Made-for-TV movies reborn on cable

New York TimesNovember 24, 2011 

It is a scene a movie studio might once have spilled a little blood for: Bill Pullman, stepping into the shoes of Harrison Ford as Rusty Sabich, the prosecutor turned suspected murderer in "Presumed Innocent," the 1990 hit based on the thriller by Scott Turow.

Marcia Gay Harden as Rusty's brilliantly deranged spouse. Alfred Molina as the defense lawyer Sandy Stern. And Turow himself, who, despite initial resistance to writing a sequel, revisiting the Sabich saga 20 years later.

But these days it's exactly the kind of movie a studio probably wouldn't touch. Instead "Scott Turow's Innocent," which places Sabich behind the murder of his wife, brings its pedigree to cable television, increasingly the home for Hollywood types who crave adult-oriented drama.

"Innocent," to be shown Tuesday, is the first entry of TNT's "Mystery Movie Night," weekly adaptations of novels by Sandra Brown, Lisa Gardner, Richard North Patterson, April Smith, Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark, starring veterans like Dermot Mulroney, Anne Heche, Judd Hirsch and Jane Alexander.

Money and movies

Movies of the week. The phrase reeks of mid-'70s Brady Bunches munching popcorn over avocado shag as low-rent predicaments play out on the tube.

But that was so last millennium. Formerly the domain of the Big Three, smaller cable networks like the Hallmark Channel and Lifetime TV have spiffed up a once-moldy genre to add luster to their brands.

The genesis of the made-for-TV movie can largely be traced to the proliferation of big-screen theatrical releases on all three networks in the 1960s and the bidding wars that turned them into an extravagance. In 1966 the Ford Motor Co. paid nearly $2 million to sponsor a broadcast of "The Bridge on the River Kwai" on ABC. A made-for-TV movie, executives surmised, would have cost less than half that.

That same year NBC contracted with MCA Universal to create 30 original movies. But it's Barry Diller, in his role as vice president of feature films and program development for ABC in the late '60s, who is credited with devising the formula - used in the ABC "Movie of the Week" - that allowed made-for-TV movies to challenge the ratings of major films at a much cheaper cost.

"It was done with great skepticism, and everyone thought it would fail," Diller said. "And that's why this 25-year-old got the responsibility to do it."

"Seven in Darkness," the kitschy 1969 adventure about a planeload of blind passengers that crashes on a mountain, was "not our finest moment, but it was our first hour, our first day," Diller said. "And it was a smash." Soon ABC was making as many as three movies a week.

Then 'Brian's Song'

The apex was perhaps "Brian's Song," the Emmy Award-winning 1971 drama starring James Caan and Billy Dee Williams as a dying Brian Piccolo and his Chicago Bears teammate Gale Sayers.

"It was one of the best movies ever made for any medium - it was astoundingly made," Diller said. "But I think like most things, television eats its young as an absolute predictive. There got to be too many of them, and the quality deteriorated."

Before becoming executive vice president and head of programming for TBS, TNT and Turner Classic Movies, Michael Wright worked at CBS for eight years; he recalled 100 films being made in the course of two of them.

"I was very sad to see the genre fade away, but it deserved to fade away for a while," he said. "The ripped-from-the-headlines approach can be tawdry and tiresome. When all three networks showed the Amy Fisher story in the mid-'90s, I knew it was reaching a nadir."

To add insult to injury, networks were investing money in a form with scant benefit as tie-ins to series programming.

TNT, Wright countered, is using its "Mystery Movie Night" to bolster a lineup of police and courtroom dramas like "The Closer" and "Rizzoli & Isles."

"Viewers 25 to 54 are our sweet spot, and these movies were very specifically developed for that audience," he said. "In the 300-channel universe, we'd better bring them something that feels a bit distinctive."

Quality acting jobs

For the actors, directors and writers starving for work while studios churn out raunchy comedies or superhero sagas, the benefits are obvious.

"I hadn't seen 'Presumed Innocent,' and I didn't know why this movie would be a good idea, with less time and less money," Pullman said of "Innocent," which he likened to an independent film. "Then I read the script and realized it was very different. It didn't feel like the biggest thing ever, but it felt like a quiet, important thing, like a chamber piece."

For the last decade the Hallmark Channel has used made-for-TV movies to grow a brand "celebrating life's moments," said Michelle Vicary, the executive vice president for programming at Crown Media Family Networks. In 2011 Hallmark's two channels produced 32, including 14 potentially perennial holiday films.

"People want to come to our network to make a movie they can share with their family," Vicary said. Among them was Christine Taylor, the wife of Ben Stiller and a mother of two, who starred in "Farewell Mr. Kringle" in 2010.

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