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Singles get more dates

Studios making a bundle without bundling pictures

NEW YORK — The Grinch, Hannibal Lecter and Mel Gibson are flying solo these days. It’s not because nobody wants to hang out with them; their isolation is due to suspicious profit participants and declining ratings for films on TV.

Paramount is about to announce a sale of “What Women Want.” And what Par wants is a pic pact for that film alone.

When the deal is completed, it’ll be the latest example of what could be a major change in the business: The era of the front-loaded movie packages — where studios unloaded less salable pictures by bundling them with one or two blockbusters — may be winding to a close.

Paramount will soon get the word out that it has found a network buyer for “Women,” a movie that’s racked up $180 million in U.S. theaters over the past three months.

Par is talking about selling a shared window to both a broadcast network and a cable network; but the winning bidders will not have to pony up extra dollars for a batch of other Par titles.

Some other recent examples:

  • ABC and its sister network the Disney Channel forked over a humongous $60 million to buy “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas” from Universal, buying just the one title for an unusually lengthy 10-year license term.

  • CBS shelled out $18 million, and USA Network $12 million more, to buy a shared window to MGM’s blockbuster hit “Hannibal,” which will move back and forth between the two networks during its five-year license term.

    MGM has agreed to add another hour of footage excised from the theatrical version to create a “Hannibal” miniseries. CBS and USA have the option of running the miniseries version at no extra cost.

  • ABC opened its checkbook for exclusive network-TV rights to 20th Century Fox’s “Cast Away,” which has already chalked up a domestic gross of $224 million and is still tracking. The final figure on ABC’s check will almost certainly go above $30 million, based on a sliding scale tied to what the movie eventually earns in U.S. theaters.

One reason that these blockbusters are not pulling carloads of lesser titles when they stride into the marketplace is that profit participants of the hit movies are watching the negotiations with gimlet-eyed intensity.

These profit-sharers tend to prefer clean single-title sales of their pictures, which erase any worry that the studio is devaluing a big-grossing movie by attaching three or four modest performers to its gilded coattails.

The studios try to counter the suspicions of profit-holders by pointing out that in any movie package bought by a network, each title is accorded its own separate price, usually calibrated by formula to the movie’s final domestic gross.

That’s all well and good, say the studio’s wary partners, but what if a broadcast network walks away from the table because, even though it has the hots for the showcase title, it has no use for the other movies in the bundle? If the less-important titles had never reared their ugly heads, that network might have stayed in the hunt and bid up the price for the bellwether movie.

Broadcast networks are probably less eager than ever before to buy packages of theatrical movies because movie ratings are declining faster than almost any other programming category on the primetime schedules.

For example, Steve Calandra, a research executive with media-buying firm Mindshare, tracked the Nielsen rating of theatricals season to date over the past three years. The average rating of theatrical movies on the Big Four plunged from a 7.6 (Oct. 5, 1998, to March 7, 1999) to a 6.8 (Oct. 4, 1999, to March 5, 2000) and to a 6.1 (Oct. 2, 2000, to March 4, 2001). That decline was much more precipitous than the overall drop in primetime ratings for the same period: 8.6 (1999-2000), 8.5 (1999-2000) and 8.2 (2000-01).

The same negative pattern for theatricals held true among the three main demographic categories over the course of the three years: adults 18 to 49, adults 25 to 54 and women 25 to 54.

But Tom Wertheimer, the executive in charge of movie sales to the networks for Universal Pictures, says those figures are misleading because the networks often schedule theatricals the way kamikaze pilots flew their planes during World War II.

A network often counterprograms hit series or heavily promoted miniseries during a sweep period with a theatrical title, hoping the movie’s familiarity will keep the competitive shows from dominating the time period.

Against powerhouse competition, even a top-10 grosser is likely to underachieve in the primetime ratings.

Another favorite tactic of broadcast networks is to create a movie night in midseason, blowing out series that have failed to capture an audience. Such a movie-fueled creation is almost doomed to low ratings because the network’s rivals have solidified their lock on the mass audience in that time period.

But as the broadcast networks shy away from buying movies in bulk, Wertheimer says the cable networks are taking up the slack. Channels such as TBS, TNT, USA and FX have developed a ravenous appetite for theatrical movies.

Seizing on this demand, the studios have managed to pull in higher prices for their movies despite the dizzying drop in ratings on the broadcast networks.

With prices so steep, broadcasters have become more willing than ever to forgo exclusivity and share the network window with a cable partner.

Which is why Paramount’s announcement, probably in the next week or two, of a buyer for “What Women Want” will likely list two winning bidders instead of just one.

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