The price is right for RHI productions

FOR MY MONEY the cleverest guys in media might be the ones that dream up titles for porn movies. Take an established franchise, move a letter or two around, and presto, “The Da Vinci Code” becomes “The Da Vinci Coed,” or a classy Oscar winner turns into “Riding Miss Daisy.”

Sometimes it seems as if RHI Entertainment has the same kind of mojo working, transforming literary classics and theatrical properties into splashy four-hour miniseries, though only the title bears more than a passing resemblance to the original source. These projects can then be sold around the globe, theoretically, thanks to their built-in name recognition, thus enhancing the company’s library.

In the 1990s, RHI — under the guidance of impresario Robert Halmi Sr. and his son, Robert Jr. — dazzled audiences with miniseries like “Gulliver’s Travels,” “The Odyssey” and “Merlin,” which drew big ratings on NBC back when the network sat atop the TV world like a corporate Colossus. Yet after drifting apart, shifting fortunes have reunited the two, albeit under less triumphant circumstances.

Eventually, Halmi’s fantasy extravaganzas stopped packing them in the way they once did. After being burned by a few expensive flops, the major networks shied away from ordering them. Ever resourceful, RHI responded by gravitating toward cable, plying much of its trade in relative domestic obscurity through an output deal with ION, the enterprise formerly known as Pax TV. On most nights, ION schedules reruns of series like “ER” and “Boston Legal,” but every so often the channel trots out a big-budget spectacular courtesy of RHI, including disaster epics like “Flood” and literary revivals like “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and “Pinocchio.”

So it came as something of a surprise to see RHI resurface on NBC in January with “The Last Templar,” a two-parter clearly designed to ride “The Da Vinci Code’s” coattails. Despite lackluster ratings and tepid reviews, moreover, the company has announced a multi-project deal with NBC and its satellite Sci Fi Channel (or — groan — Syfy) to carry a handful of RHI productions. NBC will showcase more carnage this summer with “Meteor” and “The Storm,” while Sci Fi will run new versions of “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Phantom,” as well as next month’s “Knights of Bloodsteel” and another two-part fantasy, “Riverworld.”

THERE’S SCANT MYSTERY as to why these deals are happening. RHI needs U.S. outlets and is willing to give its programming away on the cheap.

The problem is that nobody — including the networks buying these titles — truly understands how RHI can afford to make them. Ask around the TV movie business and you get shrugs, blank stares and nervous chuckles. Even a Sci Fi exec was quoted as saying he’s “mystified” by the company’s economic model, and while Halmi Jr. wasn’t available for comment, he stated in the release announcing the deal that RHI can offer “tremendous value” to networks eager to “keep their own costs in line.”

Clearly, the company approaches the U.S. as a secondary market, primarily deriving its income from overseas sales. Based on projections of what those territories can be expected to pay, though, rival producers scratch their heads regarding the underlying math, grasping for explanations that would make sense on a spread sheet or subjected to Hollywood’s basic laws of physics.

TO SAY THAT most of RHI’s recent productions have been lacking creatively would be kind. Yet they nevertheless manage to attract stars thanks to exotic locales and the elder Halmi’s magnetism and savvy in snagging recognizable actors for easy-to-promote cameos, such as Omar Sharif’s fleeting stint in “Last Templar.” And apparently, the price is right.

For all that, the RHI-NBC reunion represents a kind of poetic turnaround. Having once stared down upon the TV universe, the parties come back together in a very different place — the network looking for inexpensive acquisitions, while the distributor simply seeks a U.S. home.

The alliance is emblematic of an attitude for tough economic times that extends beyond NBC and even television, one exemplified by the network’s move of Jay Leno into primetime. Boiled down, it’s illustrative of a strategy that says, “We’re No. 4 — for less!”

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