When Hallmark Channel contacted American Cinema Intl. president Chevonne O’Shaughnessy about producing a movie set in the Amish community, she immediately sent an outline for one. ACI had already produced three Amish-themed movies for other outlets, so she figured she’d quickly be brought on board.

But O’Shaughnessy says Hallmark didn’t call her back. And she couldn’t figure out why — but then started watching the channel. After going on a Hallmark movie binge, “all of a sudden it hit me,” she says. “I didn’t have a dog. So I added a dog. And I got a call back. It was that simple.”

The TV movie business is a fickle one, even in this era of Peak TV and new streaming services. The independent producers behind made-for-TV films must navigate tiny budgets, narrow audiences with specific tastes, outlets that want to own those titles and just a few traditional networks that still buy such projects in bulk.

Speaking at the American Film Market earlier this month, Reel One/Lance Entertainment chief strategy adviser and producer Pierre David took issue with the notion that the demand for made-for-TV movies is growing. “That’s not true,” he says. “The TV movies market is a pretty specific market.” 

In the traditional TV long-form world, there are just two major network buyers: Lifetime and Hallmark, both of which run upwards of 125 original movies a year. Other channels, including UP TV, BET, Ion and Syfy (which used to buy much more long form) purchase just a handful. Domestically, David says those movies can fetch $150,000 to $250,000 for an initial window, with another $150,000 potentially coming from overseas territories — such as French broadcaster TF1. 

The networks commissioning movies rarely deviate from their formulas. Lifetime original movies VP of programming Tia Maggini says her channel is looking for films that are either biopics, inspirational true stories, ripped from the headlines or Christmas themed — with a few outliers that are usually based on known intellectual properties. 

“Our job as producers is to service their brand — to do what’s been working for them,” says Motion Picture Corp. of America
CEO Brad Krevoy. “They understand their brand, and all their movies fit their brand. Every network has its own set of rules.”

With limited budgets come limited salaries: Writers and directors might be paid between $10,000 and $20,000, shoot days are limited and often productions are filmed nonunion. Krevoy says he has found a way to produce films with more shooting days, with bigger casts and without ducking the unions by working in Ontario, Vancouver and Bucharest, where a strong dollar and tax incentives keep costs down.

Meanwhile, as the linear TV landscape narrows, Krevoy says he’s bullish on the streaming marketplace. It frequently means  giving up ownership or control on a project, but for a producer for hire, streamers offer bigger budgets and potentially more opportunities to produce a broad range of projects. 

“These next five years are going to be boom times,” he says. “How do you capitalize on that? Our business strategy has been to assess each one of the streamers and what they’re looking for.”

Outlets like Netflix are balancing their run of prestige films (like “Roma” and “The Irishman”) with lower-budget movies that satisfy a variety of audiences. Krevoy’s company has found success targeting millennial audiences with the “A Christmas Prince” trilogy, as well as “The Princess Switch” and “The Knight Before Christmas,” both starring Vanessa Hudgens. 

“They play younger than Lifetime or Hallmark,” Krevoy says of Netflix’s movie needs. “We found Vanessa Hudgens is the perfect spokesperson for that generation. So we started designing properties that would work for her. All those movies index on Netflix. We’re not allowed to talk about how they do, but for the smaller budget, under $10 million, [‘The Princess Switch’] competed well.”

Krevoy also notes that Netflix doesn’t need to be advertiser-friendly, which is why another movie he recently produced for the platform, “Holiday in the Wild” (starring Rob Lowe and Kristin Davis), tackled the subject of animal poachers. “What we were shocked to find was Netflix really wanted to do a movie like that,” he says. “But they didn’t have to worry about blowback from potential advertisers as a network might have.”

O’Shaughnessy, meanwhile, has found another niche to pursue at Netflix: stories inspired by popular films, but with predominantly African American casts. “We’re looking into different markets and where their shortfall is,” she says, pointing also to faith-based and “inspirational” films.

MarVista Entertainment chief operating officer Tony Vassiliadis believes there will be more opportunities for companies like his as new entrants such as Disney Plus and HBO Max take back content that had been licensed elsewhere — leaving streamers like Netflix or Hulu with specific programming holes to plug.

“One thing we’re looking at is efficient filmmaking at a low price point to fill in some of the theatrical content needs that streamers or international pay TV players will [now have],” such as romantic comedies and thrillers, Vassiliadis says. “What we’re trying to figure out is how to take the hallmarks of a TV movie — a known audience and a budget you really have to target — and apply it to any of the emerging platforms.”