Starz reads into ‘Diaries’

Price tag less than $1 million

NEW YORK — “The Motorcycle Diaries” has landed an exclusive pay-TV deal with John Malone’s Starz.

Stephan Shelanski, sr. VP of programming and acquisitions, said Starz will take title to the movie net in August. Network hasn’t yet decided, he said, whether to premiere “Diaries” in the Saturday primetime showcase or slot it in a lower-visibility time period for its Starz debut.

What could work against the Saturday spotlight is the fact that “Diaries,” distributed by Focus Features, is a foreign-language movie with subtitles. Shelanski declined to discuss dollar figures, but Starz paid less than a million dollars for “Diaries” despite its grossing a robust $16.8 million in U.S. theaters, winning the Oscar last month for best song and featuring rising star Gael Garcia Bernal.

The pay networks’ fear of subtitled movies extends to their output deals. Through last December, Focus had a movie-output contract shared between Starz and HBO, but one clause stated that foreign films don’t qualify as part of the output. That’s why “Diaries” became a free ball, available in the open marketplace.

If “Diaries” weren’t subtitled, the movie could’ve easily fetched at least $2 million for pay TV and then another $2 million-plus when it went to basic cable following the first pay window.

But demand for subtitled movies is so sluggish in the U.S. aftermarkets that, unless the picture breaks through, like Sony Classic Pictures’ “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” the distributor has to settle for relatively low dollars.

After Starz’s first pay-TV window, Focus will take “Diaries” to basic cable. But demand in basic cable for subtitled pictures is often restricted to the two low-paying specialty networks: Independent Film Channel and Sundance Channel. Spanish-language networks such as Univision and Telemundo are also possibilities, but they usually don’t bid on upscale, specialized movies like “Diaries.”

If “Diaries” eventually does premiere on Saturday night, it won’t be the first subtitled movie to get Starz’s royal treatment. “Life Is Beautiful” premiered there, as did “Amelie” and “Crouching Tiger.”

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