Longform remains among the most awards-worthy
When AMC's first-ever original longform telecast premiered last June, the two-night Western saga "Broken Trail," starring Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church, scored a somewhat astounding 7.63 household rating on its first night. Not only did that triple the previous high rating for any program on AMC, but for the two nights, "Trail" ranked as the third-highest-rated basic cable movie ever in terms of households.
"We honestly never expected this scale of audience to find that show," admits Rob Sorcher, executive vp programming and production at AMC. "I mean, it was the most successful movie to air anywhere on cable in a decade. But it showed us that movies on television still could engage viewers in a major way."
Engaging viewers always has been what TV movies and miniseries do best, but for the past several years, broadcasters and cable networks have aired fewer longform programs, giving the impression that they are a dying breed. In fact, the two longform Emmy categories -- traditionally boasting hundreds of entries -- are down to slightly more than 50 submissions.
However, miniseries like "Trail" -- as well as a host of other TV movies such as HBO's "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," "Longford," "Angel Rodriguez" and "Life Support"; BBC America's "Cracker: A New Terror"; Hallmark Channel's "Hallmark Hall of Fame: Candles on Bay Street"; Lifetime's "A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story," "Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy" and "The Mermaid Chair"; PBS' miniseries "Prime Suspect: The Final Act"; TNT's "The Ron Clark Story"; Sci Fi Channel's mini "The Lost Room"; and ABC's "Fallen" and miniseries "The Path to 9/11" -- are proving that the form's dwindling numbers merely represent quality overtaking quantity.
In other words, if the product is good, the viewers will follow.
"The irony is that some of the best work in entertainment is being done now in TV movies," says Helen Verno, who as executive vp movies and miniseries at Sony Pictures Television shepherded "Trail." "We had people tuning to 'Broken Trail' who previously didn't even know where AMC was. If you do good work, people will find it and watch it. And I have to tell you, in any given year, the slate of TV movies is every bit as good as that of feature films. I'd hold up the production values, the acting, the directing and the writing on 'Broken Trail' and (ABC's upcoming remake) 'Raisin in the Sun' with anything on any screen."
Still, though, it's difficult to refute the fact that fewer TV movies and miniseries are made every year. Michael Wright, senior vp and head of the Content Creation Group for TNT, TBS and TCM, remembers the days in the 1980s when the broadcast networks would show 200-plus original movies in a single 12-month time frame.
"There was a certain period when TV movies were a legitimate forum for expressing and discussing social issues," Wright reflects. "Then the form evolved into one that focused on true crime. 'Car Crash Theater' is what we called it. It was exploitative and started to rely on telling stories of people whose lives were worse than your own. I think it jumped the shark during that one weekend where the networks aired three Amy Fisher movies."
TNT, too, once made a handful of movies annually and now is down to just a single one, branded in tandem with Johnson & Johnson. The problem, explains Wright, is that the financial model simply changed to the point where it has become nearly impossible to make a one-shot telecast work as a moneymaker.
"You have a very clear and direct downside," he emphasizes. "You spend an awful lot of money on one-and-done. That doesn't fit the economic model for most cable networks that look for residual value in a product. We spend a ton of money to promote 'The Closer' because it's a series and therefore the gift that keeps on giving. If we spent the same money launching a movie or mini, no matter how great, it's still a finite experience."
Coupled with the drying up of the international back-end market for TV movies ("We used to be able to get $1 million-plus in those deals," Wright recalls), the art form only makes sense for a handful of cablers who are able to attach movies to their brand and run them repeatedly.
HBO is one such network that has built a reputation for creating high-quality, cinematic longform projects, like the miniseries "Tsunami: The Aftermath." Its ambitious TV movie "Wounded Knee" premiered on Sunday, culminating a six-year journey to the screen that was shepherded by executive producer Dick Wolf of NBC's "Law & Order" fame.
"It's such a different mandate when you work for HBO," Wolf says. "They've raised the business of making movies for TV to an art form, and as such, there's the expectation of an Emmy nomination. But I have to say, the process works. I'm enormously proud of this movie. We were able to clearly and movingly show just how atrocious were the offenses committed against the Indians. I mean, it was genocide."
But HBO is hardly the only game in town, and Sony's Verno, for one, believes that the audience for telefilms is still very much out there -- provided that the networks deliver the creative goods. "When I started in this business, every single network had a night or two of original movies," she recalls. "They had a built-in audience that didn't require enormous promotion. I continue to believe people would tune in now if the movies were there."
Clearly, executives at Lifetime and Hallmark agree -- given that each network greenlights between 15 and 25 projects each year.
Hallmark executive vp programming Dave Kenin points out that his network is now up to 22 longform originals annually that "perform beautifully for us and repeat very well."
Indeed, Kenin notes that some of the mystery-themed films made for Hallmark "perform better (in the ratings) on their eighth or ninth run than they do on the first. That's how we make movies work in our system. If a movie is on brand and fits the philosophy, we can run it many times. We can also run them during a number of different time periods without having to adjust to the surrounding half-hours and hours."
Fiscally, Hallmark is able to thrive as a TV-movie purveyor because the network doesn't have to foot the bill to produce a film. Rather, the cabler pays a fee to Hallmark Entertainment, the production company started by Robert Halmi Sr. that's operated as a completely separate entity from the Hallmark Channel. Productions also tend to be character-driven, meaning that no one has to try to find room in the budget to pay for pricey, computer-generated visuals.
"The movies we're making are not edgy, not high-concept," Kenin says. "They have no special effects or car chases or sexual situations. Or fights. They simply tie in to basic core human values, which helps draw people to the network by itself since that segment of the audience is so underserved."
Lifetime senior vp original movies Libby Beers spouts a somewhat different network philosophy from that of Lifetime but maintains it's similar in terms of linking original programming to the brand.
"We see it as part of our mandate to make a lot of original films each year that speak to issues impacting our audience," Beers says. "It's been part of the history of the network to have a strong relationship with two-hour movies. Women love them when they're done right, and it's our mandate to continue to find stories that engage them.
"Right now, we're looking to go after big book titles that we can develop into films," Beers continues. "But the new philosophy is not to restrict our subjects to heroic women. We're starting to move away from that to portraying women who are vulnerable and make mistakes, since our audience can better relate."
For its original longform programming, BBC America is fortunate enough to be able to pick and choose projects from BBC and other British film/miniseries purveyors -- like this year's miniseries Emmy contender "The State Within." Former NBC, WB and Fox executive Garth Ancier, now president of BBC Worldwide Network America, speaks of having "a gold mine of choices" available to him.
"It works for us extremely well to be able to go in and buy from everyone in Britain," Ancier says. "As co-producers, we'll buy from ITV, the BBC, Channel 4 -- there's a lot of terrific movie product out there that has never been seen in the U.S. It happens that TV movies remain a popular form in the U.K., almost in the same way it was in the U.S. 15 years ago. And we're finding the audience here is more than receptive."
Still, though, most cable outlets are grappling with how to effectively make and market telefilms. USA Network executive vp original programming Jeff Wachtel says that "we find the cost of production vs. the cost of marketing a one-time-only event to be prohibitive. Let's face it: We have limited resources for original programming. You want to spend it on a renewable resource."
Wachtel points out that USA currently is running the six-hour original miniseries "The Starter Wife," which he believes is "one way to get into longform in a way that makes sense. Doing limited series or miniseries that can be a springboard for an eventual drama series is one way to answer that challenge."
Showtime president Bob Greenblatt concurs with Wachtel, having pretty much purged his network of the movie genre while going forward with more limited-run series like "Sleeper Cell." "Original movies simply aren't part of our model anymore," Greenblatt says. "We just feel that our money is better spent, and less risky, in series."
Verno takes issue with the idea that series programming somehow carries less risk than does a one-shot film. "I personally know people who have lost a zillion dollars on failed cable series," she points out. "It really isn't about not being able to make a profitable business model from it, to my mind. If you make the movies right and promote them right as genuine events, the people come, the ad revenue comes, you have a profitable project."
That certainly turned out to be the case with "Trail," which in breaking AMC ratings' records helped convince the network to accelerate development on its longform originals, says Sorcher.
"We'll never see movies and miniseries as a volume business but one where high-quality events can pay huge dividends."
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