Not a feature was stirring on TV

Nets tighten price for pics

NEW YORK — Two recent deals — one that got made, another that still hasn’t — tell you how tough it is to sell theatrical movies to television these days.

Buena Vista has just sold “Shanghai Knights” and “The Recruit” in a shared broadcast/cable window for roughly 15% of the films’ domestic B.O. haul, the standard criterion of a successful sale. But to get that payday for “Shanghai,” BV had to design a deal that crowded five buyers into the network window. Three of the five are broadcast networks — ABC, Fox and the WB — and two are cable nets: TNT and TBS.

MGM, meanwhile, is still beating the bushes to come up with a return of at least 15% of domestic on “Die Another Day,” the James Bond movie that has chalked up $160 million in U.S. theaters since its release four months ago.

Nets resist pix

In general, network buyers are resisting theatrical movies these days, pretty much shrugging their shoulders at the crop of theatricals released during the past eight weeks.

Many nets are biding their time until the studios are ready to open the marketplace for such potential summer blockbusters as 20th Century Fox’s “X-Men 2,” Warner Bros.’ “The Matrix Reloaded” and “Terminator 3,” Columbia’s “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” and “Hollywood Homicide” and Universal’s “The Hulk” and “2 Fast 2 Furious.”

The explosive revenue growth of DVDs has only reinforced the perception of the networks that by the time movies become available in the first broadcast/cable window 33 months after their debut in the multiplex, even the blockbusters are not the Nielsen powerhouses they used to be.

Demonstrating the lengths distribs have to go to sell a movie in this down economy, Buena Vista’s deal for “Shanghai Knights” turned out to be one of the most complicated ever engineered by a major studio.

The license fee from the five networks buying the movie will add up to $9 million, a number that a moderately successful title like “Shanghai” could’ve harvested from just one broadcast and one cable network a year or two ago. The $9 million figure for the Touchstone/Spyglass picture represents about 15% of the domestic box office, the accepted standard for a lucrative movie sale.

Buena Vista also sold the Touchstone/Spyglass pic “The Recruit” to ABC and the combination of TNT, TBS and the WB, with the Fox network taking a pass, for a joint license fee expected to top out at $8 million or so.

‘Shanghai’ switchback

What makes the “Shanghai” deal worth noting is that Fox’s one run of the movie comes between two separate runs on ABC. As it works out, ABC gets six months to take its first run of “Shanghai,” beginning in November 2005. Then Fox gets six months to take its run, following which the movie goes back to ABC for a final six months.

Last year, Buena Vista sold “Sweet Home Alabama” to ABC and Fox, but ABC got two consecutive runs during the first year and Fox got two consecutive runs in the second year of a five-year deal. The USA Network chimed in to secure multiple runs over the final three years.

The total license term for “Shanghai” will jump to 5½ years, giving TBS, TNT and the WB 48 months to work off their runs following the ABC and Fox plays.

“Even though ‘Shanghai Knights’ figures to be a solid performer when it runs on the network, with solid young demos, ABC was not willing to step up to the plate and take on the full broadcast window,” said Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz Television, the rep firm.

Not really competitors?

But the sharing between ABC and Fox, Carroll said, may not be so strange. “ABC may not see Fox as a direct competitor any more,” he said, “because ABC is going back to its roots as the network of family entertainment that featured such shows as ‘Happy Days.’ ”

Carroll said one network won’t take on the full load anymore because “it’s become rare for a theatrical movie to score big numbers on network TV, even in its first run.”

He concludes that the overuse of theatricals in all of the windows they move through before they reach a broadcast or cable network has weakened their chances of racking up sizable audiences in the broadcast/cable window.

However, mass-audience blockbusters can still find buyers, particularly sequels like “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” (TBS, TNT and USA locked it up) and “Harry Potter & the Chamber of Secrets” (ABC, Disney Channel and ABC Family).

But the sluggish climate that has sapped network demand for theatrical movies in general is causing MGM to back off from on selling “Die Another Day,” the latest James Bond picture, until the studio can fetch a license fee north of $20 million.

MGM could’ve racked up a sale of the Bond movie in a shared window to a broadcast and a cable network for less than $20 million. But since “Die Another Day” won’t be available in the network window until September 2005, following its exclusive pay-TV run on Showtime, MGM decided to hold out until conditions improved.

Two other movies that haven’t landed a network deal yet, Miramax’s “Chicago” and HBO’s “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” have a somewhat different problem. Musicals and family comedies tend to fetch less money from broadcast and cable networks than sure fire action pictures like “Die Another Day” and high-visibility fantasy epics like “Two Towers” and “Chamber of Secrets.”

“Wedding” has almost priced itself out of the market by grossing more than $240 million, and “Chicago” is moving in that direction. Now at $114.5 million and counting, “Chicago” — after getting showered with 13 Academy Award nominations — has become a bigger hit in its 10th week than in its first couple of weeks.

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