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Hold the Melodrama: Lifetime Redefines Its Telepic Brand

A+E banks on 'Bonnie & Clyde' to steal wider demos and shoot it out for viewers across three networks

A+E Networks’ miniseries treatment of the Bonnie and Clyde story is a bold gamble in almost every way.

The four-hour production tackles the story of well-known historical figures, and treads ground covered by director Arthur Penn’s much-lauded 1967 feature. “Bonnie & Clyde” will unfold as a simulcast over two nights, Dec. 8-9, on three A+E nets: A&E, Lifetime and History. That programming strategy will prove lucrative if auds show up — and be a triple whammy if they don’t.

But for Robert Sharenow, Lifetime Networks’ exec VP and g.m., what’s perhaps most valuable about the mini is the promise that it will expand in viewers’ minds the definition of a Lifetime movie. Sharenow has been on a mission to move past the stigma of the melodramatic sudsers that have become synonymous with the cabler over the years, bringing in bigger names, higher production values and more ambitious material.

“ ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ is one of the few stories that has broad appeal in multiple touch points,” Sharenow explained. “Clearly there’s a history angle, but there’s also a love story, and it’s a great piece of pop culture.”

The project, initially developed as a two-hour telepic, also brings marquee names including Emile Hirsch as Clyde Barrow, Holly Hunter as Bonnie Parker’s mother and William Hurt as the Texas Ranger who brings down the gang. Rising British star Holliday Grainger steps into Faye Dunaway’s shoes as Bonnie.

(Similarly, Lifetime’s upcoming TV adaptation of V.C. Andrews novel “Flowers in the Attic” stars Heather Graham, Kiernan Shipka and Ellen Burstyn. This year marked the first time three of Lifetime’s TV movies received Emmy noms, including actress in a mini for Alfre Woodard in “Steel Magnolias.”)

“I think the days of making Lifetime movies just for a Lifetime woman are over,” Sharenow said. “Lifetime viewers are liking them, but we’re also bringing in a new audience.”

The “Bonnie & Clyde” miniseries delves deeply into the lore surrounding the story of the Parker-Barrow gang and its 1930s spree of bank robberies. The need for faithfulness to the period put considerable pressure on the production team, led by exec producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron and director Bruce Beresford. But it also gave them material to work with that wasn’t always the focus of the 1967 pic.

“I think what’s interesting about the explosion in limited series like ‘Hatfields & McCoys’ and ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ is that there’s an opportunity to explore a story that you know a bit,” said Helen Verno, Sony Pictures TV exec VP, who developed “Bonnie” as well as “Hatfields” for History last year (the latter of which earned the network a basic cable ratings record average of 13.8 million viewers over three nights). “Even if you know (Bonnie and Clyde) simply from Arthur Penn’s iconic film, you don’t know the full story … that’s something I think we forget with all these historical stories we tell. These people were a lot younger than we thought they were. They were a hot couple; they were just doing terrible things.”

In the case of this project, that means stretching the dollar of a TV budget to find ways to focus on things fans expect, like Parker’s wardrobe, slick vintage rides (Barrow reportedly liked Fords) and dramatic shootouts. The crew filmed in Baton Rouge to gain tax incentives and easy access to architecture from the Depression era.

“We were able to surround the cast with a great period look,” Meron said.

It was also decided early on to double the original pitch’s runtime to four hours to better focus on character details and chronology, meaning there’s time to show Barrow suffering in jail after initial failed robberies, while also focusing on fame-obsessed Parker’s determination to keep them from quitting while they’re ahead — or even after she’s hurt in a car crash.

“We are going for a more factual telling of the story,” Meron said. He adds that while not everything is completely historically correct, much of it is.

As to whether these looting lovebirds’ three-pronged attack will steal ratings, he and Zadan are game for speculation.

Said Zadan, “Wouldn’t it be fascinating the next day to be at all three networks and see the cume?”

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