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Sci Fi Channel a movie monster

Originals prod'n boosts cabler to head of TV class

NEW YORK — “Snakehead Terror,” “Ghost Monkey” and “Bugs” are three original TV movies that probably won’t make the final cut when the Emmy committee announces its nominations for best telepic of 2002-03.

But the Sci Fi Channel commissioned the three genre pictures, along with almost two-dozen other movies and miniseries this year, propelling the network to a unique position in showbiz: Sci Fi generates more original movies each year than any other network in the U.S., broadcast or cable.

Sci Fi prexy Bonnie Hammer separates the network’s firstrun movies into two basic categories.

There’s the 22 pure-action movies, costing a skimpy $2 million or so apiece, like “Snakehead Terror” that it schedules every Saturday in primetime. And there’s the expensive, big-event miniseries aimed at the broadest audience, such as “Taken,” the 20-hour Steven Spielberg-produced epic that quadrupled Sci Fi’s primetime Nielsen average last December, and the six-hour “Children of Dune” in March.

Sci Fi will continue to push both categories because the network’s viewers have embraced them.

Even the low-budget Saturday-night flicks harvested an average of 22% more viewers than acquired theatricals in the last nine months, and 26% more adults 25-54, Sci Fi’s target demo.

On Saturday after Saturday, these movies routinely outperform the network’s primetime average, despite the fact that fewer people watch TV on Saturday than on any other night.

Saleable sci-fi

Avi Lerner, head of Nu Image, the movie company that will produce five of Sci Fi’s movies this year, said he’s eager to work for the channel because sci-fi movies, unlike comedies or serious dramas, are saleable in a sluggish international marketplace.

Although Hammer declined to discuss dollar figures, Sci Fi typically pays $750,000 in license fees to the suppliers of each of its original movies, who then have to chalk up the rest of the $2 million production cost from foreign territories.

“Sci-fi movies cross boundaries better than almost any other genre,” said Paul Hertzberg, president of Cinetel Films, which supplies up to three movies a year to the network. “Creature pictures and disaster movies are our bread and butter.”

But Cinetel’s profit margins have shrunk, he continued, because “there are no more German pre-sales and the Japanese market has weakened. We have to piece together deals through our longstanding relationships with buyers from places like Spain, the Benelux countries and France.”

Hertzberg said he often shoots Cinetel’s sci-fi movies in Canada to take advantage of the country’s subsidies and tax breaks. Buttressed by extra Canadian hires, these subsidies can offset as much as 20% of the budget of a Cinetel made-for.

Self-control

Jeff Beach, president of UFO Films, another steady supplier of product to the network, said he’s able to squeeze out a profit on the movies because “we control everything in-house. We operate a mini-studio in Burbank, which includes our own special-effects division. We can create 250-300 effects in a movie at a fairly low cost. And we even have writers on staff.”

Sci Fi gets involved in the genre movies from the earliest script stage and works with the supplier on casting and budgets, said Tom Vitale, senior VP of program acquisitions for the network.

Beach said Vitale wanted “Phantom Force,” now shooting in Bulgaria, to appeal to a younger audience, so UFO cast a regular on the WB’s “Felicity” series, Tangi Miller, as the female lead.

In exchange for its license fee, Sci Fi gets the world premiere of the Saturday-night movies. After a three-month window, Sci Fi or the supplier will distribute the movie on cassette and DVD.

Building a library

Because it’s looking to build a library of programming to fill a 24-hour-a-day schedule, Sci Fi tries to negotiate an exclusive license term that’s as close to in-perpetuity as possible.

As for the big miniseries, Hammer said she can’t wait until December when Sci Fi will premiere “Battlestar Galactica,” the four-hour sequel to the ABC series (1978-80). If “Galactica” makes an impact in the Nielsens, Sci Fi is ready to go back into production with it as a full-fledged series.

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