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Pricier movies, minis in works at Showtime

Cabler to reduce output of original p'gramming

NEW YORK — Showtime will cut back on its original movies and instead puts its programming bucks behind more original series and more expensive movies and minis.

That’s the word from president of programming Jerry Offsay, who told Daily Variety that the pay cabler plans to funnel a larger percentage of its $375 million annual programming budget into churning out pricier product.

The pay net has engineered a big cutback in the number of original movies it sets in motion, from 35 a year to about 24. As a result, Offsay said that the average production cost of a Showtime original pic will rise from $4 million to about $5 million; the budget for an episode of a weekly series on the net will climb from the current $1.1 million an hour to $1.3 million.

Showtime’s license fee on these movies varies, depending on whether the net buys all of the worldwide rights or just the domestic pay TV window. For the latter, it may pony up as little as one third of the production budget, according to sources.

For a firstrun movie, Offsay said, Showtime has begun signing three or four name actors instead of the one or two that sufficed for most of the previous titles. He cited one forthcoming family made-for featuring Hume Cronyn, Alan Arkin, Sherilyn Fenn and Bruce Davison, and another, directed by Danny Glover, that stars Ally Sheedy, Amy Madigan, Robbie Benson and Carl Lumbly.

Even at the diminished total of 24 a year, Showtime will still be commissioning more movies than any other network, cable or broadcast. Showtime’s love affair with made-fors started in the mid-’90s, when it began generating so many pics of its own because it suffered from a weaker lineup of theatrical movies than its competitors at HBO and Starz!

But three of its theatrical-output partners, Paramount, MGM and Dimension Pictures, have delivered a number of hit movies in the last year or so, making high-volume production of Showtime telepics less urgent than in the past.

Offsay mentions four titles from MGM alone this year that Showtime will be able to feature in its 2002 program guides: “Hannibal,” “Legally Blonde,” “Heartbreakers” and “Jeepers Creepers.”

Theatricals worn out

“Theatrical movies are still necessary to fill out the lineup of a premium network,” Offsay said, “but they’re not sufficient.” As ancillary markets such as pay-per-view, DVD, video-on-demand and Internet streaming of movies continue to proliferate, theatricals are worn out by the time they get to Showtime, he said.

Just a few years ago, he added, the first play of a theatrical was always Showtime’s highest-rated show in a given week. But now, according to Offsay, a firstrun episode of the “Soul Food” series almost invariably harvests more viewers than a theatrical premiere, unless the title is a blockbuster like Paramount’s “Mission: Impossible 2.”

Over the next two months, Offsay said, Showtime will decide on next year’s series mix, which could climb from the current eight a week to as many as 10. Two extra series would add $50 million or so a year to the network’s total programming expenditure, he said.

“But we’re not walking away from original movies,” he added, citing the 150 or so movie projects Showtime has in development.

Pics for sib nets

One of his goals, Offsay said, is to start commissioning fresh movies for its Movie Channel sibling and for some of Showtime’s multiplex networks such as Next, Beyond, Extreme and Family Zone.

“We want to enhance these networks with exclusive product,” he said, “because Showtime is seldom sold to subscribers on its own but as part of a package of networks.”

(Scott Hettrick in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)

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