Tough Times for TV Movies

Aug 18, 2003  •  Post A Comment

“Endangered,” “beleaguered,” “even worse than it seems”-such are the descriptions insiders use to describe the current state of the telepic industry.
“The broadcast networks scaled back dramatically and we all thought that the business would go to cable nets,” said Deborah Blackwell, a former William Morris telepic packaging agent who is now senior VP and general manager of SoapNet. “While it’s true that new players like Court TV, ESPN and Animal Planet have entered the business, they’ve done it in a small way.”
Very small. According to the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, despite the proliferation of cable outlets, the number of best original movie entries has dropped from 120 in 1993 to 97 in 1995 to only 57 this year.
“While there is no doubt that while cable filled the breach for a while, [cable is] now in the process of trying to be more specific, more targeted,” said producer and talent manager Ken Gross. “And that’s made for a lessened development commitment.”
For producers, sources of consternation include stagnant network license fees and the increasing difficulty of retaining rights to film negatives.
“In the ’80s, it was a wonderful place for independent producers. They could own the movie’s negative and build libraries,” Ms. Blackwell said. “In the ’90s, it became more and more difficult to own the negative, and producers were called upon to shoulder increasingly large deficits.”
Nowadays, Ms. Blackwell said, “I’ve had so many producers say to me that the worst day is the day you get your project greenlit. There are only a few players that can afford the network fees.”
One network that claims to have maintained its original movie output is Lifetime, which is enjoying its first Emmy nomination this year with “Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story.”
“It is true that nearly everybody has scaled back, but we’ve always tried to do one a month,” said Trevor Walton, senior VP of original movies for Lifetime. “I’m especially upset [about the lack of movies], because there are fewer for us to buy.”
Mr. Walton disagreed with the assertion that networks are to blame for squeezing independent producers. “That’s not quite the issue,” he said. “The issue is the international marketplace has fallen apart.”
David Grant, president of Fox Television Studios, pointed out that the diversifying marketplace may have actually hurt the telepic industry.
“Because there’s so much out there, it’s getting harder and more expensive to market things,” he said. “So the tendency is to market something that’s going to sustain.”
On the bright side, he said, the quality of the average telepic has increased.
“I think there’s a higher threshold to make an entertaining movie for cable or for a broadcast network,” Mr. Grant said. “There isn’t a routinized movie factory slot that just consumes movies as ordinary programming. [Networks] are looking for a movie to be something special.” Not only special, but cinematic.
“If I’m looking for one piece of good news, it’s [Steven] Spielberg doing “Taken” for Sci Fi,” Ms. Blackwell said. “[Television movies] have become a respectable venue. HBO’s “From the Earth to the Moon” was the turning point. That was the moment it became cool for feature people to do television.”
By the looks of the five nominees for this year’s telepic Emmy, it would seem that having feature film talent is almost a necessity. “Door to Door” starred William H. Macy. “Normal” starred Jessica Lange. “My House in Umbria” starred Maggie Smith and Chris Cooper.
“You have to be prepackaged with the top writer, the top concept and have a piece of casting attached to find your way through to production,” Mr. Gross said.
But as viewers become increasingly accustomed to telepics looking and sounding like feature films, the road to production will likely become more difficult. After all, a feature film is even tougher to launch than a telepic-which is one reason feature stars turn to television to make their passion projects.
“I truly believe the genre will be around for a long time,” Mr. Walton said. “There’s just going to be fewer of them for a while.”