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Cable Characters Invade Cinemas

This summer, U.S. movie theaters are being invaded by characters from popular cable TV series.

This July 4 weekend marked the premiere of The Powerpuff Girls Movie.
Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup joined another feature film based on a Cartoon Network hit, the box-office bonanza Scooby-Doo.

And later this week, on July 12, Animal Planet's amiable Aussie adventurer, Steve Irwin, will make his way to the big screen, in The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course.
Nickelodeon's Hey Arnold! The Movie
hit the multiplexes late last month, debuting on June 28.And ESPN is already in on the theatrical action, with its first feature, ESPN's Ultimate X,
now running in IMAX and large-format cinemas.

And that's not all, folks. More theatricals are being spawned from original cable programming later this year. That list includes Jackass,
a spin-off from the controversial MTV: Music Television show, and the feature-film version of Nick's The Wild Thornberrys.

Further down the pike, a big-screen version of Disney Channel's Lizzie McGuire
is set to arrive in theaters next spring, while Cartoon Network's animated Samurai Jack
is in development as a live-action feature.

On top of all that activity, there have also been discussions about turning Nick's SpongeBob SquarePants
and Disney Channel's Kim Possible
and The Proud Family
into theatricals.


This cable-to-feature trend benefits everyone in the equation, cable executives say.

In part, it's a synergy play. Cable networks like Cartoon and Nick, which are part of huge media conglomerates, are providing popular branded content for their corporate siblings, movie studios Warner Bros. Pictures and Paramount Pictures, respectively.

Cable programmers said they are reaping rewards, too. They can garner revenue from TV-show-based feature films from license fees, a potential piece of the box office, and ancillary revenue from apparel and other merchandising opportunities, as well as the sale of DVDs and videotapes.

The theatricals also reinforce and expand their networks' brands, according to cable-network officials.

"It ultimately adds to our audience awareness and ultimately builds that core business," Cartoon Network general manager Jim Samples said.

With the help of these feature films, cable networks expect to ultimately draw new viewers to the TV shows on which the movies are based.

The hope is that people who normally don't watch the TV programs will like what they see in the theaters — and be prompted to watch the shows on the small screen.

"Crocodile Hunter
is really an Animal Planet phenomenon," said Michael Cascio, the network's general manager. "When there was talk about a theatrical, we were very supportive. For a growing network, it's a great experience for your property.

"We're looking to get the brand out there in as many ways as possible," Cascio said. "This is a way to get Steve out to a different audience."


The millions spent to promote the movies also help to boost the TV shows, according to officials.

"Theatricals are supported by marketing dollars substantially beyond the marketing budgets that cable channels have at their disposal, and thus really turbocharge the property," said Disney Channel president of entertainment Rich Ross. "Scooby
probably had a $25 million or more marketing budget, which would equal the Cartoon Network marketing budget for two years or more."

The halo effect of that marketing push no doubt played a role in the ratings success of a quartet of Scooby Doo- movies that aired under Cartoon Network's 'Cartoon Theater' banner from June 10 through June 13. The four flicks, which aired from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. that week, averaged double-digit gains in ratings versus the year-earlier time periods among kids 2 to 11 (14 percent to a 4.8); kids 6 to 11 (18 percent to a 4.6); tweens 9 to 14 (42 percent to a 2.7); teens 12 to 17 (44 percent to a 1.3); and adults 18 to 34 (40 percent to a 0.7).

Cartoon, Nick and MTV — whose movies are produced or distributed by their parent companies' studios — won't discuss their specific deals, or how their bottom line benefits from theatricals based on their original TV shows.

But Comedy Central, owned by Viacom Inc. and AOL Time Warner Inc., was more forthcoming in discussing the 1999 feature film South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut
, which did $70 million at the box office.

"Clearly, there's a revenue opportunity and a branding opportunity" for a cable network from such as feature, according to Comedy Central spokesman Tony Fox.

Comedy received a licensing fee because it owns the South Park
show. The network also garnered a piece of the box office, according to Fox. The movie was produced by Viacom's Paramount Pictures studio, which retained domestic rights. AOL Time Warner's Warner Bros. received foreign rights.

When the feature debuted, the South Park
series had been on-air for about 18 months and some TV critics were saying the show was past its prime. But the well-received theatrical rejuvenated interest in the TV show, according to Fox, and its ratings spiked.


Nick, through its Nickelodeon Movies unit, is the veteran at turning its original shows into theatricals. It started in 1997 with Good Burger,
which featured All That
stars Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell.

But Nick really hit gold with The Rugrats Movie
in 1998, which grossed more than $100 million worldwide, and Rugrats in Paris — The Movie
in 2000, which racked up more than $150 million. A third Rugrats
theatrical is in development.

"In our feature mandate, we want to produce films for all of the family, not just kids," said Nick Movies senior vice president Julia Pistor. "Our goal is to make Nickelodeon a ubiquitous brand. Our mission is to provide entertainment for kids, and a big part of entertainment is movies."

As for the upside for Nick, Piston said that theatricals "bring more eyeballs to the franchise."

Feature films based on one of Nick's shows are only appropriate if the series's family of characters is developed enough to lend itself to the big screen, according to Pistor.

"The best movies are character-driven," she said, adding that Nick wants its theatricals to "enhance" its TV shows.

In the case of the Rugrats
features, Nick used each one to introduce new characters — Tommy's little brother Dill Pickles, as well as Chuckie's new stepmother and stepsister, Kimi.

"We really want to develop a story and plot line that would justify a movie," Pistor said. "People would write and say, 'Chuckie doesn't have a mother.' It's such a big story and a big idea."

Hey Arnold! The Movie
was created as a potential TV movie, but it tested so well with audiences that Nick decided to release it theatrically, Piston said.

The movie had a lackluster opening weekend, though, finishing at No. 6 with $6 million.

On the other hand, budgets for The Powerpuff Girls Movie
and Hey Arnold! The Movie
were reportedly in the $10 million range — much less than a theatrical like Disney's Lilo & Stich —
making it easier for those Cartoon and Nick features to write with black ink.
The Nick property Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius
followed a different-than-usual route for Nick Movies. It was pitched as a TV series, and Nick opted to develop the show and a feature film simultaneously.

The theatrical was released in December, and grossed more than $80 million in domestic box office. It also has been nominated for an Academy Award. The Jimmy Neutron
series will debut on Nick this fall, previewed by a special on July 20.

Piston called the strategy that Nick took with Jimmy Neutron
"an exciting and successful model for us."


Cartoon Network has worked from several different models, in terms of feature films based on its programming.

— which did a boffo $56 million at the box office in its first weekend, a record opening for June — was a Warner Bros. production,
with Cartoon Network a partner in marketing it.

The Powerpuff Girls Movie
was different. It was a Cartoon Network production, created in the network's studio, that's being marketed and distributed by Warner Bros.

Cartoon is trying to take advantage of that original show's status as "a pop-culture phenomenon," Samples said.

Turning Cartoon Network original programs into theatrical films was "a natural progression for us," he added. "We're generating so many new characters, we're particularly excited about doing more animated features. There is clearly a resurgence in animated features in the U.S."

Early on, outside interest was expressed in a live-action version of Samurai Jack,
which is being made into a feature produced and distributed by New Line Cinema, another AOL unit. Samples expects The Powerpuff Girls
and Samurai Jack
audiences to expand due to the theatricals.

In the case of Samurai Jack,
Samples said that while animation tends to skew male, live-action tends to attract females. So female moviegoers may flock to the feature film, and like it enough to watch the animated program on Cartoon Network.

MTV, whose MTV Films unit has produced 11 movies, took its time turning the network's shows into feature films.


Shortly after The Beavis & Butt-head Show
debuted in 1993, MTV fielded five offers from people interested in making a movie based on the series, MTV president Van Toffler said. One proposal called for Chris Farley and David Spade to start in a live-action version, a Wayne's World
-type of
movie, according to Toffler.

"Conventional wisdom would have said seize the moment," he said. "But we stuck to our guns and said, 'We have to be true to the franchise.' "

It wasn't until several years later, when the show was in reruns, that a Beavis
animated feature was made.

"It kept their legacy alive," Toffler said. "Unlike a Cartoon Network, our audience churns quickly. We're on to the next thing [show] by the time the movie comes out."

MTV also ramped up its theatrical effort, in which it partners with Paramount, to provide an outlet for its talent, actors like Dennis Leary and Adam Sandler, who were doing non-Paramount films, according to Toffler.

The Jackass
feature, which Toffler compared to movies such as Groove Tube,
is set for an October release.

ESPN views its foray into the world of "large-format cinema" as part of its continuing effort to "be the biggest sports brand," and the nature of the X games lent itself well to the IMAX format, according to Tori Stevens, vice president of ESPN Enterprises. Theatricals such as
ESPN's Ultimate X
give the sports network a new venue to exhibit its properties, plus access to a new audience, Stevens said.

On television, the X Games are among ESPN's youngest-skewing programming, strong in the 12-to-24 demographic, according to Stevens.

With the X Games on Imax, ESPN is "reaching new demographics around the world, " she said.


The theatrical has also been a useful tool for ESPN to use in affiliate promotions. The sports network offered free passes to the movie, posters and CDs of the film's music to cable systems for promotions, and did elaborate events and screening in five markets — Tampa, Fla.; Chicago; Philadelphia; Memphis; and Nashville, Tenn.

In Tampa, for example, Time Warner Cable sent out 450,000 mailings for a special screening of ESPN's Ultimate X.
At the event, ESPN had X Games athletes conduct demonstrations in the movie theater's parking lot, said Gary Perrelli, ESPN's director of affiliate new business.