Movies look to television for blockbuster ideas

March 09, 1992|By Ray Richmond | Ray Richmond,Orange County Register

The notion is enough to induce nausea in film snobs everywhere, but the statistics don't lie: Television feeds the movie business one blockbuster spinoff idea after another.

Consider that "Wayne's World," a feature plucked from a recurring "Saturday Night Live" routine, bolted from the blocks in February. It followed the success of the classic sitcom-inspired "The Addams Family" in November. And there was also the moneymaker, "Star Trek VI."

In 1989, "Batman," once a camp 1960s series phenomenon, scared up about a quarter-billion in box office revenue in the United States alone. And there was "The Untouchables" in 1987, patterned after a 1950s hit TV series hit.

Virtually every major feature with its genesis in a television series or concept has done bang-up business in theaters. Yet the film studios have been slow to catch on because of indifference or artistic pride.

With the runaway success of "Wayne's World" and "The Addams Family" in particular, however, TV-spawned creations figure to pop onto big screens at an increasing rate during the next few years. At least a dozen already are being readied.

"Films like 'Addams Family' that have ties to TV carry with them a built-in audience," said Dave Davis, an analyst with the media buying group Paul Kagan Associates.

"Any project that is already embedded in the public awareness, whether it be due to a TV show or a famous book or a big song, is ahead of the game going in, and that can't help but be converted into cold, hard cash at the box office."

The presold factor that makes film spinoffs from TV classics so attractive similarly drives Hollywood's penchant for sequels and remakes, said Daily Variety film reporter Charles Fleming.

"You can't overemphasize the value of having some aspect of a film embedded in the audience mind before the movie even opens," Mr. Fleming said. "Movies are such a crap shoot, but something with a track record behind it is a surer thing."

Film officials declined comment on television-spawned films, and entertainment-industry analysts speculated that the film community remains uncomfortable that it has turned to television.

"I think the film people would like people to acknowledge the success [of TV-inspired films], but ignore the source," said Betsy Frank, a senior vice president with the New York advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi.

"I'm sure the movie industry would be happier if these projects came from books."

While Ms. Frank advises caution in labeling the successful TV-to-film phenomenon as a legitimate trend -- noting that the "studios seem to have picked the right TV projects thus far" -- some believe the direction is long overdue.

"What surprises me is how long it's taken Hollywood to wake up," said Tim Brooks, director of research for cable's USA Network and co-author of "The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows."

"When you see all of the TV-related projects in development, it's clear to me this is just the beginning of a wave. But it just amazes me that after the spectacular success of 'Star Trek,' Hollywood failed to realize it had struck a gold mine. I guess the movie world sees itself as too superior to care."

Contrary to the highbrow self-perception of many in the film industry, Mr. Brooks said, the public makes no artistic distinction between movies and TV. He said the lowest-rated network TV series is seen by more people in one night than those who attend a hit film during a six-month period.

While the transition from television to film seems to work, few films have fared well as TV series, "M.A.S.H." being the most obvious exception.

Mr. Brooks said that of the 100 top-rated series of all time, only three -- "M.A.S.H.," "Alice" and "(I Remember) Mama" -- were adapted directly from movies.

As a score of beleaguered television producers could attest, the overwhelming majority of film-to-TV programs fail quickly and painfully.

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