Multicultural Films Have Broad Appeal

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While multicultural cable TV series have been getting all the press recently, made-for-TV movies with people of color both in front of and behind the camera are very quietly receiving major play on a number of cable networks and streaming services.

Recent multicultural-themed original cable movies have drawn both critical acclaim and large audiences. HBO’s Bessie, starring Queen Latifah as blues artist Bessie Smith, drew 13 Emmy nominations this past July — the most for any made-for-cable movie.

Lifetime’s Whitney, which chronicled the life of the iconic performer Whitney Houston, drew 5.1 million viewers this past January, the biggest audience for an original cable movie this year other than those on kids-targeted Disney Channel.

Lifetime has produced several original films in the last three years featuring predominantly African-American actors and actresses, in an effort to reach African-American women, who represent 36% of the network’s movie audience.

Lifetime senior vice president of original movies Tanya Lopez said movies such as Whitney — as well as Trip to Bountiful, based on the popular play of the same name and starring Cicely Tyson, and an African-American version of 1989’s Steel Magnolias — super-serve that already strong base.

As many as three multicultural-themed movies are being developed for Lifetime and Lifetime Movie Network, she added, though she would not reveal specifics.

TV One, responding to viewer requests for more storytelling, is airing a monthly movie series. D’Angela Proctor, the network’s head of original programing, said original movies allows TV One to develop stories around universal themes that appeal to a wider swath of viewers than a more tightly-focused scripted series.

Original movies, such as the network’s upcoming Runaway Island and Girlfriends Getaway 2, also provide the network with content that has a long shelf life and can work well on various platforms, she added.

UP, formerly Gospel Music Channel, has consistently delivered movies featuring people of color in prominent roles as it looks to broaden its audience base. It recently teamed with actor-producer Robert Townsend on a July basketball-themed film, Playin’ for Love (see Q&A with Townsend), and is developing several movies, including three holiday films with diverse casts: My Christmas Wish, Angels in the Snow and Marry US for Christmas, Barbara Fisher, senior vice president of original programming for UP network, said.

Networks have also used original movies as pilots for potential scripted series. BET’s 2013 airing of original drama Being Mary Jane was so successful that the network turned the Gabrielle Union starrer into a scripted series, with its third season now in production.

“These long leads not only provide great content for us, but also give us an indication of whether this is something we can take further and make into a series,” BET president of programming Stephen Hill said.

Added UP’s Fisher: “There’s not enough people pitching me series with diverse casts or diverse leads, so it’s a great way for me to go back to our movies, which already have that, and use them as possibilities for expanding into series.”

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.