Sci Fi zeroes in on exclusive aud

Cabler premieres low-budget pix on Saturdays

HOLLYWOOD — If Sci Fi Channel’s Saturday night movie success with young male viewers is any indication, the growth in cable will not only be about serving niches, but also targeting niches within niches.

The cabler started experimenting with action sci-fi pics in the fall with little or no marketing money behind them, only to pick up a 1.6 cable household rating with its first, “Mind Storm” in October, and a 2.4 with its second, “Epoch” at Thanksgiving time.

Since then, the cabler — a purveyor of big-budget events like upcoming Steven Spielberg project “Taken” as well as primetime scripted series — has skedded low-budget movie premieres every Saturday night to an average 1.6, not including its one disappointment, a Japanese acquisition, which rated a 0.9.

Although viewership on Saturday nights in general is low, many who do watch at that time have proven they are looking for fast-moving thriller-adventure, monster-laden fare, Sci Fi prexy Bonnie Hammer says.

“We realized that at Sci Fi, as specific as the brand is, we serve a field of viewers with a lot of different audiences,” she says. “Not all the audience was into the same stuff.”

When the Saturday night movies worked, the net decided to get others in the pipeline in order to control the creative, more specifically targeting that aud.

In order to do so, it looked to new ways to produce.

Taking a tip from the series world, for example, it greenlit a group of five original movies to be produced shotgun-style in Canada.

USA Cable Entertainment is distributing the movies — budgeted at $2 million apiece — which is part of the reason Hammer says making their own movies works.

“For us to do them ourselves is a bit more expensive, but there’s upside for the company at large,” she says. “Now that we’re part of Vivendi Universal we can distribute the films internationally.”

Cable consultant Ray Solley says no other cabler is fueling their movie pipeline in this way, at least not in such bulk. He also says that Sci Fi’s Saturday night strategy is “a wise use of their research.”

“It’s much more effective than trying to drag viewers into different dayparts, and it can help encourage them to watch more steadily and more loyally,” Solley says.

Producer Chuck Simon, who is exec-producing two of the five pictures rolling back-to-back in Canada, says he’s not exactly getting rich doing these movies. However the situation is “good all around.”

“At this budget, these movies have to be approached the old-fashioned way, making movies that suit a particular audience with the basic requirement being a really good script,” he says.

“It means there are opportunities for new players, and those who are involved are forced to find new ways to make movies and yet get to make movies that otherwise might not get made.”

As far as the network perspective, he adds, they get targeted programming that they own and can exploit. “What more could they want?”