CBS tackles feature films

Network eyes midrange movie projects

Do TV networks have what it takes to be feature film players? CBS is trying to prove they do.

CBS Films is alive and well and determined to make movies for under $50 million — just the sort of movie the major studios are backing away from.

The entity represents a curious offshoot of the split between Viacom and CBS and, to many, the confusing movie channel rivalries that resulted. And as it pursues its mandate, the company may be reaping an indirect benefit from the slowdown in production caused by the writers strike.

Though many contend that mid-range projects pose the greatest challenges in the quest for profitability, that has done nothing to dampen CBS Corp. topper Leslie Moonves’ enthusiasm for his two-year-old mini-studio, which is scheduled to release its first movie, the Jennifer Lopez fertility-themed romantic comedy “The Back-up Plan,” in January. An untitled drama starring Harrison Ford will follow three months later. The mandate is to make and distribute four to six movies per year.

Amy Baer, a longtime Columbia Pictures exec who took the reins at CBS Films 18 months ago, ticks off a number of recent success stories among mid-range pics: “‘Baby Mama,’ ‘Paul Blart: Mall Cop,’ ‘Gran Torino’—– they were all made for under $50 million, and they all made lots of money,” she says from her office in UPN’s former West L.A. headquarters.

With two films in production and two films on the tarmac, CBS Films is poised to meet its output goal next year. But the question remains: Can the producer-distributor succeed where others — from Picturehouse to Revolution — have failed?

“I can be a big shot now because our first movie isn’t released until (early next year),” Moonves joked at a recent Milken Institute panel titled Outlook for the Entertainment Industry. “This is spring training where everything looks great.”

The economic landscape has changed dramatically since the company was launched in 2007, with a global credit crunch now firmly in place and a fluctuating dollar impacting revenues overseas.

“Our game plan has not been affected,” Baer says. “The movie business is recession-proof. Going to the movies has become the diversion of choice. We are just staying the course and slowly building a diverse slate of commercially appealing films. Fortunately, our movies are financed by CBS, so we’re not affected by a credit crunch.”

Baer envisions a company like DreamWorks’ first incarnation — a maker of broadly commercial fare driven by recognizable names that also distributes its own films. Also on board at CBS is ex-Paramount VP Bruce Tobey as chief operating officer, overseeing business affairs and homevideo.

The first film to be greenlit by Baer is the Ford vehicle, inspired by the true story of a man who raced against the clock to find a cure for a life-threatening disease affecting his children.

It may not scream easy sell, but Baer insists the film is a commercial and inspirational project in the vein of “The Pursuit of Happyness” and “Erin Brockovich.” Furthermore, CBS Films doesn’t intend to send a message by making the pic, which also stars Brendan Fraser and Keri Russell, its debut film.

“I don’t look to this movie to say anything about the type of movies we’re going to make,” she says. “Our slate is the sum of our movies. One film will not brand us.”

The company’s second film in production, “The Back-up Plan,” appears to be a less risky venture given Lopez’s track record in the genre. That will be followed by a high school-set take on “Beauty and the Beast” titled “Beastly,” which stars Vanessa Hudgens. The Dwayne Johnson action drama “Faster” will likely round out the 2010 slate. The project reteams Johnson with his “Gridiron Gang” helmer Phil Joanou.

The company is somewhat limited by the fact that it has no inhouse producers generating material. Still, Baer’s pool of projects includes an updated bigscreen adaptation of the TV series “Gunsmoke”; espionage thriller “Consent to Kill,” based on Vince Flynn’s best-seller; “The Christmas Cookie Club,” with Wendy Finerman producing; the comicbook-based thriller “The Station”; and scribe Susannah Grant’s “I’ll Be There,” which is based on a Korean box office hit.

“We came along at a moment where there was contraction in the business,” Baer says. “And we were a new buyer. Ironically, the writers strike was a blessing in disguise for us. There has been a lot of goodwill for us. If you are buyer that is standing, you benefit.”

The idea of a broadcast network launching a film division is nothing new: CBS and ABC launched film divisions in the 1980s, only to be shut down. In the corporate mergers that followed, each network found itself with a sister film studio. In fact, the impetus for CBS Films came in part from the split of Viacom and CBS. The network felt that it needed movies to plug into its pipeline and onto its pay channel, Showtime.

“The reason we started CBS Films is we are sort of working backwards,” Moonves said at the Milken conference. “We had a pay cable network, which needed product.”

Moonves decided to jump into the distribution sphere when he saw that a feature film division could take advantage of CBS’ myriad advertising platforms, including radio stations, television stations and billboards.

By the same token, Viacom’s Paramount decided that it needed its own movie channel, teaming with Lionsgate and MGM to launch its Epix venture. The prospects for both enterprises remain unclear, but there’s already been fallout. Sources say the rift over renewing Showtime’s output deals with Paramount, MGM and Lionsgate has strained the relationship between Moonves and Lionsgate CEO Jon Feltheimer, longtime friends and golfing buddies.

By all accounts, CBS Films is keeping a lean and mean operation, with 41 employees, 25 of whom are executives.

“Amy and Bruce have teed up CBS Films nicely,” says Moonves. “They have a diverse slate of broad appeal films, managed by a terrific team of executives with a wealth of creative experience in the film business. We’re a content company. And these films provide us a new form of content that is very complementary with our other entertainment assets.”

Brian Lowry contributed to this report.