If a category were ascribed to the top primetime basic cable movies of 2004, it might be dubbed “triple F”: as in family, fantasy and female-driven films. By and large original movies from The Disney Channel, Turner Network Television and Lifetime Television made up the top 10 film genres of the year, with similarly-themed acquired movies from those same networks rounding out the top 20, according to ratings information from Nielsen Media Research.
TNT had the highest-rated film of the year with fantasy adventure The Librarian: Quest for the Spear and ranked high with holiday family feature The Wool Cap. Lifetime fared well with its femme-focused originals Plain Truth, Identity Theft and Gracie’s Choice. And repeat airings of Disney’s popular family-friendly features Halloweentown High and Halloweentown High 2 appeared several times in the top 20.
Based-on-true-life stories, like FX’s Redemption, the story of death row inmate cum Nobel Prize nominee Stan “Tookie” Williams, and the A&E Network biopic Ike: Countdown to D-Day scored with 18-to-49-year-old viewers. USA Network’s top two original biopics Perfect Husband: The Laci Peterson Story and Call Me: The Rise and Fall of Heidi Fleiss also finished among the top 50 films of the past year.
It may seem like a no-brainer that Lifetime and Oxygen would have movies with a strong female slant, but their agendas are quite different. Oxygen has found its niche in lighter comedic fare that appeals to a younger demographic. That said, “we’re [also] going to try some more thrillers and more drama-based things,” says Debby Beece, president of programming for Oxygen.
Meanwhile, many of the highest-rated films on Lifetime tend to be more dramatic, reality-based features. Its recent movie Dawn Anna, starring Debra Winger, did a 3.9 rating in its premiere.
“Based-on-true-life stories … just ring true with our viewers,” says Lifetime Entertainment Services executive vice president and general manager Rick Haskins. Their appeal lies in their inspirational messages, he adds, viewers sense that “if they can do it, I can too.”
Disney focuses on live-action and animated movies that reflect the lives of contemporary kids and their families, says network executive vice president of original programming and production Gary Marsh.
“Movies that target kids and families have a core set of themes that emerge consistently,” Marsh says. “It’s peer pressure; it’s fitting in; it’s the price of following your dreams; it’s your responsibility to your friends and family; and it’s sibling rivalry.”
Reflecting those kinds of issues in an honest manner draws kids in, Marsh says. But the real challenge is creating movies that also appeal to adults.
On FX, contemporary, reality-based adult stories — like the recent mock-documentary Smallpox or the upcoming 100 Days of Darkness about the Rwandan genocide — drive original movies. The network’s films typically mimic the thematic resonance of the channel’s original series, Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me and The Shield.
According to John Landgraf, president of entertainment for FX, “FX deals with contemporary socio-political emotional characters and issues, which is what our brand is and what we’re known for.”
FX stays true to the tone of its mission by putting “stuff on our air that’s just a little more edgy, a little more challenging and maybe a little higher quality [with] the rigor in which it is approached,” Landgraf says.
Overall the mission appears to be clear for most networks — target movies to your brand and the audience will come. But there are instances when rebranding changes the mandate for movies on a given network. Such is the case for TBS. Because of last year’s shift to make TBS the “very funny” network, it is now home to such acquired contemporary sitcoms as Seinfeld, Friends and Sex & the City and acquired theatricals featuring such marquee names as Helen Hunt and Sandra Bullock.
“TBS three years ago [scheduled] lots of James Bond movies, lots of John Wayne movies, and they popped some big numbers then,” says Ken Schwab, senior vice president of programming and acquisitions for TNT and TBS. “Now, given the acquired series on the network, we’ve got films starring Sandra Bullock that are filling that role. There’s a whole different type of movie, a younger-skewing movie that is doing the big numbers now.”
As for popular acquired theatricals on cable, it often runs the genre gamut — including comedy, drama, family, action-thrillers, crime and romance.
USA’s top-rated acquired films of 2004 ranged a number of different genres. What connects them is their box-office star power.
“Often you’re not going to put as much of your marketing dollars behind an acquired theatrical as you would your own original film,” says USA Network senior vice president of program acquisitions and scheduling Jane Blaney. “It’s got to have some legs of its own. That’s why when we buy these projects we stick to stars that work.”