Whether it’s about a celebrity, TV fave or historical figure, if it’s got a good hook, you’ll probably see it among the upcoming season’s batch of movies and miniseries.
As ratings for telepics generally have faded in recent years amid a glut of viewing options, the nets are making sure that every longform project comes with a built-in awareness factor for viewers. And while pay networks such as HBO and Showtime may opt for the small and quirky, the broadcast nets are playing it safer than ever.
This upcoming season, viewers sitting down to movies on ABC, CBS or NBC will see a heavy mix of biopics — with subjects including the Boston Strangler, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Prince William and Jackie Gleason — as well as other pre-sold concepts like new versions of “Nancy Drew” and “The Music Man.”
At CBS, which is prepping 20 movies, a hefty chunk of its output will focus on stories of individuals. But this wasn’t necessarily a strategy from the get-go.
“We didn’t set out to make biopics. In fact, most of these really aren’t cradle-to-grave stories,” says Bela Bajaria, the Eye’s senior VP of movies and minis, referencing, for example, “Martin & Lewis,” which is “really a look at 10 years of (Dean Martin’s and Jerry Lewis’) lives.
“We’re still looking for a great, strong story,” Bajaria adds, “but right now we feel everything we have seems to break out on a promotional or publicity hook.”
Net’s big minis include “Salem Witch Trials,” starring Kirstie Alley and Alan Bates, and “Master Spy: The Robert Hanssen Story,” with William Hurt in the title role.
Among the movies, Sean Hayes will play Lewis in “Martin & Lewis” (November), Shirley MacLaine will portray a cosmetics queen in “The Battle of Mary Kay” (October) and Carol Burnett returns in a new musical version of “Once Upon a Mattress.”
ABC, with about 16 originals this season, is looking for promotable event movies, according to telepics topper Quinn Taylor. “It gets harder every year because there are only so many ‘Music Mans’ you can do. If you can come out of the gate with a title or name element, it really helps.”
Many of ABC’s pics will feature relatively unknown actors in leading roles, including Maggie Lawson in “Nancy Drew” and Jordan Frieda as “Prince William” (Sept. 29). Among the recognizable faces will be Matthew Broderick and Kristin Chenoweth in “Music Man,” and Kelsey Grammer in holiday pic “Mr. St. Nick.”
NBC is looking to make its five or six pics stand out, too.
In addition to a three-hour Giuliani pic (in a race with cabler USA, which is planning its own Giuliani movie), the Peacock is planning two-parter “First to Die,” based on a James Patterson novel, as well as an update of “Carrie.”
HBO’s slate includes “Starring Pancho Villa as Himself,” with Antonio Banderas in the title role, and “Normal,” with Jessica Lange and Tom Wilkinson, about a Midwestern husband and father who has a sex change.
Showtime contributes comedy “Women vs. Men” starring Paul Reiser and Christine Lahti, and “Just a Dream,” with Robby Benson and Ally Sheedy, about the story of a doctor’s son and his friendship with the town mechanic.
Among other cable highlights are: Bridget Fonda starring in “Snow Queen” and Kieran Bew in “Hans Christian Andersen: My Life as a Fairy Tale,” both for the Hallmark Channel; Aidan Quinn in “Traitor: Benedict Arnold,” and the six-hour “Napoleon,” starring Gerard Depardieu, both on A&E; a remake of TV series “Battlestar Galactica” as a Sci-Fi Channel mini; and Dean Cain in TBS’ “Christmas Rush.”