Deal includes 'Women,' 'Earth,' '17,' 'Four'

Turner Broadcasting’s TBS and TNT are trying to corner the market on theatrical prebuys, locking up the cable-TV rights to four high-visibility movies set for release by New Line and Picturehouse later this year: “The Women,” “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” the Zac Efron vehicle “17 Again” and the Vince Vaughn-Reese Witherspoon comedy “Four Christmases.”

New Line has also linked up with the Sundance Channel, which has bought cable rights to 11 titles, led by Picturehouse’s “La Vie en Rose,” which earned Marion Cotillard the Oscar. The deal is one of the biggest network-window movie contracts in Sundance’s 12-year history.

The flurry of New Line sales comes less than a week after Time Warner made the decision to fold New Line’s freestanding operations into the Warner Bros. tent (Daily Variety, Feb. 29). But New Line insiders said the pic deals had been in the works for some time and were not triggered by the corporate streamlining per se.

The coin involved in Turner’s purchase dwarfs Sundance’s, coming in at a high end of about 11% of the eventual domestic box office gross of the four New Line pictures. The deal continues Turner’s push to keep competitive with USA and FX, its two chief cable-network rivals, for the most imposing array of big-budget theatricals.

The Turner/New Line transaction comes a few days after TBS, TNT and their Cartoon Network sibling engineered a 12-title blockbuster deal with Warner Bros. that will funnel “10,000 B.C.,” “The Dark Knight,” “Get Smart” and three other prebuys to their primetime schedules throughout 2010 and 2011.

These big titles can still draw mass audiences to TNT and TBS, particularly when they premiere in multiple plays over a three-day weekend. For example, the three primetime runs of “Wedding Crashers” on TBS last weekend each drew more than 1.8 million viewers 18 to 49, putting all the plays among the 10 highest-rated programs for the week among ad-supported cablers.

All the general-entertainment networks are stocking up on big-ticket theatricals for at least two reasons. The first, and most obvious, is that they still generate lots of viewers, particularly the 18- to 49-year-olds that Madison Avenue will pay a premium for.

But, second, cable networks are being hurt by the decline of a staple form of programming, the off-network police procedural, which has begun to fall off in popularity as the shows cannibalize one another.

New Line has sold the four prebuy titles to TNT and TBS in a 4½-year license term and given the networks the right to play the movies within a free-on-demand window during that term. As part of the deal, New Line will be able to carve out a window to sell one or more of the titles to a broadcast network or another cable network within Turner’s license period.

Turner gets the first of the New Line movies, “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” in February 2011, and the three other titles will premiere over the next five months. David Spiegelman, senior executive VP of domestic TV distribution and marketing for New Line TV, and Jonathan Katz, senior VP of program planning and acquisitions for Turner Entertainment Group, negotiated the contract.

On New Line’s other deal, Sundance was popping champagne corks over getting “La Vie en Rose” in the pay TV window within a year of its theatrical release, because HBO, which has an output deal with Picturehouse, passed on the movie, unwilling to schedule a picture with subtitles.

Laura Michalchyshyn , executive VP and g.m. of Sundance Channel, said the New Line deal is the first of what will be a number of first-window theatrical-movie pickups over the next few months that will solidify the network as a destination for what she calls “dedicated film aficionados.”

The other titles in the New Line/Picturehouse package include “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “A Prairie Home Companion,” “Little Children,” “The Sea Inside” and Terrence Malick’s “The New World.”

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