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Impressive Contenders From Various Networks Crowd Emmy Slate

Once again, HBO has the 800-pound gorilla in this year’s Emmy TV movie race. That’s little surprise, since the pay cabler has long dominated that category, averaging 60% of the nominees in the past decade.

But the news this year is that HBO and its “Normal Heart” are not the only game in town.

Certainly “Heart” is a clear front-runner. It boasts all the elements that Emmy voters like: an important subject matter (government ignoring the AIDS crisis in the 1980s), a great backstory (writer Larry Kramer waited 30 years for this project to happen), an A-list cast (Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts, Jim Parsons, Matt Bomer) — and, as a bonus, it’s extremely well done. On its premiere night, it drew 1.4 million viewers.

But even though the movies and miniseries are now split, it still does have some competition, to be sure.

Lifetime, for one, has a bevy of contenders. Though for years the phrase “Lifetime movie” was a punchline, referring to women-targeted fare that was weepy and uplifting, the net has indeed redefined itself of late with classy, intelligent fare.

Rob Sharenow, exec VP and g.m. at the network, told Variety, “Lifetime saw a major opportunity with the shifting landscape. We’re making theatrical quality movies for grown-ups because the studios aren’t supporting those movies any more. We’re not going for niche audiences; we’re going for the masses.”

“The Trip to Bountiful” and Cicely Tyson’s performance compare favorably to the 1985 feature film that won an Oscar for Geraldine Page. “A Day Late and a Dollar Short” is a reminder that Whoopi Goldberg “can be a pretty fine actress when she gets the opportunity,” wrote Variety’s Brian Lowry in his review of the film, which was adapted from Terry McMillan’s novel.

And “Return to Zero,” with Minnie Driver and Paul Adelstein in a story about a marriage in crisis, has the substance and quality of the multi-Oscar-nominated “In the Bedroom” of 2001. Viewers responded to these movies, with each drawing at least 1.5 million viewers in their Saturday night premieres.

The numerous other possible Emmy TV-movie contenders include BBC America (“Burton and Taylor”), National Geographic (“Killing Kennedy”), PBS (“Sherlock: His Last Vow”) and Hallmark Channel (“The Watsons Go to Birmingham”).

Studios started cranking out TV movies in the 1960s as a novelty and results were usually so-so. But things hit their stride in the 1970s and early ’80s, with titles like “Brian’s Song,” “Duel,” “That Certain Summer” and “Off the Minnesota Strip” (by a young writer named David Chase).

But then telefilms went through a fallow period. The artistic nadir was reached in the 1990s with no fewer than three movies about Amy Fisher, aka the Long Island Lolita, and titles like “Mother, May I Sleep With Danger.” (Thankfully, Syfy is carrying on this not-quite-proud tradition with fare such as “Sharknado.”)

The TV Academy combined miniseries and TV movies in 2011, a long overdue recognition that both were waning. But this year’s re-separation is a reminder that the two are on a sharp upswing.

At a recent Variety panel, Billy Bob Thornton (star of FX’s “Fargo”) said,: “There was a sort of renaissance of independent film in the late ’80s and early-to-mid ’90s, which I was fortunate enough to be a part of and it felt great. And TV right now feels like that.”

Twenty years ago, film actors avoided TV, he said, “but now actors can’t wait to get on television.”

At the Variety panel, Driver talked about “Zero,” which indie-film distributors passed on, finding it too distressing. The project found a home on cable, which is welcoming the artists and audiences that are hungry for adult dramas. “As an actor, I have never even come close to doing anything as extraordinarily hard,” she said about “Zero.” “But I’m better for it, and I’m glad to have told this story.”

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