Original Movies Evolve

Apr 12, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Tune in to Lifetime or Lifetime Movie Network on any weekend afternoon and you’ll find yourself in emotionally draining yet entertaining territory. The network’s original offerings range from the racy to the melodramatic to the downright frantic. While Lifetime programming is sometimes overlooked by the critics, much of the network’s original fare, particularly some of its recent Emmy-lauded ratings winners, deserves a place among the best that television has to offer.
Since 1990, when Lifetime made its first original picture, the network has continued to expand production and development departments and now makes a dozen features a year-which runs contrary to what’s happening in broadcast television.
By the end of 2004 the network will have made 150 television movies-literary adaptations, thrillers, romantic comedies, biopics and docudramas.
“We Were the Mulvaneys” (2002), based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates, earned three Emmy nominations: two for its lead actors, Blythe Danner and Beau Bridges, and one for its original music score.
The network still programs from its library of TV movies acquired from other networks. Because those acquired movies-many with a familiar elevated pitch-get frequent re-airings on weekends, they have become pop-culture touchstones.
As executive VP of entertainment at Lifetime, Barbara Fisher oversees the development of original series and movies. She’d like to banish jokes about “stalker TV.” “While I do agree that `Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?’ is probably one of the all-time great TV movie titles, one that will go down in the annals of TV history, Lifetime did not-did not-make that one,” Ms. Fisher said. In fact, NBC made that 1996 Tori Spelling suspense drama; Lifetime has rebroadcast it more recently.
Faithful Viewers
In 1990, when the network began making original movies, it also was purchasing the re-broadcast rights to ABC, NBC and CBS telefilms. Trevor Walton, a senior VP in charge of making original movies, said ratings research at the Big 3 networks indicated that women were faithful viewers of movies-of-the-week. “With Lifetime just starting out and being a network for women,” Mr. Walton said, “it was natural that this would become a place to make new movies.”
As broadcast networks began to focus more in recent years on reality shows and sitcoms and less on telefilms, young cable networks like Lifetime saw an opening and went for it.
“That’s how we started our programming identity, with movies,” Ms. Fisher said. “Women flocked to it, to those acquired movies, and we realized we could have great success doing originals.”
The earliest of those Lifetime originals were similar in tone and theme to the films acquired from broadcast networks; hence the preponderance of endangered women.
The first Lifetime original movie to air was “Memories of Murder” (1990), starring Nancy Allen as an amnesiac struggling to recall the murder she has witnessed. “We’ve come a long way,” said Ms. Fisher. “I’m not sure that script would work for us today.”
Lifetime movies have become known, at least within the entertainment industry, as showcase roles for actresses-at least since Mary Tyler Moore won an Emmy for playing a villain in 1990’s “Stolen Babies.” Since then, the producers have attracted Oscar winners Ellen Burstyn, Sissy Spacek, Diane Keaton and Marcia Gay Harden. Other top-tier talent includes Stockard Channing, Blythe Danner, Mia Farrow, Thora Birch and Laura Dern. Diane Keaton and John Badham have directed Lifetime movies, and Barbra Streisand has produced one.
Movies from the past few years have defied easy categorization.
“The Truth About Jane” was an unusually frank drama about a teenage lesbian (Ellen Muth) and her protective mother (Ms. Channing). In “She’s Too Young,” Ms. Harden coped with the sexual experimentation of her middle-school-age daughter.
“Obsessed,” directed by Mr. Badham, was an offbeat mystery starring a cast-against-type Jenna Elfman as a happily deranged erotomaniac-and for a change a man was the victim of a woman’s pursuit.
“A great romp, is how we saw `Obsessed,”’ Mr. Walton said. “Usually, it’s the man who’s lying about the affair. But he was telling the truth in this case. There was no affair. She was crazy and ruining his life. We loved the irony of that.”
True Stories
Mr. Walton developed “Obsessed” after securing the rights to a true story that appeared in Vanity Fair. “Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story,” with Ms. Birch as a persevering student, is also based on a true story, that of a young woman Mr. Walton saw profiled on ABC’s “20/20.“
Based-on-fact movies and stories about women overcoming near-impossible odds are the stock in trade for independent producers Frank Von Zerneck and Robert Sertner, who have collaborated on television movies since the late 1970s. The prolific team saw many of its projects for broadcast TV end up re-airing on Lifetime and Lifetime Movie Network. It wasn’t until 1999, when Lifetime opened its in-house movie development to outside producers, that Mr. Von Zerneck and Mr. Sertner were able to pitch directly to the network.
Since then, Von Zerneck-Sertner Films has made two or three films a year for Lifetime.
The first, “Within These Walls,” set in a women’s prison, was an original script developed with Lifetime executives.
Another Von Zerneck-Sertner project, “We Were the Mulvaneys,” was unusual, and not just because it was based on a book. “Another producer, Tracey Alexander, took it to Lifetime and then brought it to us,” Mr. Sertner said. “We have to give her credit for talking Lifetime into it, because it was not an easy sell. It’s a complex novel with dark themes, but when you are making 12 films a year there is room for something special.”
The novel, which follows a suburban family’s near-disintegration after the daughter is raped, was well reviewed but not a best seller.
However, Mr. Von Zerneck said, the story at the core of “Mulvaneys” is “a perfect Lifetime movie, a family in crisis, with focus on the mother and daughter.”
The film was notable, too, in that it earned an Emmy nod for Mr. Bridges as well as one for Ms. Danner. “That was a coming-of-age for us, that we weren’t just going to be known for great roles for actresses,” Mr. Walton said.
This year’s slate of movies, the network’s executives said, will continue to be diverse. Multigenerational stories will be common. This month, Kim Delaney stars in “Infidelity,” about the effects of marital strife on a woman, her father and her grandfather.
And in a twist on all the movies that demonize the Internet, a mid-2004 film called “Perfect Romance” has Kathleen Quinlan browsing the Web without encountering any trouble with identity theft, cyber-stalkers, spyware or even spam from overhyped mortgage lenders. “She’s trying to find the perfect man for her grown daughter, and she ends up falling for him herself,” Mr. Walton said. “It’s lighthearted and funny. How’s that for a change?”