produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg.

“We’re interested in storytelling,” says Anne Thompoulos, senior VP of original programming. “Whether or not those stories follow trends or create new ones is inconsequential.”

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