Network acquires rights to 24-film slate

USA Network has acquired the network rights for Universal Pictures’ entire 2009 theatrical output, sealing a blockbuster deal with its sister studio and distrib worth at least $200 million.

The 24-film slate — which makes the movie deal one of the largest in basic-cable history — includes Oscar nominees “Frost/Nixon” and “Milk.”

“It’s certainly the biggest I’ve ever worked on, both qualitatively and quantitatively,” said Frances Manfredi, NBC Universal Domestic TV Distribution’s exec VP-general sales manager. “It’s a really diverse slate, and USA identified with it.”

USA won out after fierce bidding from several cablers, including FX, which has also been aggressively purchasing theatrical packages in recent years. Last year, FX picked up 15 Universal titles for more than $100 million.

While the broadcasters are mostly out of the theatrical movie biz, the basic cable nets still rely heavily on film packages. Indeed, theatrical pics have become even more important to the cablers, who use the titles as marketing platforms to promote their growing stable of original scripted series.

“This is a real testament to the success our buyers have had with films,” Manfredi said. “There’s clearly a strong film-buying strategy at many cable networks.”

The U package consists mostly of prebuys of titles to be released throughout the year. That means the actual license fee on the Universal/USA deal will vary, as the final numbers are tied to each picture’s domestic box office perf.

According to insiders, USA will pay, on average, 12% of each movie’s U.S. gross revenue.

“Marketing it as a slate made sense to us,” Manfredi said. “It was kind of an aggressive move, but it paid off. … We’re strategic in how we sell, assessing the titles, the timing and the buyers in the marketplace. Whether we go forward with another slate this size (in the future), I’m not sure.”

Meanwhile, Manfredi said while it was “great that NBC Universal owns both companies,” the synergies “don’t play in my business at all.”

“We’re a neutral distributor in the marketplace,” she said. “And in a case like this, we had multiple bidders.”

As standard, U holds the rights to sell a run or two of the titles to a broadcast network during the USA deal. The movies come to USA around 30 months after their theatrical release (that includes the 18-month window carved out for HBO’s pay cable run).

USA Network programming/

acquisitions/scheduling exec VP Jane Blaney said the slate “complements USA’s brand strategy with an A-list roster of talent (with) a proven track record on the network, including Adam Sandler, Matt Damon and Johnny Depp.”

Beyond “Milk” and “Frost/Nixon,” titles include “Duplicity,” with Julia Roberts and Clive Owen; “State of Play,” with Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck; the Will Ferrell vehicle “Land of the Lost”; “Public Enemies,” with Johnny Depp; “Funny People,” with Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen; “Couples Retreat,” with Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau; “The Wolfman,” with Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins; the Matt Damon/Greg Kinnear starrer “Green Zone”; and the upcoming untitled Nancy Meyers film starring Meryl Streep, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin.

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