Pix back in networks’ sked mix

Studios thrilled at prospect of returning to primetime

Selling theatrical movies to cable and broadcast networks has become such an uphill climb in the past year or so that the major studios start losing their cool at any sign the market may be springing back to life.

Exhibit A: Paramount’s “The Longest Yard,” which chalked up a robust $27 million from Turner’s TBS/TNT and CBS in a shared-window cobbled together in the last two weeks.

Exhibit B: The entry into the network-window marketplace for the first time by AMC, which will pony up between $80 million and $100 million for a 22-title package from Warner Bros. including “Ocean’s Twelve,” “Million Dollar Baby” and “Batman Begins,” in a deal concluded last week.

And, following its HBO run, “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith” may be coming up for sale to broadcast and cable in the next few weeks instead of going automatically to the Fox Network, which has locked up the TV rights to the previous editions of “Star Wars.”

Lucasfilm, which owns “Star Wars,” is not commenting on its TV strategy, but buyers for cable and broadcast networks got their first screening invitation to a “Star Wars” movie early last month directly from Lucasfilm, instead of from the distributor 20th Century Fox.

“That tells me George Lucas is going to open the marketplace not only for ‘Sith’ but for the five other ‘Star Wars’ movies as well,” says one network exec, shiny-eyed at the prospect of laying his hands on the most lucrative movie franchise in showbiz history.

“Sith” aside, movie salesmen wax nostalgic when a box office winner like “Longest Yard” comes along and ignites bidding rivalry from various networks. As late as three years ago, networks elbowed each other to go after a fresh hit theatrical the way they do today for the latest reality show pilot from Mark Burnett.

Hit theatricals are one thing, but studio sales forces are seizing on two little-noted programming initiatives for the 2005-06 primetime network season. First is the decision by NBC to create a Saturday movie night in primetime starting in the fall. Second is the judgment by ABC to replace the narrowly targeted “Wonderful World of Disney” on Saturday with an adult-oriented “ABC Movie of the Week.”

And CBS will renew its long-standing Sunday-movie showcase, although the network hasn’t announced any specific titles yet. In the past, CBS has bought lots of theatrical movies to stir into the programming mix with a schedule of made-fors.

But executives at NBC and ABC threw cold water on the notion that they’ll immediately start to beat the bushes for theatrical movies because of the new Saturday slots.

“We still have an inventory full of movies that we’re working through,” says Mitch Metcalfe, executive VP of program planning and scheduling for NBC.

The Peacock was a much more active buyer of movies a few years ago than it is now; the network has to schedule many of them next season because their license terms are coming due. The titles include “The Perfect Storm,” “Chicago,” “The Patriot” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary.”

Buying new titles, says Metcalfe, “will be done very selectively. And if they’re expensive, we won’t take the risk: Movies just don’t get big ratings anymore.”

Similarly, ABC is loaded with titles that it inherited as part of its output deals with its sister companies Walt Disney and Touchstone and with DreamWorks, says Jeff Bader, executive VP and head of scheduling for ABC.

Most of the theatricals Bader has slotted on Saturdays come from Disney or DreamWorks, although ABC also owns the broadcast rights to a pair of Universal pictures — “Seabiscuit” and “Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat” — and two from Columbia, “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” and “Stuart Little 2.”

“We don’t need to buy a movie for the next two years,” Bader says. But he adds that he’ll still buy the occasional title because “theatrical movies will still remain an important part of the network mix. The dollars just won’t be as big.”

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