Like Hollywood, The Independent Film Channel and The
Learning Channel are eagerly awaiting the outcome of the upcoming Academy Awards, since
two of their films are nominated.
IFC's theatrical-production arm, IFC Productions,
garnered its first-ever Oscar nominations for Boys Don't Cry,for best
actress and best supporting actress. And TLC's On the Ropes was nominated for
best documentary feature. This Sunday (March 26), both networks will learn if their movies
will nab the much-coveted golden statue.
IFC and TLC are part of a small but growing number of cable
networks that are stepping up to the plate to help finance independent films that go into
theatrical release first, before airing on the cable services.
It's somewhat of a twist of the traditional
TV-programming formula, in which cable networks help to finance original movies that
premiere on -- and stay on -- cable.
TLC's On the Ropes --about three young
boxers training for the Golden Gloves in a Bedford-Stuyvesant gym -- was produced by
Highway Films in association with TLC. It is the cable network's first feature film,
and it has already won awards at the Sundance Film Festival and from the Directors Guild
of America. On the Ropes airs on TLC April 4.
"TLC wants to be a showcase for the best of
factual-program making," general manager Jana Bennett said, "and a theatrical
release just gives it a different potential buzz and audience. It's a different way
to reach different crowds of people. And the Oscar nomination creates more of a
In addition to IFC and TLC, Showtime and Starz!, a division
of Starz Encore Media Group LLC, have also helped to fund movies that have already or will
enjoy theatrical releases before moving into the pay window on those two premium services.
Showtime's Gods and Monsters won an Academy Award in 1999.
There are a number of reasons why cable networks are
anteing up to help independent filmmakers get their movies done and released theatrically.
In some cases, these programmers said, they are trying to
forge closer ties with the creative community so they can attract high-caliber talent to
their networks for additional projects. And some cable outlets want to play active roles
in increasing the supply of movies that they can air on their programming services later.
"Our big-picture, long-term goal is to expand the
genre of independent film," Bravo Networks president Kathleen Dore said.
Cable programmers said that when they help to finance films
that win critical acclaim and awards, as many of these movies have, it helps to raise a
network's profile with the public.
"Part of the reason why we're doing this is
because it's so difficult to break through the clutter of 60 or 70 cable
networks," said Jonathan Sehring, president of IFC Productions, which launched in
1997. "Our target is to go out theatrically, and then you'll raise the awareness
of these films that are going to run on your network. Our feeling is that it adds value to
our distributors and the network."
Boys Don't Cry, which is slated to air on IFC next
year, has already won a bushel of awards including accolades from the Golden Globes, the
New York Film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics.
IFC Productions executive-produced and co-financed the
film, which is based on the true story of a Nebraska woman who posed as a man and was
murdered when her secret was discovered.
With a slate of theatrical movies now under its belt, IFC
Productions most recently also co-financed Girlfight, about a teen-age Latina girl
who takes up boxing. That flick walked away with several awards at the recent Sundance
A second IFC Production, Songcatcher --which
was also co-financed by Adelphia Communications Corp. -- recently won a special jury prize
IFC claims to be getting a halo effect from all of the
national media attention on Boys Don't Cry. In just one example, Hilary Swank,
Oscar-nominated as best actress for Boys Don't Cry, recently appeared on The
Tonight Show with Jay Leno, where she mentioned IFC's involvement with her film
on the popular late-night show.
"We've been able to tie in IFC very closely in
association with the movie," Sehring said.
And cable operators now attend film festivals such as
Sundance, where they can see firsthand the kind of quality programming IFC Productions is
creating for the network -- which now reaches about 14 million homes, mainly on digital --
In addition, by helping to finance movies for budding new
filmmakers, IFC is also building a library of programming for itself, according to IFC
Productions vice president of production and development Caroline Kaplan.
IFC also offers filmmakers creative and marketing support
for their films, as well as releases at parent Cablevision Systems Corp.'s Clearview
Cinemas in the New York DMA, according to Dore.
"There aren't many other examples of the
so-called money [people] where there is also a spirit of collaboration and sensitivity to
what an independent film is trying to achieve," she said.
The total budgets for films IFC Productions has gotten
involved with range from $300,000 to $5 million, with IFC funding anywhere from 35 percent
to the entire amount.
In addition to On the Ropes, TLC has co-produced or
helped to finance The Last Cigarette and House of the World,documentaries
that will both have theatrical releases before running on the cable network.
The Last Cigarette airs on TLC April 24.The
cable network does 40 percent to 50 percent of financing for the documentaries, which are
budgeted at $500,000 to $1 million.
Showtime co-financed both Down in the Delta,the
directorial debut of poet Maya Angelou, and Gods and Monsters, based on a novel by
the director of the Frankenstein movies. Both films were released theatrically
before coming to Showtime.
Coincidentally, IFC just acquired Gods and Monsters as
part of a package of indie theatricals from distributor Lions Gate Entertainment Corp.
Showtime permits some movie producers to shop around,
during a 60-day window, the films they are doing for the premium service for theatrical
releases first, according to Matt Riklin, Showtime's executive vice president of
program enterprises and distribution. Down in the Delta,for example, was
acquired and theatrically distributed by Miramax Films.
"We can get a buyout on the premiere window, but keep
the pay TV rights down the road," Riklin said. "As a policy, it allows us to
attract a whole level of talent that may not otherwise do a movie for cable. There is some
residual prejudice about a movie with a television stigma, so some producers like getting
a shot at a theatrical release."
For that reason, Showtime's policy of letting some
producers shop their films first helps the premium network's standing in
Hollywood's creative community, Riklin said, adding, "There's a patina to
what we're doing."
The fact that Gods and Monsters did win an Oscar --
for best screenplay adaptation from a previously produced source -- is good for the cable
industry, in that "It's an arena that television networks like us usually
don't get to play in," Riklin said.
The Starz! Pictures unit of Starz!, in association with BET
Movies/Starz!3, has fully financed Loving Jezebel, a $1.5 million movie by
African-American talent that is slated to premiere theatrically in July. It will have its
pay window most likely on Starz! first, then move to BET Movies.
Starz! has also co-produced Relative Values,based
on the Noel Coward play, which is in postproduction and is slated for a theatrical release
late this year or early next year before seeing its pay cable debut on Starz!.
Starz! and Starz Encore's other 12 networks depend on
theatricals to fill their schedules, Encore Entertainment Group president Robert Leighton
said. So Starz! Pictures has begun to finance films that go into theatrical release first
in order to help add to the supply of movies that can later find their way to the premium
Starz! is also looking to support independent filmmakers,
according to Leighton. "The number of films being released by Hollywood is
decreasing," he said. "By getting involved directly, it gives us more security
and control over those films We're not out to make the next [The] Sixth
Sense. It's more about making movies that will fill the niches across our 13
Jezebel,for example, was appealing to Starz! as
a project because it involved black talent, such as Kwyn Bader and Hill Harper, in a
romantic film that wasn't typically being made for the theatrical marketplace,
Starz! also lent some financial help to Onegin,
based on the epic Russian poem, which was directed by Martha Fiennes and starred her
brother, Ralph Fiennes.
In an unusual window strategy, Onegin was briefly
released theatrically in New York and Los Angeles in December so that it could qualify for
an Oscar. It then aired on Starz! in February, and it will have an expanded theatrical
release starting in April.
In that case, Starz!'s financial involvement with Onegin
made it possible for the film to have a theatrical release, according to Leighton.