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When less is more

Quality of made-fors and minis has rarely been higher

Minis and made-fors have been squeezed in the U.S., with their presence on broadcast skeds diminishing over the last few years as reality skeins rushed into take their place.

Some of the slack has been picked up by cablers such as Lifetime, TNT and USA, and, fortunately, the quality of the resulting shows has been impressive.

The business has lately cleaved into two distinct segments — the highbrow, arty, occasionally controversial made-fors and minis produced by payboxes HBO and Showtime — and the more commercially oriented stories about murder, unexplained mysteries or marriage gone wrong.

Prospects abroad for the former category are only good if the projects are well cast and look “theatrical.” Not surprisingly, these projects tend to do well on highbrow, artsy, upscale stations like BBC2 or ZDF.

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HBO sifts through its annual batch of minis and made-fors generally choosing to distribute abroad the very high-end ones. These include such critical faves as “Band of Brothers,” “From the Earth to the Moon” and “Angels in America.” (The paybox’s sister unit Warner Bros. Intl. TV typically handles the remainder of the pay cabler’s telepics each year, incorporating them into its regular packages of Warner-produced movies and series.)

In some cases HBO brings foreign co-partners in at an early stage, treating key projects much as it would a theatrical film — and indeed, in a few cases, these projects receive modest moviehouse exposure abroad before heading to television.

“Band of Brothers” was so highly thought of by the BBC that it plunked down $10 million for the 10-hour series. “Angels in America” was snapped up by Britain’s Channel Four.

Warner Bros. Intl. TV handles “Something the Lord Made,” which just copped an Emmy, and “Starring Pancho Villa as Himself” from sister unit HBO. Similarly, Viacom’s Paramount Intl. TV handles “The Reagans” and “A Lion in Winter” from sister unit Showtime.

WBITV prexy Jeffrey Schlesinger says the HBO quality skeins sell, but that finding slots for them abroad has become difficult over time, just as it has for so many other genres of American product. In short, local stations are making their own minis and made-fors.

Both HBO and Showtime use these pieces to drive subscribers so that even if, occasionally, they’re financial loss leaders, it doesn’t seem to be a problem.

On the more mainstream commercial front, the economic model for made-fors is somewhat different. It currently costs between $4 million and $5 million to produce a network- or cable-quality made-for and the net in question typically puts up upward of 70% of the budget for several runs over three or four years. Thus the deficits for the producer-distribber run around $1.5 million range.

A key player in this arena is Granada America, the producer-distrib created through the merger late last year of Britain’s ITV powerhouses Granada and Carlton.

In the U.S., it was the Carlton offshoot that had over the last decade built up relationships with indie producers and has been churning out about a dozen telepics each year for a variety of networks.

CBS is the only broadcast net that still has a bona fide TV movie slot, but cablers have recently stepped up their commitment to the genre.

As for selling these into the international market, Granada America prexy Stephen Davis says it’s still a business to be in — if, like his company, one controls production and distribution and keeps a constant eye on the bottom line.

TV movies, after all, are much cheaper for a foreign station to buy than a theatrical movie; $50,000-$100,000 range rather than $500,000 to $1 mil for a movie in Euro territories.

Moreover, says Davis, “a theatrical movie will have been through various windows and exposure before it hits broadcast stations abroad, whereas a TV movie is still a firstrun proposition for foreign program buyers.”

Unlike series and other episodic programming, telepics are flexible pieces that can be slotted easily and moved around the sked. They have also begun attracting higher-tier acting talent — name actresses such as Melanie Griffith, Anne Heche, Kathleen Quinlan and Ellen Burstyn appear in some current releases.

Among the movies Granada will be fielding at the market are “Intimate Deceptions,” “The Dead Will Tell” and “Lethal Seduction.”

They sell reasonably well on the continent, though, ironically, they’re difficult to place in Granada’s own British back yard. (The Brits are adept at their own version of the genre, still called “plays” at the BBC, and they are quite different in tone, style and subject matter from their U.S counterparts.)

As for the state of the market on the eve of Mipcom, Davis and others are optimistic that economies are picking up and stations are back in buying mode.