Cable tries MOW wow

Nets putting coin into original movies, bigger stars

Basic cable is banking it can successfully boost both the quantity and quality of their minis and movies.

Take USA Network. The Barry Diller-backed cabler will premiere 24 original movies in 2002, with helmers Francis Ford Coppola, Joel Silver and John Badham among those attached.

And USA isn’t alone: Thirteen nets preemed 81 original telepics in 2000.

While pay cablers, like HBO and Showtime, have long been in the high-profile original movie biz, basic cable’s commitment to the biz is up drastically from 1996, when just four nets preemed 54 of their own movies.

These new-style original movies boast bigger names, bigger budgets and bolder subjects than such efforts five years ago.

TNT, for example, is putting $7 million toward the $18 million “Julius Caeser.” That net is also spending $11 million on “King of Texas,” a Western adaptation of “King Lear,” starring Patrick Stewart.

And FX spent north of $5 million on James Caan-starrer “A Glimpse of Hell,” based on the real-life controversy surrounding two allegedly gay Naval officers being blamed for the 1989 explosion aboard a U.S. Navy ship.

Many outlets are at or working toward a 12 pic-per-year pace. Several of them also are increasingly in business on these pics with A-list talent.

“When Steven Spielberg is making cable movies, you know something has changed,” says FX Networks prexy Peter Ligouri, noting the buzz surrounding the miniseries “Taken,” a co-production between Spielberg’s DreamWorks TV and basic cabler Sci Fi.

Although DreamWorks has dabbled in TV, with ABC’s “Spin City” being its most established series, Spielberg’s presence behind the small screen has been minimal until recently.

“Taken,” a 20-hour, $40 million-plus multi-generational tale of alien abduction, is Spielberg’s first longform for basic cable.

Today’s basic cable movie landscape is in stark contrast to its roots in the early 1990s, when just USA, TNT and Lifetime were producing original pics.

Cable’s movie boom comes at a time when the broadcast nets have been putting the brakes on their telepic franchises.

NBC is eliminating its 20-year-old Sunday movie franchise, CBS is axing its second movie night next year and ABC dumped its Sunday movie night in 1998.

The timing is ironic, considering cable followed broadcast into the movie biz.

“Cable couldn’t afford the biggest name stars when it started in this business,” says Tim Brooks, Lifetime’s senior VP of research.

“When USA started getting into making movies big time in 1989, the broadcast networks were emphasizing torn-from-the-headlines stories. The big three raced to each do their Amy Fisher movies.”

So USA picked a genre that wasn’t being repped on ABC, CBS or NBC back then: thrillers, or what some called the women-in-jeopardy pics, Brooks says.

“That was their way to get in the door,” he adds.

Now that USA and several fellow basic cablers are through the door, they’re ready to leave such pics behind.

“I want to do projects that have great characters that we have to go out and cast. We’re determined to bring great faces to the network,” says Jim Miller, USA’s exec VP of original programming.

Cable is tarting up the telepic into a monthly event, nabbing A-list performers and filmmakers by mounting projects that broadcast nets have found too controversial, or movie studios find too narrow, Ligouri says.

TNT, for example, did “Nuremberg” last year with Alec Baldwin.

It was a project that fell into “a vast area of storytelling that the theatrical film business has abdicated,” Bob DiBitteto, prexy of original programming for TNT, says.

“Without cable, a lot of these stories would have no outlet to be told,” adds Ligouri, whose net is developing “Sins of the Father,” which was sought after by both feature film and TV outlets.

“Sins,” from Bob Cooper’s Landscape Entertainment, is based on the real-life struggle of the son of one of the men implicated in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four black girls.

Lifetime has greenlit “Their Last Chance,” a project from Ellen Burstyn, who will co-produce and star along with Laura Dern.

Burstyn will play a hardened criminal who is redeemed through her contact with real-life reform program that allows female convicts to train dogs for the disabled.

MTV programming chief Brian Graden says MTV’s entre into telepics in early 2000 also was tied to what was going on in theatricals.

Consumers had been eating up teen pics like “American Pie” in theaters, but no outlet was offering similar fare on TV.

“It seemed wide open,” he says.

MTV’s first telepic, “2gether,” spoofed the boy band craze and ultimately was spun off into a series. The net took a more serious turn this year with “Anatomy of a Hate Crime,” based on the 1998 murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard.

Sister music net VH1 had already begun cornering the market on music biopics when MTV got into the biz. VH1 brought Michael Larkin on board three years ago to launch its movie division.

Larkin and company have capitalized on VH1’s music biz relationships to produce their movies with the cooperation of musicians, like the recent “Meatloaf” project.

Cable takes up the slack

TBS programming head Bill Cox, whose net dubs itself the destination for the regular guy, says the rise of cable movies and the fall of network telepics is no coincidence.

TBS, which got into movies in 1999, aims to ramp up to a 12 pic-per-year pace in the next few years. The net is on track to debut eight next year, at around $3 million apiece.

“We’re stealing their thunder. We’re doing what they’ve done for years, at times more effectively,” Cox says.

Lifetime’s movie maven Trevor Walton agrees.

The vet telepic producer, whose resume includes posts as the head of Fox’s and CBS’s telepic departments, says broadcast nets are flailing with telepics due to their identity crises.

“Once they had an audience that was very clear: They were the only game in town. Then cable came along catering to niches,” he says.

In other words, while the broadcast nets have been busy trying to be all things to all people, cable has gone after specific auds — and grabbed them.

Original pics also are working for cable because movies fit naturally into basic cable’s dual revenue stream business model.

Branding is the driving force of the dual revenue system, where nets not only earn on ratings-based ad sales but also on affiliate sales to cable operators.

Any strategy that can hype and define a brand — and make a buck while doing so — is gold to cablers.

“At the end of the day, it’s not just the goal to solely make it work from an ad sales standpoint, but also in good faith that you can look in the cable operators’ eyes and say we are helping on a month-by-month basis justify the cable bill,” says FX’s Ligouri, whose net’s pic budgets range between $3 million and $6 million.

By the time a cable original finishes its run on a network, it often winds up making its money back in ad dollars, based on its multiple airings.

Many of the pics rate very well for the cablers, and they’re rating better all the time.

In January, for example, TNT’s Louis L’Amour Western “Crossfire Trail,” starring Tom Selleck, scored the highest rating of any movie — original or acquired — in basic cable history with a 9.6 rating in cable homes (7.7 million households).Unlike the broadcast nets, which typically spend a week or two promoting a telepic and then air it once or twice, cable gives their movies the white-glove treatment. They give grand promo pushes that might even include Hollywood premiere screening events.

They do billboards; they do print ads. Following the premiere, they repeat the heck out of the product, sometimes as many as six or seven times during the preem month.

After that, the pics shift into the nets’ libraries for several years, where they’re poised to re-enter the batting order.

Like any entertainment enterprise, basic cablers are competing in an increasingly crowded marketplace. Plus, they don’t have the national household reach that the broadcast nets do.

But that’s another reason cablers go after edgy topics in their movies.

Cable has to be noisy, FX’s Ligouri says. “We’re happy to have movies go from the review pages to the op-ed pages.”

Plus, the event status of cable movies draws the top talent whose very names help make the pics such events in the first place, says A&E’s senior VP of programming Allen Sabinson.

“We’ve done a great job on promoting these projects, which is an important element in attracting the cast. People know their work will be showcased in a certain way,” Sabinson says. “One of the problems the broadcast networks have had is that their movies come and go and have no aftertaste.”

Going forward, increasingly creative deal-making is likely to emerge.

VH1, for example, has already been approached by broadcast nets about future cross-over deals in which broadcasters would attain second runs on VH1 movies, Larkin says.

“We’re open to that because it can allow us to put more on the screen,” he says.