Starz hitches wagon to niche

Access to top titles gives multiplex advantage

Sundance Channel and Independent Film Channel (IFC), locked in combat during the past six years to capture the loyalty of indie-film junkies, are starting to contend with a tough new kid on the block: Starz Cinema.

Throwing down the gauntlet, Jonathan Shair, the youthful VP of program planning and scheduling for the Starz Encore Group, claims bragging rights by being able to schedule just about all the movies distributed by Miramax, New Line, Fine Line and Universal Focus.

As a multiplex of its parent Starz! channel, Starz Cinema gets these titles in the pay window. Sundance’s outputs from its sister network Showtime (Paramount Classics, United Artists and Artisan Pictures) are not as imposing, and, except for some pay TV premieres like “Ghost World,” “The Man Who Wasn’t There” and “No Man’s Land,” Sundance doesn’t get most of its titles as speedily as Starz Cinema.

IFC, by contrast, has not set aside a budget to buy newer movies, i.e., pictures only a year removed from the theaters. “We’re the ultimate end user of indie product,” says Jonathan Sehring, president of IFC Entertainment.

The problem facing all three nets is that the number of people who gravitate to both foreign films and independent American movies on cable television is tiny by the standards of Nielsen’s household ratings: Sundance, IFC and Starz Cinema have not yet convinced cable operators that there’s room in the marketplace for all three of them.

By the barometer of TBS, with 88 million subscribers, and ESPN, with 87 million, the niche channels are barely a ripple in the cable-industry pond. IFC reaches 24 million households, Sundance 16 million and Starz Cinema — whose owner Liberty Media doesn’t break out the numbers — probably somewhere between 5 million and 7 million.

Movie buffs are partial to the three networks because none accepts advertising and there are no bluenoses on the networks’ payroll applying scissors to the juicy parts of R-rated movies.

But the jury is still out on whether boastful newcomer Starz Cinema, which began life in May 1999, will be able to hitch a ride on its superior inventory of recent movies and zoom ahead of Sundance and IFC.

Paola Freccero, senior VP of film programming for Sundance Channel, sees no comparisons between them. Trying to put Sundance and Starz Cinema in the same box, she says, is like “comparing apples to oranges.”

“Starz Cinema is a multiplex of Starz!,” Fraccero asserts, pointing to the fact that the only way a subscriber can buy it is to purchase the whole package of five premium channels. Starz Cinema can’t point to any standalone customers.

Starz’s Shair doesn’t deny Freccero’s claim but counters that not all of Sundance’s subscribers buy it as a standalone; some get the network only as part of the Showtime Unlimited package of multiplex networks.

Neither Starz Cinema nor Sundance makes output deals of its own, although Fraccero says she will buy occasional packages of movies from smaller indie distributors such as Strand, Zeitgeist and Cowboy. Starz Cinema may be able to put together a lineup of fresher titles than Sundance, but Freccero says that, as a brand, it can’t even come close to Sundance, which draws on the publicity bonanza every January of the Sundance Film Festival and the tireless boosterism of Robert Redford.

But Shair has started to get the word out through the press that some of the titles in the Starz Cinema hopper in 2003 include “Mulholland Drive,” “In the Bedroom,” “Amelie,” “Gosford Park” and “The Royal Tenenbaums.”

IFC has to resign itself to the fact that it’s not competing on the same playing field as Sundance or Starz Cinema. Even though IFC would love to premiere “Y tu mama tambien,” the hit foreign film distributed by IFC Films, a sister company, Sehring says the only way that would happen is if he couldn’t get the marketplace price from another buyer.

IFC and Sundance are also unlike Starz Cinema in that they produce some original series to shoehorn between the steady 24-hour rotation of movies.

Ed Carroll, executive VP and G.M. of Bravo and IFC, says “Badass Cinema,” the documentary special IFC ran last month analyzing the blaxploitation movies of the 1970s, “showed high awareness and recognition” among subscribers participating in a telephone survey the network conducted to gauge viewer interest.

IFC has commissioned another 13 half-hours of “Dinner for Five,” a roundtable celebrity talkshow hosted by Jon Favreau, on top of the nine episodes already completed. Sehring calls these firstrun shows “icing on the cake” of IFC’s movie lineup.

Sundance Channel schedules lots of live and taped remotes from the Sundance Film Festival every January, says Fraccero, including daily updates of celebrity sightings and the hottest movie screenings, with full coverage of the awards ceremony.

Interviews with movie directors also are a regular feature of Sundance’s programming menu.

The license fees of Sundance and IFC can be daunting to cable operators, whose stocks are getting whacked like overstuffed pinatas by Wall Street. Starz Cinema doesn’t have a separate rate card because it’s bundled in with Starz and other inhouse movie networks.

As standalones, Sundance costs cable operators a monthly fee of between 25¢ and 30¢ a subscriber during the first year; IFC charges between 15¢ and 20¢. The length of term will run from five to 10 years, with the cost to the cable system going up by a penny a year per subscriber.

Those tariffs give Italia Weinand heartburn as head of programming for Mediacom, a top-10 cable operator.

Even though her subscribers love to watch movies uninterrupted by pitchmen hawking the latest body deodorant, Weinand wishes both networks would start running ads and pocketing the money that would flow in from Madison Avenue. That way, she wouldn’t have to keep ponying up such big wads of cash every month just so her customers can lip-read subtitles as they catch up on the latest foreign films.

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