Cable’s New Movie Players
E!, Bravo step up feature-film acquisitions
By Anne Becker -- Broadcasting & Cable, 8/14/2005 8:00:00 PM
The E! network’s recent move to snag a feature-film package is clear evidence that emerging cable networks are determined to expand their brands—and boost their ratings—through popular movies.
Besides watching washed-up actors’ tawdry tales, Hugh Hefner’s girlfriends and other E! programming staples, viewers will soon see such films as Mystic Pizza and The Birdcage. E!’s move represents an industry-wide trend: As broadcast networks have shunned weekend movie nights to rerun originals, and major cable networks scoop up more first-run films, emerging cable players are increasingly acquiring second-, third- and, in some cases, even first-run features.
Studios have always pitched their films to newer cable clients. But both startups and established networks are taking those pitches seriously now and experimenting with small film packages.
“Every time broadcasters don’t cherish these staples, cable steals their thunder and builds a business on their back,” says John Weiser, president of distribution for Sony Pictures Television.
In the past two months, Sony reports film deals with six cable startups. Newbie martial-arts channel Blackbelt TV bought hundreds of classic films from Sony, such as Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master.
Paramount recently sold Bravo a package of major movies, including some cable premieres, and is wooing AMC to purchase first-run films, says Executive VP of Domestic Cable Distribution Scott Koondel. Warner Bros. is in “ongoing negotiations” with “a number of widely distributed niche networks,” says Warner Bros. Domestic Cable Distribution President Eric Frankel.
Warner Bros. says that, through June 26, 15 of basic cable’s 25 programs most viewed by adults were feature films. Armed with such research, studios show how movies perform for networks’ competition and pitch films’ ability to attract new viewers, change audience composition and build awareness of originals.
“A Great Carrot”
In most cases, the packages spell ratings boosts. E! averaged 390,000 total viewers during prime in July, a 5% jump from last year. On Oxygen, which bought its first major package last December from Warner Bros., movies held six of the top 10 programming slots between September 2004 and June 2005. That included cable premieres of Ocean’s Twelve and Miss Congeniality 2: Armed & Fabulous. Flicks are “a great carrot to lure a new audience” to originals, says Oxygen President of Programming/Marketing Debby Beece.
Studios also cite movies’ ability to repeat strongly, and show networks how to package films to fit their personality. E!, for example, plans to add film trivia in interstitials. The package’s first film, Fargo, will air later this month, and E! will debut a movie every two weeks.
But while small networks might test low-budget films (for $20,000-$220,000), cost still prevents many from buying first-run movies. And enticing them is “very bureaucratic and slow-moving,” says Frankel, adding that one deal can take up to two years to complete.
Still, some networks consider such deals essential to their long-term goals. “Movies are a futures business,” says E! and Style Senior VP of Programming Salaam Coleman Smith. “To get access to really great titles, you have to jump in for future windows.”
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