When 'No Sex’ Really Sells

About six years ago, Disney Channel aired its second original movie, Brink, to huge ratings numbers. And though it has aired more than 100 times since, the film is still a big audience draw. “Some of our key movies of the past have just held up unbelievably well,” says Rich Ross, president of Disney Channel Worldwide. “The bigger the movie, the longer it does hold up.”

The movie’s track record has been emulated by many of the 53 kid-driven, family-inclusive films the channel has produced over the last seven years. Among the biggest: Cadet Kelley, Cheetah Girls and three installments of the popular Xenon franchise. “We’ve had over five performances of Halloweentown High,” says Ross.

Over those five showings, Halloweentown High delivered 22.6 million viewers, including 6.1 million for its premiere. “So if you look at that from a box-office perspective, it’s a pretty big week,” says Ross.

There is no doubt that when it comes to made-for-television movies, cable has cleaned up at the proverbial box office. And while heightened sex and violence may be key to attracting adult moviegoers, many cable channels are finding they can pull in broader viewers, in major demos, with original films aimed at families.

But today’s family movie isn’t the Wonderful World of Disney you grew up with. When it comes to pinpointing the family movie market on cable, it can oftentimes be as diverse as today’s American family, says Ann Foley, executive vice president of programming for Showtime Networks Inc.

“When we first started the family-movie division, which was in the mid-’90s, family programming was defined more by its inoffensiveness than by its content,” she says. “As more and more people began making movies to address this audience, a lot of movies have this parallel track that have to have one sequence of dialogue that speaks to children and another that speaks to adults.”

An example of this, she says, can be found in Finding Nemo. “To most people over the age of 30,” Foley says, “it’s blatantly obvious that the turtles are stoned out of their minds. It’s not obvious to a six-year-old, but still amusing on both levels. That’s a very bipolar approach to programming, very clever and very valid, but we wanted to try to do something more integrated.”

Showtime’s family films, under the “For All Ages” banner, tend to be issue-oriented projects that focus on topics important to children and teens that they can watch with adults. The movies often run with adjunct educational information on the network’s Web site, as was the case with Bang, Bang, You’re Dead, which addressed gun violence in schools, or Jack, a story of a father coming to terms with his homosexuality.

Edge of America, scheduled for the first quarter of 2005, centers on issues of race and culture in a story about an African-American teacher who coaches a female basketball team on a Native American reservation. “I think they almost demand watching together, because they provoke conversation,” says Foley.

However, Showtime has cut back the number of original movies it produces — to an average of two or three per year — to make room for more original series projects.

Hallmark Channel, on the other hand, will have run more than a half-dozen films by year’s end, with three adult-themed stories starring young adults running during the holidays. That provides significant age crossover appeal.

For example, in April, the network moved into the top five in primetime with its period tale, Love Comes Softly, starring Katherine Heigl in the story of a woman in the 1800s, who loses her husband shortly after settling in the West. The film was Hallmark’s highest-rated movie ever, and its April 13 premiere was the top-rated movie among women 25 to 54 and ranked fourth in adults 25 to 54, behind only TBS, TNT and USA.

“I don’t think of our movies as family movies; I think of our movies as entertainment that seeks broad audiences,” says David Kenin, executive vice president of programming at Hallmark Channel.

Kenin adds: “We feel that there is no movie that we do that should make an adult or a child uncomfortable to watch together. We have a consciousness that we don’t do anything that is distasteful, and we go after quality stories and performances and, more important, scripts.

“[Other networks] are going to be guided by the same thing that guides us, and that’s success in viewing,” Kenin says. “We’re speaking to our audience in a way that would appeal to them, just as ABC Family or the Disney Channel would go after the segment of the audience they are serving … each using it for their own purposes.”

For its part, ABC Family’s upcoming films Searching for David’s Heart, Snow and She Gets What She Wants run the gamut in terms of stars and subject matter. Yet all focus on family issues. Of course, for a network whose mission is in its name, these monthly original movies provide a strong tent pole on which to build the channel.

“These films are critical tools in the branding of a network,” says Paul Lee, president of ABC Family. “Look at Disney Channel and the great job that Rich Ross and Anne Sweeney did starting with movies and then building the Even Stevens and the [That’s So] Ravens from those movies. I don’t think that anyone will tell you that original movies in their own right can be the entire branding of a cable network, but they’re critical tools.”

Clearly there’s an advantage to advertisers to get more eyeballs in a safe environment. “Movies are traditionally a co-viewing experience,” says Lee, “and I’m sure they always will be, but that only works if you make a movie of a certain quality.”

The bottom line, says Hallmark’s Kenin, “If the script is good, if there’s truth in it, and it’s well acted, it’s a valuable thing to offer to the American public, period. There’s a value in that alone.”