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Red-carpet cable

High-profile talent showcasing its work on the small screen 11/26/2000 07:00:00 PM Eastern

Cable credits are starting to resemble a Who's Who of Hollywood. Steven Spielberg is doing projects for HBO and Sci Fi. Sidney Lumet is creating a series for A & E. Barbra Streisand and Whoopi Goldberg are creating shows for Lifetime. Francis Ford Coppola, Tom Hanks, Mel Gibson, Debbie Allen, Richard Donner, Jet Li and Allen Ball are among the celebrity filmmakers popping up all over cable.

"In the theatrical marketplace, you see a certain kind of movie not being made: Movies that are character-driven that don't have 'blockbuster' written all over them," said Chris Albrecht, president of HBO original programming. HBO is laying out more than $110 million next year for
Band of Brothers
, a 10-part miniseries executive-produced by Spielberg and Hanks. "As the studios make fewer and fewer of this kind of theatrical, cable opens up opportunities for these people."

For Roger Corman, cable means the
Black Scorpion

lives. Corman is a Hollywood B-movie legend who has made more than 550 films, including
Screwballs, Humanoids From the Deep
,
Vampirella

and the original
Little Shop of Horrors.

He describes
Scorpion

as a sort of "female Superman, Spiderman, Batman" that started as a series of feature films showcased on Showtime five years ago. After it ran, he was contacted by a German network wanting to license the project.

"I had no plans to do a TV series, but I didn't want to settle for just a license deal," Corman said. Gambling on German interest and healthy Showtime ratings, he went ahead and made 22 one-hour episodes on his own dime-at about $900,000 a pop. Showtime made him an offer he handily refused. Then Sci Fi jumped on it, giving him a prime time slot on Friday nights and a basic license fee plus a premium based on ratings. "And we had a better chance to get big comparative ratings on the Sci Fi Channel than anywhere else, because they're very aggressive about marketing new originals."

For a midsize network with 65 million subscribers, Sci Fi attracts as many high-profile filmmakers as far richer networks. (Sci Fi is on track to take in about $270 million this year, compared with TNT's more than $1 billion and HBO's $1.7 billion.) Coppola helped developed
First Wave
, the alien-invasion thrill series, for Sci Fi.
X-Men

producer Richard Donner is working on bringing
Monster Smasher

to Sci Fi (although it's currently on hold). Spielberg is producing
Taken
, a miniseries dramatizing the history of alien abductions for Sci Fi. Brian Henson, of Muppet film fame, is producing
Farscape

for the network (
see Q & A, page 72).

"I think the genre itself attracts smart, intelligent people," said Bonnie Hammer, executive vice president and general manager of Sci Fi. "It's a draw for people who want to do quality work."

Sci Fi sister net USA is just starting to bring in the big guns of film. Jan de Bont, director of the Greyhound-in-distress film
Speed
, is developing a one-hour dramatic series called
Thought Crimes

for the network. "It was being developed as a two-hour movie of the week. I read the script and thought it would be a great series," said Jim Miller, who became executive vice president of original programming at USA in October. "I said, 'Let's go straight to series.' Jan came in to pitch a second show."

Miller, a former film and television producer himself, was pitched by John Woo, Coppola, Brent Ratner and John Landis in his first few weeks on the job. He stresses, however, that it's the project and not the name attached that makes for a deal.

"The thing that's really important is that, no matter how big the name, the idea is compelling," he said. "If I have a project that I take to the public and say, 'I have a big name but no idea, ' I'd get killed. If there's something that doesn't work for you, you have almost a moral obligation to say no."

A&E's Allen Sabinson said yes to Sidney Lumet after a broadcast network shied away from a pilot for
100 Centre Street

, Lumet's first television work in 30 years. A&E will premiere the series in January.

Romance Classics (the Rainbow service undergoing relaunch) also went to Debbie Allen with
Cool Women
, a show that profiles the extraordinary accomplishments of ordinary women. Allen-writer, actor, choreographer and producer of
Amistad

-jumped on the project. Her company, Red Bird Productions, produces the show, and Allen said she edits every episode. "I get a lot of requests that I can't even read or think about. But to have the opportunity to celebrate an amazing group of women who could go so uncelebrated and unrecognized, for me, in its own way, it is as big as
Amistad.
"

It doesn't matter to Allen that Romance Classics reaches only about 25 million households, relatively few for an established cable network.

"Part of what makes any new network get visibility is bringing viewers something fresh that they don't see anywhere else," Allen said. "I think this show will help put Romance Classics on the map, because so many people want to see it."

TNT has long been a playground for celebrity filmmakers-Anjelica Huston, Goldie Hawn, Tommy Lee Jones, Dennis Quaid, Alec Baldwin and Patrick Stewart among them. TNT will spend about $523 million on programming this year-second only to ESPN's $758 million, according to Paul Kagan Associates. But a huge portion of TNT's funding goes to procuring first-time television rights to blockbuster theatricals.

Julie Weitz, TNT executive vice president of original programming and series, believes the film luminaries create the gold standard for network originals without breaking the bank. "The budget range for all of our movies is $5 million to $9 million, and they all know it, and they all work within it."

They encounter the same dictum at Lifetime, where the cutoff point for original movies is $5 million. "Everybody knows what the range is, more or less," said Executive Vice President of Entertainment Dawn Tarnofsky-Ostroff. "Nobody is going to bring us a $50 million project, because we're not a big movie studio."

HBO is as close to being a big movie studio as anything in cable. Where else but at HBO could
Band of Brothers

get made, Albrecht asks. It's too long for a theatrical release, too expensive for a basic cable network and too much of both for a broadcast network. Network bugs and commercial interruptions would detract from the story, a real-life account of a group of men in a World War II rifle company who lived and died during some of the most horrific ground fighting of the conflict. Spielberg and Hanks brought the project to HBO, which is footing the entire bill-one that amounts to more than most basic-cable networks have to spend on programming for an entire year.

"Look, we can't do this every year, but when these people come in and say, 'We want to do this, 'you say, 'OK,'" Albrecht said. "This is our opportunity to really stand out. You just go ahead and take the risk."

The risk is calculated for HBO. As a pay network, it doesn't have the option of demanding premiums for advertising or jacking up license fees, as ESPN did when it paid $4.8 billion for football. HBO's $1.7 billion annual net revenue is mostly from subscriberships, and the only way to substantially grow it is to get more subscribers.

"
Band of Brothers

may never pay for itself," Albrecht said. "but we look at the overall lineup and say, 'How can we keep as many people as we can?'"

 

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