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Movie biz is networking again

Pacts show that the cable net, not broadcast web, calling shots

NEW YORK — Movie sales to cable TV, sluggish in the past year or so, may be headed for an upswing.

The movie industry was jolted into a state resembling euphoria when TBS agreed last month to pony up 15% of the domestic-box-office gross of the Will Smith blockbuster “Hitch.” At the rate “Hitch” is going in U.S. multiplexes, TBS and the broadcast network (still to be named) that ends up sharing the network window will funnel more than $30 million into Sony/Columbia Pictures’ coffers for that one title.

And the biggest programming deal ever put together by Oxygen Media — a $65 million contract with Warner Bros. three months ago for 21 recent movies (including four not even made yet) — has started to pay dividends already.

One of Warners’ titles, the Sandra Bullock thriller “Murder by Numbers,” harvested more adults 18 to 49 on Feb. 26 than any other primetime movie in Oxygen’s five-year history.

Even a modest box-office performer such as Paramount’s “Coach Carter” starring Samuel L. Jackson, fetched more than $8 million last week in combined license fees from FX, which gets the movie first, and CBS, which plans to schedule it during the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in 2008.

One common denominator of these three movies is that the cable net, not the broadcast web, calls the shots. The broadcaster is usually an afterthought; the studios chalk up the big bucks from a cable network.

For example, TBS will be able to take at least eight plays of “Hitch” before the broadcast network gets its first run. Then “Hitch” goes back to TBS for another batch of runs before the broadcaster can schedule its second run. TBS is willing to fork over a disproportionate share of the license fee to get those first dibs.

Broadcasters have steered clear of paying truckloads of money for theatrical movies because mass audiences have, for the most part, stopped watching them.

“Movies lose something when they’re edited and reformatted for the broadcast networks,” says Shari Anne Brill, VP and director of programming for media buyer Carat, North America.

Not one theatrical showed up among the 10 highest-rated movies on the broadcasters’ primetime schedules season to date (Sept. 20- Feb. 27 ); the 10 winners were all original made-fors. And only one theatrical, “Ocean’s Eleven” on CBS (Dec. 26), pulled in more than 10 million total viewers.

For the same period during the 2003-04 season, three theatricals did manage to claw their way into the top 10 (“Castaway,” in seventh; “What Women Want,” ninth; and “Miss Congeniality,” 10th). And nine theatricals drew more than 10 million viewers.

By contrast, “cable networks need movies because there are so many networks playing them,” says Laura Caraccioli-Davis, senior VP of the ad agency Starcom.

Warner Bros. keeps an ongoing count of movie ratings for theatricals on all cable networks, showing that the pictures hold their own compared with all other forms of programming.

For example, two of Country Music TV’s 10 highest-rated shows for the season to date are “Road House” and “Great Balls of Fire.” Comedy Central also has two in its top 10: “Blue Collar Comedy Tour: The Movie” and “Scary Movie 2.” Another unlikely network for movies, the History Channel, put two titles in its top 10: “Wyatt Earp” and “Clear & Present Danger.”

Even VH1, a network not known for scheduling theatrical movies, got into the act this season, scoring three of its 10 highest-rated slots with three runs of one movie, Eminem’s “8 Mile.”

But 1987’s “Dirty Dancing,” a broadcast and cable mainstay over the past 25 or so years, remains perhaps the best measure of the potential worth of theatricals on the small screen: It wound up in the top 10 on Bravo this season in its 169th TV run.

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