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Movie Madness

Cable is in the movie business like never before. While broadcasters focus on splashy reality fare and dramas, cable polishes the gem they once mined: the original TV movie.

Next month, ESPN will trace Pete Rose's fall from baseball with biopic Hustle. Lifetime offers new romantic comedy I Do (but I Don't), and A&E's Riverman, airing Labor Day Weekend, follows the Green River serial killer.

Already, two cable powerhouses have posted near record ratings for recent movies. TNT's two-part thriller Salem's Lot
grabbed nearly 6 million viewers in June. A&E shattered network ratings records with Ike: Countdown to D-Day, snagging 5.5 million viewers.

TV movies also entice advertisers. Johnson & Johnson co-produces family-friendly movies with TNT, such as last year's Door to Door, with William H. Macy. Original movies can strengthen network costs per thousand (CPMs), though few are willing to cite sales figures on record.

All that has encouraged a dozen cable networks to take the movie plunge.

ESPN and Court TV run a few lower-cost movies. At the high end, TNT, USA Network and HBO each produce about six a year. Lifetime is increasing its slate from 12 movies in 2004 to 19 in 2005. Under entertainment chief Bob Greenblatt, Showtime concentrates on five or six yearly to "grab attention." December's Our Fathers
addresses the pedophile priest scandal.

Ever sensitive to network identities, cable movies focus on the network's brand and demos. ABC Family, for example, offers light romantic fare for young women; FX aims bold stories at adults 18-49.

For its upscale clientele,
HBO turns out cinema-quality movies headlined by big-screen stars: Al Pacino and Meryl Streep were a hit in Angels in America. Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush stars in December biopic The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. (So popular is Sellers that Steve Martin stars in a remake of The Pink Panther
next summer.)

Such output has reshaped the TV-movie business. "HBO and cable have raised the bar," says one network exec. "They look more like films: better casts, directors and production."

Producers feel the changes, too.

Veteran filmmaker Larry Thompson has been making TV movies since the 1970s and regularly supplied movies to ABC and CBS. Today, cable networks are his big buyers. Currently working on Lifetime movie Little Girl Lost, about a young rape survivor, he says business is good but cable economics are challenging.

A cable movie runs $2.5 million to $5 million, half of what broadcasters spend. A more lavish production—a luxury only big channels can afford—could inch closer to $10 million. And that's before the network plunks down $1 million or more on marketing. "Movies can deliver a terrific bump," says Jeff Gaspin, president of NBC Universal Cable Entertainment, "but the marketing and expense for a one-time reward forces them to be on a limited basis."

Money also dictates the networks' level of involvement. Typically, cable networks don't foot the bill, opting to license movies from studios and independent producers, which retain international rights. A few hire a producer to execute their vision. Or the network will chip in financing and retain a piece of backend rights, thanks to the success of the DVD business. Lifetime, for instance, formed Lifetime Home Video with Warner Bros. Home Video to distribute some of its movies, such as the 2003 hit Homeless to Harvard.

Cable movies also require filmmakers to think lean. Many shoot in Canada, which offers tax credits and favorable exchange rates. (Louisiana is now trying a similar strategy.)

Another tactic is selective casting. Lifetime taps a star lead, then surrounds her with lesser lights. TNT original programming chief Michael Wright recommends making fewer movies that gain visibility and repeat well.

But not every cable network is seduced by movies. Comedy Central made a few mediocre ones but retrenched and now focuses on series. So did TBS. Bravo President Lauren Zalaznick isn't looking at movies, either. "Bravo needs to consistently draw people in," she says. "Movies are big events that make people talk for a short period of time."

Court TV programming chief Art Bell rejects Zalaznick's argument. "Movies make a dramatic point in a different way," he says, citing next year's Exonerated, about wrongfully convicted death row inmates.

And reaction can be dramatic. Lifetime's July movie Baby for Sale, about a New York couple embroiled in an auction to adopt a baby, moved Sen. Hillary Clinton to introduce legislation making baby-brokering a crime. It's not just TV, it's political empowerment.