If one were to consider some of the most prolific original movie-producing, basic-cable networks, it's a good bet Court TV and ESPN wouldn't make the list. Yet going into 2004, both networks are in planning their third original movie events and are on course to develop as many as four telepics per year.
Executives from both services say their original films have helped draw new viewers that ordinarily wouldn't tune in, without veering too far away from the networks' respective identities.
Court TV is finalizing production on its third original movie, Chasing Freedom, set to premiere in January. The film, about an Afghani woman's attempts to gain asylum in the U.S., remains true to the network's mission of offering quality films that deal with some aspect of the law, according to Court TV senior vice president of programming Mary Silverman.
The network's first two movies —Guilt By Association, which touched upon the issue of mandatory drug sentencing, and the Peabody Award-winning The Interrogation of Michael Crowe, which chronicled the unlawful interrogation of minors — also dealt with relevant and current issues pertaining to the legal system.
Silverman said that helped build the network's appeal without alienating its core fans. Guilt
pulled a 1.5 rating, while Crowe garnered a 1.1 rating — both well above Court TV's 2002 primetime average of 0.8.
"They all are an extension of our investigative genre — our movies all involve investigations to find the truth of the situation," Silverman said. "We're not making the same movies that other people are making, but on subjects that we care about.
"What we hope to do is keep our core viewers and add other viewers who might not think to come to us."
The ability to tailor drama to such nonfiction genres as sports has also helped ESPN achieve ratings success with the first two movie entries from its ESPN Original Entertainment division. Last year's entries —Season on the Brink
and The Junction Boys— helped extend ESPN's reach beyond the Xs and Os of sports television.
Brink, loosely based on author John Feinstein's novel chronicling a season with former Indiana Hoosiers coach Bobby Knight; and Boys, which tackled Texas A&M football coach Bear Bryant's demanding training camp in 1954, both averaged a 3.4 household rating for their premieres.
The movies — along with original scripted drama series Playmakers— has opened doors for ESPN to reach more casual fans, as well as further endearing itself to tried-and-true sports devotees.
"There's a lot of people out there who are casual sports fans who like movies and scripted dramas," ESPN Original Entertainment senior vice president Ron Semiao said. "Hopefully we can bring those people to the network and entice them to sample more of our network."
ESPN's next original movie endeavor, a profile of legendary National Association for Stock Car Racing driver Dale Earnhardt Sr., is slated for the summer, according to Semiao.
Going forward, Semiao said the network hopes to develop at least three to four movies a year. On deck are potential movie treatments based on the careers of disgraced baseball star Pete Rose and surly former heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston.
The ratings success of Boys
has materialized into a double-edged sword for ESPN, as the network is now expected to hit a ratings home run with each and every movie.
Even Semiao admits that any movie that fails to generate at least a 3 rating would be considered a disappointment.
"We've set a high bar for ourselves," said Semiao. "I would be disingenuous if I said that if we did a 2.0 [rating], we'd be happy."
But while expectations have risen, the network's budgetary demands for original films haven't been changed significantly. Unlike big-budget, special-effects laden movies, Semiao said ESPN can produce quality, story-driven films at a reasonable price, although he would not reveal specific figures.
"Our movies are story-driven as opposed to special effects-driven," he said. "We can continue to make movies within the type of budget that works for us as long as we can find a good story to tell and a good writer to tell it."
Court TV also said it adheres to a strict budget — well below the $5 million mark pegged as the industry standard — to develop its telefilms.
Instead of big budgets, Court TV vice president of original movies Rosalie Muskatt said the passion of producers, directors and actors to take on weighty issues has propelled the network's movie success.
"What we've found is that the crews and the producers and production companies are so absolutely enamored and moved and motivated by the stories that we're telling, and it's amazing how people are truly rising to the occasion for these projects," she said.
The network has also been able to draw top talent for its films: Academy Award winner Mercedes Ruehl (Guilt By Association), Ally Sheedy (Michael Crowe) and Juliette Lewis (Chasing Freedom) have all had more than a passing interest in the issues tackled in their respective movies, Silverman said.
The network's issue-oriented films have also attracted a younger, more affluent viewer to Court TV that may not tune into the network on a regular basis.
"We're adding a younger, more upscale viewer because of the seriousness of the movies," Silverman said. "They're definitely of interest to people who care about issues, but they're also entertaining."
The network is already planning to develop several more movies in what Silverman hopes will be a pipeline that ultimately yields four or five original films annually.
"We're developing a number of different projects — we have one on the death penalty, we have another project that deals with a man who was wrongly accused and eventually exonerated with the use of DNA evidence," she said.
Other movies will explore the witness protection program as well as the jury system.
The network is also planning to create a franchise of movies built around forensics.
"You can see by the way of the natural extension of the movies from our documentaries and our genre and brand that none of these are off the beaten track," said Silverman. "We're not doing romantic comedies — they're all very connected to issues that we've already been involved with."