Halmi’s universe grows

ION pacts for films

The two Robert Halmis, father and son, have cobbled together more TV movies and miniseries over the last two decades than anybody else in the business.

And judging by some of their recent output deals, they show no signs of slowing down.

Sitting down in his midtown-Manhattan office for a rare interview, Halmi Jr., president and CEO of RHI Entertainment, disclosed the details of an agreement with the Weinstein Co.’s Genius Products to co-produce 48 original TV movies over the next two years for ION Media Networks (formerly Pax TV), the station group reaching 92 million homes in the U.S.

“We’re Robert Halmi’s movie tentpole, a dedicated piece of real estate that he can build other businesses around,” says Brandon Burgess, CEO of ION.

By other businesses, Burgess doesn’t mean just Halmi’s deals to produce 12 movies apiece over the next two years for Lifetime and Spike TV, and to churn out 10 movies, plus 22 episodes of a new “Flash Gordon” series, for the Sci Fi Channel. (Except for projects like “Tin Man,” a big-budget miniseries riff on “The Wizard of Oz” for Sci Fi, Halmi says these movies will cost about $3 million apiece.)

Highlighting his newest ancillary business, Halmi has sold a pay-per-view video-on-demand platform to cable systems with a total digital-subscriber base of 22 million. The VOD setup, called World Premiere Movies, features four titles at $3.95 each that will play in advance of their kickoff on Sci Fi, Spike and Lifetime. The current four films, all pre-Sci Fi Channel, are modestly budgeted genre pictures. (“Blood Monkey” and “Maneater” are among the titles.)

And Genius Products, the homevideo company, is a key player in Halmi’s revenue strategy, because two days after a movie plays on ION, its DVD will show up in retail outlets from Blockbuster and Wal-Mart to Netflix and Amazon. (By contrast to ION, the RHI movies have to wait roughly 45 days after their debut on Sci Fi, Lifetime and Spike before their DVDs make an appearance in the videostore.)

Halmi says Genius ponies up a license fee in exchange for worldwide homevideo rights to the movies. RHI shares in the DVD revenues, which Halmi says is a much more lucrative arrangement than RHI’s previous homevideo contract with Lionsgate.

RHI will also pocket cash by putting its movies on video iTunes for a PPV fee, and has set a September start date for its plan to allow computer users with high-speed broadband access to watch movies on RHI.com. The broadband revenues will flow to RHI’s coffers from advertisers that buy spots in the movies; the titles will be free to viewers who download them.

The ION arrangement is the most elaborate RHI has entered into. In a two-year deal beginning June 29, Halmi will take over sole responsibility for programming ION’s 7-to-11-p.m. schedule on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, drawing on pictures from RHI’s library of 4,000 hours of movies and minis that range from “Lonesome Dove” and “Moby Dick” to “Gulliver’s Travels” and “Merlin.”

All of these originally aired on broadcast TV, but the major nets have shied away from longform in recent years amid declining ratings.

The new wrinkle revealed by Halmi is that RHI will supplement the rerun product with two new original movies a month.

Fresh product is important because many of the older pictures, particularly minis, don’t fare as well in the ratings. RHI’s revenue stream from ION is totally dependent on Madison Avenue: ION pays no cash license fees, instead sharing the advertising revenue with RHI, which sells the time on the three nights.

ION’s Burgess relishes the challenge of being the linchpin of RHI’s business plan, in effect replacing Halmi’s longtime partner, the Hallmark Channel. The movies Halmi produces for ION “will be more contemporary than the ones he did for Hallmark, and a bit edgier,” Burgess says. “We’ll give Hallmark a run for its money.” (It doesn’t hurt, he adds, that ION beams its signal into 10 million more homes than Hallmark, which counts about 81-million subscribers.)

Halmi’s writers have turned in drafts on eight of the ION movies, including family-friendly adaptations of “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” “Call of the Wild” and “The Prince & the Pauper,” and a modern-day version of “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.” ION is also gaga over Westerns, and four screenplays awaiting the assignment of cast and crew are “Lone Rider,” “Redemption,” “Prairie Fever” and “Last Stand at Oak Creek.”

Barely containing his enthusiasm, Halmi says. “This is such a great climate for content that I could see us producing up to 65 movies next year. Bottom line: We’re about to be let loose into the commercial marketplace, big time.”

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