Cable nets expand into theatrical


When acquisitions execs haggled over some of the more sought-after movies at the Sundance Film Festival last month, they often found themselves negotiating not with indie producers but with an unlikely partner: cable networks.

The increased interest in these networks' efforts shows how savvy cable has been with the unusual brand extension of theatrical movies. Sundance titles including Nanette Burstein's "American Teen" (A&E Indie Films), multiple award winner "Man on Wire" (Discovery Films) and the immigrant drama "Sugar" (HBO Films) all originated in the film units of television nets.

But if cable has been effective in larger arenas, its involvement also has led to complicated and sometimes protracted negotiations, and they provide an illustration of the potential entanglements when a company expands its role.

Take A&E. Emboldened by the growing commercial potential of such docus as "Capturing the Friedmans" and "Spellbound" a few years ago, the network of "Dog the Bounty Hunter" decided to jump in the theatrical game, appointing Molly Thompson to run the division under nonfiction programming chief Rob Share┬Čnow. The unit has since backed a number of acclaimed docus, including the religious investigation "Jesus Camp," the art-world inquiry "My Kid Could Paint That" and Burstein's "Teen."

Sources also say it has commissioned a docu about Pat Tillman, the former NFL player who joined the Army and was killed in Afghanistan under hazy circumstances, to be directed by "Kid" director Amir Bar-Lev. After first saying Tillman was killed in combat, the military has since acknowledged that his death was the result of friendly fire. Bar-Lev will look at the life and odyssey of Marie Tillman, Pat's widow, to uncover the truth about her husband's death. It's also possible that he'll investigate the killing itself.

A&E will continue boarding several projects a year (including R.J. Cutler's upcoming Anna Wintour examination) and offering what it says is a rarity in the indie film world. "For us, casting money is a no-brainer," Thompson said. "What it does is allow the director to really spend time with the subjects and find the right ones."

Networks' theatrical play turns the conventional logic on its head. While many studios rely on television output deals as an important source of funding, television networks now want to play the theatrical game, where they say there's not only critical prestige but more freedom. "Our theatrical movies don't have to deliver millions of viewers in the demos," A&E exec vp and GM Bob DeBitetto said. "It can play to a more specialized audience." (It's those audiences, interestingly, that are keeping broadcast nets out of the game. Sony Pictures Television produced the Sean Combs remake of "A Raisin in the Sun" for ABC, but the show will go straight to the network in part because producer Craig Zadan said the post-Oscars slot will guarantee a bigger audience than a theatrical run.)

Discovery Films, meanwhile, which is aiming for involvement in two to four movies per year, commissioned Werner Herzog's "Grizzly Man" and has his next film, the Antarctica docu "Encounters at the End of the World," which the net says it expects to air this year. There also are negotiations to air the movie theatrically (Lionsgate released "Grizzly Man" in the U.S.). Discovery also is behind "Wire," for which a deal is said to be imminent.

One potential factor gumming up the works, however, is the television window, as studios of course have pay-television deals that they'd like to preserve. "It's definitely an issue," said Discovery Films vp Andrea Meditch, speaking generally of movies produced by the unit. "Each deal has to be handcrafted."

Television windows also were one of several holdups in the "Teen" deal. Fox Searchlight was believed to want all TV rights, including series remake rights. While a typical producer might have been willing to part with them, a TV net is more reluctant. (Paramount Vantage wound up with "Teen.")

Those involved in the selling, for their part, say that TV windows are a stumbling block but not a dealbreaker. "For the right deal, I've found parties can be very flexible," said sales agent Josh Braun of Submarine, which has sold movies to and from the cable nets.

Still, the problems are thorny enough that it may be pushing one cable net away from the theatrical biz, as HBO Films contemplates the future of its Picturehouse deal and its role in the theatrical business in general, which it says engenders high P&A and other costs. And even selling rights may be tricky; several acquisitions execs said they were eager to snap up rights to "Sugar," but with HBO Films holding television and theatrical, it was unclear what exactly was for sale.

On the docu side, many films run only on the network, but the company has opened some films in limited release. Both HBO Films and HBO Docs declined comment.

Of course, the docu market itself has taken its lumps in the past year, a factor that is coinciding with the rising efforts of some of the cable units.

"Getting a real breakout hit can sometimes be like finding a needle in a haystack," DeBitetto said. "But we can afford to do it because we're only doing a very small amount of movies, and we're not relying on this for our core business."

Meditch added that much of the despair is overstated. "The business looks cyclical until the lightning bolt strikes," she said.