Nets pony up for 'X-Men,' 'Devil,' 'Da Vinci'

Movie-company executives are nursing sore arms from high-fiving one another over the booming market for theatricals in basic cable.

In one of the busiest summers the last few years, Fox Cable’s FX and Turner’s TNT/TBS have each gone on a buying spree: FX has ponied up for “X-Men: The Last Stand,” “Superman Returns,” “Click” and “The Devil Wears Prada” while Turner has shelled out for “The Da Vinci Code,” “Mission: Impossible 3″ and “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.”

USA landed the biggest bounty of them all, “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” for a cool $25 million.

One reason for all this cable-network splurging on movies is that more subscribers are watching them. USA’s primetime cablecast of the first “Pirates” movie, “Curse of the Black Pearl,” on July 15 shanghaied 7.4 million total viewers — more than any other theatrical in the history of the network.

And over four separate weekend plays on TBS last month, Jack Nicholson starrer “Something’s Gotta Give” accumulated a robust 9.7 million total viewers .

“Cable’s having a great summer,” says Brad Adgate, senior VP of research for Horizon Media. “Viewers are migrating from broadcast TV to cable TV both for theatrical movies and for original programming.

“But if people want to see theatrical movies,” Adgate continues, “they won’t find them on broadcast. For the first time since 1961, there won’t be any regularly scheduled movie nights on the broadcast schedules” beginning in the 2006-07 season.

Broadcast TV has all but abandoned theatricals because their ratings have fallen faster than those of scripted series over the past few years. Adgate says only one theatrical managed to pull in more than 10 million total viewers for the 2005-06 broadcast season: ABC’s Dec. 15 repeat of “The Santa Clause.”

By contrast, cable TV is more gung ho about movies than ever. “We’ve succeeded with theatricals because we buy the titles that fit our two brands,” says Steve Koonin, exec VP/chief operating officer of TBS, which focuses on comedies, and of TNT, whose slogan is “We know drama.”

USA timed its run of “Black Pearl” to coincide with the theatrical release of the “Pirates” sequel. “All of the stars were in proper alignment for our scheduling of ‘Pirates,’ led by the huge theatrical opening,” says Jane Blaney, senior VP of programming acquisitions for USA.

Koonin says he outbid his competitors for “MI3″ because he had previously bought the rights to “Mission: Impossible” and “MI2.” TNT is drooling over the prospect of running all three on subsequent nights or in a weekend marathon, although it doesn’t get hold of “MI3″ until early in 2009.

TNT also plans to schedule all three “Lord of the Rings” movies in a heavily promoted stunt later this year.

Blaney says USA has plans for a three-picture stunt encompassing “The Mummy,” “The Mummy Returns” and “The Scorpion King.”

Programming moves like these “help to put cable networks on the radar of the media buyers,” says Laura Caraccioli-Davis, senior VP of entertainment for the ad-agency giant Starcom.

“Layering in big-grossing movies,” says Jane Deery, president of PGR Media, “is proving to be the smart way for a cable network to go.”

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