Channel brings series into movies, docs mix

The Sundance Channel has been in the media spotlight, and it’s not because the network has just latched on to a 13-episode musical-variety talkshow hosted by Elvis Costello and co-produced by Elton John.

The buzz surrounding Sundance Channel escalated from barely audible to almost deafening on March 19 with the publication of a detailed report from Pali Research revealing Sundance is up for sale at a price of between $400 million and $500 million.

It stands to reason that the arthouse darling would be a popular play. Both Sundance and chief rival Independent Film Channel have generated solid growth in cash flow for a number of years, Sundance reaching about $35 million last year and IFC $29 million, according to SNL Kagan.

The Pali report speculated about three logical buyers: Cablevision (which owns IFC), Time Warner (which could pair it with Turner Classic Movies) and CBS (which already owns 35% of Sundance through its Showtime division). The majority owner of Sundance is NBC Universal, which has a 55% stake. Robert Redford owns the remaining 10%.

No authoritative follow-up stories have surfaced in the past weeks because, for Sundance’s president and CEO Larry Aidem and his staff, mum’s the word: They’ll neither confirm nor deny the Pali report.

So when Aidem stood up before a roomful of reporters earlier this month in New York to give a preview of Sundance’s programming lineup for 2008-09, he defused the tension by reading the names of a mock lineup of suitors for the network, including Wal-Mart, Denny’s and US Air. His jocular premise: Only “the least admired companies” in America were interested in making a bid.

Aidem could afford to be somewhat relaxed about the behind-the-scenes jockeying at the network because not only is Sundance in good shape financially but so is IFC, the only other serious contender in the specialized-movie niche.

Neither of the two networks is advertiser supported, but IFC got out ahead of Sundance by moving cautiously to sign up sponsors eight years ago, a revenue stream that has ballooned from less than a million dollars in 2000 to a gross of $11 million last year, which SNL Kagan projects to climb above $12 million in 2008.

Sundance came late to the sponsorship game, bringing advertisers on board for the first time early in 2007. But in just 16 months, the network is raking in a healthy seven-figure gross.

One of Sundance’s most successful sponsorships, Stella Artois, the top-shelf foreign beer distributed in the U.S. by Anheuser-Busch, came into being because the brand had long associated itself with serious movies around the globe.

Lovers of thought-provoking films “are often sophisticated, high-end, discerning consumers looking for something different,” says Curtis Auberry, brand manager for Stella Artois. “We don’t advertise in sporting events.”

Stella Artois has supported the Sundance Film Festival for the past five years, says David Daniels, product manager for the beer. So it didn’t take too much persuading for the network to convince Stella to sign up as sole sponsor for the TV event surrounding the festival called “31 Days of Sundance.”

The beer sponsors “Official Selection,” the weekly movie showcase that screens only pics that appeared in one of the annual film festivals throughout the world. Auberry says the sponsorship is restricted to a 15-second open and close.

Similarly, IFC will never interrupt a movie for a sponsor’s message, even one that’s arty. And the net will produce image-enhancing spots for sponsors, including Acura and Dewar’s, using them as kickoffs to a night of brought-to-you-by movies. IFC also allows movie companies to buy time to promote new releases.

Movies and feature-length documentaries are the coin of the realm for both Sundance and IFC, although both are sprinkling more series into the mix.

In addition to the Costello series slated to kick off in December, Sundance has renewed “Iconoclasts,” the two-celebrity discussion show sponsored by Grey Goose vodka, and “Live From Abbey Road,” the music series sponsored by Cadillac.

Going green

Sundance has also engineered a regularly scheduled block of primetime programming dedicated to the environment — and co-sponsored by Lexis and Citi Smith Barney — called “The Green.” “Big Ideas for a Small Planet” is the highest-visibility series in this ecology block, and at its upfront, Sundance unveiled a batch of fresh additions to the “Green” lineup, including “Outrageous Wasters,” “Carbon Cops” and “Eco-Trip: The Real Cost of Living.”

For IFC, “independent films are the backbone of our schedule,” says Evan Shapiro, executive VP and general manager.

But IFC heavily promotes such regular series as the Monty Python-esque “Whitest Kids U Know” sketch-comedy show and “The Henry Rollins Show,” featuring the rock performer as talkshow host.

IFC, which opened for business in September 1994, has more than 40 million subscribers. Sundance, which kicked off in February 1996, is close to 30 million, hurt initially by the fact that many cable systems carried it on digital pay tiers with its Showtime and the Movie Channel siblings.

Sundance’s Aidem says all the network’s pay TV deals have long since expired among both the major cable systems and satellite distrib DirecTV, giving Sundance a crack at more viewers through digital basic.

But cable operators in smaller cities may be hard-pressed to carry both Sundance and IFC on digital basic, because the two are relatively expensive for networks that are burdened by what the ops consider troublesome handicaps: 1) The nets deliver programming aimed at niche auds in large urban markets; 2) They don’t subscribe to Nielsen ratings; 3) They don’t offer two minutes of commercial time each hour to local systems.

Sundance’s monthly license fee averages about 28¢ a subscriber, and IFC’s comes to 19¢ or so. These ops would be delighted if Cablevision bought Sundance and folded it into IFC.

One cable-op executive, who requested anonymity because he has contracts with IFC and Sundance, says he’s looking to drop one in many of his markets because, “I get very little feedback about either of them from any of my subscribers.”

But the nets are convinced that won’t happen, because even a low-rated web has loyal viewers who’ll raise holy hell if Costello or the “Whitest Kids” disappears from the lineup.

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