TV stations are about to get bombarded with pitches for the latest syndicated theatrical movie packages from Paramount, Columbia and Universal. But these hard-sell maneuvers by the major studios will run smack into what many industry veterans are calling the worst marketplace for movies in decades.
“Movies are being shoved out of stations’ primetime schedules by the expansion of the Fox network and by the increasing number of hourlong series in firstrun syndication,” said George Back, president and CEO of All American TV, which syndicates independently produced theatricals.
Neil Saban, VP of programming for WPWR, an independent TV station in Chicago, said, “We’re much more selective about buying movies these days because we run lots of firstrun action shows,” such as Paramount’s “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” All American’s “Baywatch” and Stephen Cannell’s “Renegade.”
Back in the mid-’80s, before the Fox Network began producing primetime series for a lineup of the top independent TV stations throughout the country, a major studio theatrical package with a half-dozen or so box office hits, plus about 20 other recognizable titles, would typically gross between $ 2 million and $ 2.5 million per title in syndication.
But as Fox began to schedule series in primetime, at first on Saturday and Sunday during the 1987-88 season, the stations affiliated with this new network — which was vowing to eventually expand to seven nights — started to pull back from buying syndicated movie bundles.
“We haven’t bought a movie package in years,” said Phyllis Seifer, VP of programming and marketing for WNYW, the Fox O&O in New York. “Now that Fox is programming all seven nights, we don’t have any place to put movies.”
With station demand for movies falling off, the studios turned their attention to cable’s USA Network, which was looking for programs with wide appeal. In 1989 and 1990, USA elbowed TV syndication out of the picture by ponying up about $ 2 million a title for big batches of recent movies from Disney, 20th Fox, Universal and Paramount.
Indie stations that still scheduled movies in primetime, including outposts owned by Tribune and Gaylord Broadcasting, counterattacked by putting together a consortium of stations that guaranteed a price high enough to induce the studios to plug their ears to the siren song of cable and continue selling packages in syndication.
The counterattack worked for a year or two because “basic cable’s appetite for movies became satiated,” said John Rohr, VP and director of programming for Blair Television, the rep firm.
But the explosion in the volume of homevideo rentals on top of continuing pre-syndication exposure of movie titles in pay cable, network primetime and, in some cases, basic cable, was eroding the movie’s value by the time it found its way to the station.
“Our primetime movie lineup used to rack up 8, 9 and 10 ratings in the sweep periods,” said Carol Myers Martz, VP of programming for KCOP, the Chris Craft indie in Los Angeles. “Now, we’re getting 6s and 7s.”
This ratings dropoff was one of the reasons that indie stations started to seek alternatives to movies in primetime, and companies came along with firstrun action hours to meet the need.
Hot for hits
The result of all these twistings and turnings over the last eight years is that it’s a buyers’ market for movies in syndication. Columbia, Paramount and Universal, as they draw up their sales strategies, will try to stuff the packages with as many hit titles as they can find.
Although the studios wouldn’t comment officially on their packages, sources said Columbia has “A Few Good Men,””Hook,””City Slickers,””Groundhog Day” and “Boyz N the Hood.”
Paramount will draw on “Star Trek 6,””Wayne’s World,””Boomerang,””The Addams Family” and “Dead Again.”
Universal can tap into “Kindergarten Cop,””Beethoven,””Death Becomes Her, “”Sneakers” and “Fried Green Tomatoes.”
Some stations hate that many of these titles won’t be available on the cash backend until 2000 or later. But one insider said the Chris Craft/United TV station group bought the most recent three-package movie offering from Warner Bros., encompassing more than 100 titles, at least in part because the stations are hedging their bets in case the firstrun action hours come a cropper over the next four or five years.
WPWR’s Saban, who also bought the huge WB movie output, said, “By the year 2000, the economics of producing firstrun series for syndication may change. We want to make sure we’re covered.”