Showdown at the Longform Corral

5:00 AM PST 08/14/2007 by Ray Richmond, AP

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Of all the networks to steal the thunder from HBO in this year's Primetime Emmy nominations covering the longform (made-for-TV movie and miniseries) categories, AMC represents something of a dark horse. Until last year, AMC had never so much as even presented an original movie production, much less racked up an Emmy nomination.

But call it beginner's luck, because the net's two-night Western miniseries "Broken Trail" (which was co-produced by Sony Pictures Television) pulled in seven times the usual AMC audience eyeballs in 2006 and then went on to snare 16 Emmy nominations in July. In one fell swoop, AMC eclipsed its entire historical combined nomination total, which until this past July's announcement stood at 14.

Not that HBO is exactly quaking in its cowboy boots. In the made-for-television category, it has its "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," which rounded up 17 nominations, topping both "Trail" and every other show. But that's old hat for a network that has landed at least two nominees in that category for 14 years in a row. The bigger news is how an upstart like AMC has come out of nowhere to land itself on the Emmy map alongside the heavyweights.

"It was an amazing accomplishment for us to get all of this Emmy attention, and we're thrilled," says AMC executive vp programming and production Rob Sorcher. "But at the same time, a lot of time and effort went into making 'Broken Trail,' and we knew how high the quality was."

There surely was nothing second-rate about a two-parter that starred Oscar winner Robert Duvall and Oscar nominee Thomas Haden Church and was directed by Walter Hill.

Notes "Trail" executive producer Stan Brooks: "When you have Duvall and Church and Hill and a production that was as stunning to look at as this one was, it's hard to miss. It's not paced like a TV movie at all, but very much like a feature, and I think that's what voters in the TV academy were responding to. That, and the fact Westerns never go out of style. The good guys are good; the bad guys are bad. There's no blatant sex or violence."

Interestingly, both of the top nominees in this year's Emmy race are Western themed; "Wounded Knee" is based on the iconic 1970 Dee Brown best-seller about the subjugation of American Indians during the latter part of the 19th century. Dick Wolf, the guru behind NBC's "Law & Order" franchise, hit the Emmy jackpot with his first job at HBO as "Wounded Knee's" exec producer in a genre that was heretofore unfamiliar territory for the longtime drama producer.

"I am amazed and thrilled and grateful that the academy voters were so embracing of this film," Wolf says. " 'Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee' was a labor of love and conscience for everyone who worked on it. After a six-year development process, this kind of validation means so much to all of us."

If "Wounded Knee" would seem to be the odds-on favorite to take home the big prize for top film, it figures to have some stiff competition in fellow HBO project "Longford," starring Jim Broadbent (also Emmy-nominated) in a story based on the life of British Lord Frank Pakenham, the seventh Earl of Longford, and his controversial headline-making friendship with one of England's most notorious criminals.

The smart money surely has to be on one of those two to garner the win, considering that since 1993, HBO has lost in the category only twice: in 2000 to ABC's "Tuesdays With Morrie" and 2003 to TNT's "Door to Door." Nevertheless, there are three other projects competing for the gold in the top made-for-TV lineup: Discovery Channel's 9/11-themed "Inside the Twin Towers," which blends dramatic re-enactment with archival footage; TNT's fact-based "The Ron Clark Story," starring Matthew Perry; and Lifetime's "Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy," based on the book by breast cancer survivor Geralyn Lucas and starring Sarah Chalke.

"Ron Clark Story" executive producer Brenda Friend refers to her movie as "the gift that keeps on giving" after having landed SAG Award, Golden Globe, DGA Award and now Emmy nominations for both Perry and the project itself.

"We're sort of the little movie that could," she believes. "We were so fortunate to get Matthew, whom we thought we'd never land. We just happened to be there while he was biding his time and looking to distance himself from (his "Friends" character) Chandler Bing. He was reading a lot of scripts and looking for just the right role, and we were the fortunate ones he chose. Getting Emmy nominations is more icing."

If there is any way to better stand out in the crowd as a long-shot possibility in the movie category, producer Jack Grossbart hopes that the whimsical title of his nominee, "Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy," might help.

"It gets people's attention," he emphasizes. "It piques interest. You don't normally hear anything like that for a TV movie, or see a breast cancer movie with a sense of humor. We took a genre and sort of turned it on its head, taking it outside the confines of the usual disease-of-the-week film. We're proud to have been able to craft a project with such a unique approach."

While there were only three nominees for outstanding miniseries -- as has been the case over the past several years as submissions have dwindled to barely more than double-digits annually -- the combined trio nonetheless landed more collective Emmy nods (30) than did the five telepic contenders (27). Two of the three ("Trail" and USA Network's "The Starter Wife") generated 16 and 10 honors, respectively, while PBS' "Prime Suspect: The Final Act (Masterpiece Theatre)" copped four.

"Trail" looks to be the one to beat for top mini, though it would surprise few if the acclaimed capper in the "Prime Suspect" saga swooped in to pull an upset, particularly with awards queen Helen Mirren as its lead. Then again, "Starter Wife" -- which was permitted entry into this year's Emmys only through some fancy USA footwork involving streamed content on its Web site on the final night of qualifying -- shouldn't be totally discounted despite being more of a limited-run series than a true mini.

Gigi Levangie, who wrote the novel on which the USA miniseries was based (a thinly veiled account inspired by her own Hollywood experience), has yet to fully comprehend that the project could generate such lavish Emmy nomination attention.

"It was such a wonderful experience to have brought something like 'Starter Wife' to life," Levangie notes. "I love USA. I love the writers (Josann McGibbon and Sara Parriott), who did just a fabulous job. The sensibility everyone brought to this, and the dedication, made it the most satisfying work experience of my life. Just to see a lot of women involved in a project where their creativity is more important than if they have a nice rack was enormously gratifying."

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Spot-checks: Five things you might not know about the Emmy-nominated longform picks

The 17 nominations for HBO's "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" ties the all-time Emmy record for a made-for-TV movie set by "Eleanor and Franklin" in 1977.

This is the second consecutive year that Discovery Channel has had an original film based on 9/11 nominated for top made-for-TV movie. In 2006, it was "The Flight That Fought Back."

The nomination for "Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy" is only the third pulled in by Lifetime since 1996 in the top TV-movie category.

The 16 nominations for the AMC miniseries "Broken Trail" are the most ever for a mini airing on basic cable.

In earning 10 nominations, "The Starter Wife" stands as the most honored single program in USA Network history, the previous high being five for the miniseries "Moby Dick" in 1998.

--Compiled by Ray Richmond
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