Cable is moving heavily into film TURNED ON IN LA. -- Fall Preview

July 16, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Los Angeles -- Cable TV is offering an answer this week to anyone asking "What are you going to program on all those channels when there are 500 of them?"

One answer is movies, movies and more movies -- original, made-for-TV movies, many of them targeted at audiences overlooked by feature filmmakers.

The number of films and the array of talent presented by the cable industry to promote the films have reached an all-time high. And it's going to climb much higher, cable executives say.

In one 24-hour period here this week, the roster of talent holding forth at press conferences and interview sessions on films headed for the small screen in coming months included:

Jack Lemmon, Tom Hanks, Isabella Rossellini, Rosanna Arquette, John Lithgow, Sydney Pollack, John Carpenter, Shelley Long, Kiefer Sutherland, Matthew Broderick, Timothy Dalton, Daryl Hannah, Lily Tomlin, Forest Whitaker and Matthew Modine.

And those are just the more widely known names involved in upcoming movies for established cable TV filmmaking operations like Showtime, HBO and TNT.

The big news is that smaller niche cable channels are now getting into the the filmmaking business, too.

The Nashville Network (TNN) launches its new line of home-grown films Aug. 1 with "Proudheart," starring country singer Lorrie Morgan. Later that month Black Entertainment Television (BET) will launch its line of films with one from Tim Reid.

Nickelodeon and MTV are also expected to announce soon that they are getting into the business of making their own TV movies. MTV's films will feature rock music stars such as Prince and Madonna.

"We got into the business of making our own movies because it's good business," says McAdory Lipscomb Jr., Showtime's senior vice president for corporate affairs.

"One, our subscribers like the films. And, two, there's a financial shelf-life for films that you make and own after you show them," Lipscomb says. "There are videocassette sales, international sales and even sales to broadcast networks. All of that makes it very attractive from a business standpoint."

Showtime -- which is responsible for such critically acclaimed ca

ble films as last year's "Paris Trout" with Dennis Hopper and Barbara Hershey -- spends $2 million to $3 million per picture. The right movie can recoup that much just in its "shelf-life" earnings, which makes the first-run airing on Showtime pure profit.

That kind of profit and the salaries it makes possible are the most obvious reasons actors and directors are flocking to cable movies. But the performers say there are additional reasons.

"I also think it involves what's happening in the feature film industry and now what's going on in network television drama," says Lithgow. He co-stars with Arquette in "The Wrong Man," which premieres in September on Showtime.

The huge cost of making and promoting feature films means that only those with blockbuster appeal, like "Jurassic Park" or "The Terminator," tend to get made -- often at the expense of smaller, dramatic stories.

Meanwhile, in network TV, the calls for reform are making it harder to sell scripts containing any controversial material.

"I would say the boldest and most experimental movies are on cable," Lithgow says. "A lot of the pushing of the edge of the envelope now takes place in cable films. That's the function they serve."

"Cable television," adds Hanks, "lets you do a lot more creative storytelling than you would in other circumstances." Hanks makes his directing debut with "Fallen Angels" on Showtime this fall.

Cable movies also are starting to take risks on untried talent.

"I don't have any acting experience," says country star Morgan. "But I've always dreamed of being an actress."

Judging by her record sales and the turnout for her press conference, her debut in "Proudheart" is going to do big business for TNN.

Although it's not as sexy as talking about Lorrie Morgan, the most important reason for the explosion in cable-made films is something called vertical integration.

"If you look at the direction of our major competitors, you'll see that they're preparing for the future by vertically integrating the various parts of their companies -- from production to cable networks and cable systems," says Lucille S. Salhany, chairwoman of Fox Broadcasting.

"Time Warner is doing it. So is Paramount and Viacom," she says. "The writing is on the wall."

That writing says that the best way to maximize your profits in TV is to own everything from the film itself to the cable channel and the system it's shown on. That's how the motion picture studios operated in their heyday, not only making movies but owning the theaters in which they were shown.

Viacom and Time Warner, for example, already own cable channels -- Showtime and HBO, respectively -- as well as cable systems around the country.

Now they want to own the product they show on those systems, rather than having to go elsewhere and buy it.

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