TV movies allow filmmakers space for experimentation

The very mention of the word telepic used to summon up images of pedestrian movies about women in jeopardy or the disease of the week. But the 2000-01 season already has proved to be a remarkably rich season for quality television movies.

HBO’s “Wit” and “61*,” Showtime’s “Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her” and “Bojangles,” and ABC’s “Oprah Winfrey Presents Amy and Isabelle” and “When Billie Beat Bobby” are just some of the small-screen offerings that tackle adult issues with intelligence and sensitivity.

“At the moment I would say that TV movies are the place for a filmmaker to experiment and work unhindered by the fear of making the weekend grosses, selling the big box office,” says Jane Anderson, writer-director of “When Billie Beat Bobby.” “When you go to HBO or ABC or Showtime or Lifetime or Turner, the budgets are low, the shooting schedule is tight but the filmmaker is allowed to create a personal vision.”

James Poniewozick, TV columnist for Time magazine agrees, “Telepics are currently offering the midrange Hollywood pictures that are hard to get produced as feature releases.”

And for the first time in years, primetime networks are catching on to cable’s success. Though it usually garners the most Prime Time Emmy nominations, HBO actually lost the telepic award for the first time in seven years last year to a noncable station, ABC, for “Oprah Winfrey Presents: Tuesdays With Morrie.”

All the more remarkable as ABC has undergone an enormous renaissance while telepic stalwarts CBS and NBC have watched their Sunday movie franchises flop.

The majority of the credit should go to Susan Lyne, ABC’s executive vice president of movies and miniseries, who has scored critical raves and ratings with the “Anne Frank” miniseries and “Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows.” There are more high-profile telepic events to come this fall, including “The Music Man,” starring Matthew Broderick.

Lyne is following the lead of cable executives like Collin Callender, president of HBO original movies, and Jerry Offsay, prexy of programming at Showtime.

“ABC seems to be the only (primetime) outlet that’s doing anything in longform that’s interesting,” says Ponieowzick. “They’re departing from the usual movie-of-the-week subjects. They’ve come up with some smart productions that have dealt with a wide array of subjects.”

Anderson, who has worked successfully with both Showtime (“The Baby Dance”) and HBO (“If These Walls Could Talk 2″), says that ABC fosters the same creative spirit.

“I think ABC has really smartened up and really watched HBO walking away with the Emmys,” she says. “Susan Lyne is a very smart, very progressive-thinking executive and she really welcomed that anarchist style that I shot ‘Billie Beat Bobbie’ with.”

Anderson plans to return to HBO, though, to work on an adaptation of her play “Looking for Normal.” Playing in Los Angeles, the show is about a happily married family man that realizes he really should be a woman.

“I consider HBO a home where I can take riskier projects,” says Anderson. “And I think we are getting back to a level of daring experimentation and depth in movies for cable and TV that we haven’t seen since the days of early television, when Paddy Chayefsky was writing for ‘Playhouse 90.’”

Keri Putnam, senior VP at HBO Films, agrees that the TV movies is in the midst of a return to the golden age of television. “Telepictures are beginning to fill a space that’s been opened up in the theatrical movie marketplace for more character-driven, topical, writerly work that doesn’t have a lot of action necessarily or teen appeal.”

HBO’s telepic roster of likely Emmy contenders this year includes the civil rights-themed “Boycott” and the WWII drama “Conspiracy,” with Kenneth Branagh and Stanley Tucci. Slated for this summer is more diverse fare like “Dinner With Friends,” starring Dennis Quaid and Andie MacDowell, and directed by Norman Jewison, and “Stranger Inside,” a gritty women’s prison drama helmed by indie filmmaker Cheryl Dunye.

“Because we’re a subscriber-based channel, we look to satisfy individual groups within our subscriber base,” says Putnam. “So, for example one movie might be a great hit with women or African-Americans or 40-year-old men. And if it’s really making that part of our audience feel like they’re getting something that’s worth paying for, then that’s a hit for us.”

Unfortunately, intelligent telepics don’t always guarantee Nielsen numbers. Indeed, some of this year’s most lauded longform projects barely registered with viewers, including CBS’ O.J. Simpson miniseries “American Tragedy,” and “When Billie Beat Bobby.”

“‘American Tragedy’ was a sensationalistic story torn from the headlines,” says Matt Roush, TV Guide critic. “But despite terrific performances by Christopher Plummer and Ron Silver, it flopped in the ratings.”

Explains Anderson: “‘Bobby’ got a pretty low rating that night because it was up against NBC, who one hour earlier premiered ‘The Weakest Link.’ So people stayed on that.

“You have to examine what entertainment is for, what TV is for. TV, is for some people, a relaxant, a tool to tune out and not think. They’re exhausted after work and they just want to numb out. For others, it’s a place to really be emotionally and artistically stimulated. And you can’t say one is more important than the other.”

While a glut of reality TV and gameshows increasingly invade primetime, some networks and cable stations are sticking with the belief that there’s an audience hungry for quality original telepics.

“We think there is,” says Putnam. “We’ve been borne (by) that. Certainly people are watching our movies and hopefully they’re talking about them.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more