Hallmark Slates More Movies

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Hallmark Channel will leverage the success of its format of original made-for-TV movies by expanding its production slate by nearly 50% in 2008.

The family friendly basic-cable channel, targeting 25-to-54-year-olds, currently televises about 20 of the made-for-TV movies a year, selecting as stars “iconic” performers of classic TV series. For instance, upcoming films feature such stars as Dick Van Dyke, Ernest Borgnine and Valerie Bertinelli. But the slate for 2008 will include 30 films, according to Barbara Fisher, the network's newly installed senior vice president of original programming.

Explaining the expansion, Fisher said, “I'm lucky. We already have a strong brand, unlike any on TV. Our audience is completely devoted to TV movies, they love the genre.”

NEW PRODUCERS

In addition to expanding the number of films, the network will also expand its stable of producers, following the lapse of an exclusive contract with RHI Entertainment (formerly Hallmark Entertainment). RHI's Robert Halmi Sr. and Robert Halmi Jr. had been Hallmark Channel's sole supplier of telepics. Now, while it continues to work on Hallmark projects, RHI is also producing movies for Lifetime Television, Sci Fi Channel and Ion Media Networks. Ion's first RHI movie debuts Aug. 5: Killer Wave, a four-hour action miniseries with Tom Skerritt.

Upcoming projects will be created by producers new to the network, such as two TV veterans with Emmy nominations on their resumes. Gerald W. Abrams was the producer of the Emmy-nominated 44 Minutes: The North Hollywood Shoot-Out, which ran on FX in 2003. His Hallmark film, When You Listen, stars Happy Days patriarch Tom Bosley and has a scheduled air date of Jan 5. Orly Adelson, who produced 3: The Dale Earnhardt Story for ESPN, will also create a film for Hallmark, tentatively titled The Good Witch.

Currently, Hallmark's sole producer is Larry Levinson Productions. Levinson continues to produce for the channel but won't be its exclusive or even dominant contributor, Fisher said. If Wishes Were Horses, a Levinson film, debuts Aug. 18 and starring Dick Van Dyke, son Barry and grandson Shane.

Though a broader field of producers will be generating content, two things will not change, Fisher and Hallmark CEO Henry Schleiff stressed.

The films will retain the current level of quality, and the content will remain a family friendly mix of romantic comedies, Westerns and other genres that have proved popular with viewers. The network wants upcoming films to match the success of the recent Western Avenging Angel, starring Kevin Sorbo (Hercules: The Legendary Journeys), which scored a 2.6 rating, making it the third-highest film in the channel's history, according to Hallmark executives.

Fisher also noted that all Hallmark's films are deficit-financed. Producers receive less in fees than the actual cost to produce the films, a shortfall the producers hope to make up through selling the film to other domestic and international outlets.

Despite deals that don't fully cover the cost of production, Hallmark has no problem finding producers who want to work with the channel, Fisher said. Some film creators are drawn to the network because no other channels are interested in genres such as the Western, she said.

$2.2 MILLION MOVIES

Schleiff said the average budget for a Hallmark film is $2.2 million. There will be no cut in budgets as a result of the expanded slate, executives said. Affiliate fees and proceeds from incremental profit from ad sales are being invested back in the channel, he said. The latest cable upfront indicates Hallmark will exceed even network expectations in ad volume, Schleiff said.

Advertisers show confidence in the ratings popularity of the network's daytime schedule, including old favorites like Matlock and M*A*S*H, but also in primetime, he said.

At a time when cable and broadcast networks are under fire for violence and sexy content, Hallmark is a safe harbor for advertisers, Schleiff indicated.

He added that viewers are finding the channel despite the fact that it is not spending a lot on marketing.

“That's the only way to explain our explosive growth,” he said.

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