TV Mimics Hollywood — From 'Gulliver's Travels' to Homer's 'Odyssey,' television movies strive to be minor motion pictures

Gulliver's Travels

For all you movie-of-the-week fans who in the last few years sat through the ceaseless reworkings of Die, Rapist, Die!; Hey, Who Stole My Baby?; and Oops! My Husband Is Actually a Bigamist/Serial Killer … take heart. The sorry state of TV movies is beginning to change, and it’s all thanks to Ted Danson in a goofy wig.

The unexpected success of Danson’s Gulliver’s Travels last February took the networks by surprise. ”NBC was scared to the moment of Gulliver‘s airdate,” says exec producer Robert Halmi, who won an Emmy for the lavish, $15 million-plus miniseries. ”They sold it [to advertisers] at [about] a 19 share, which shows how little faith they had in it. Then it did a 31, and everyone thought it was genius.”

With cable channels making more original films in the past few years and broadcast viewership steadily declining, networks have seen fewer and fewer people watching telepics. So when 30 million people tuned in for both Gulliver and NBC’s splashy sweeps miniseries The Beast, the message from viewers was clear: Give us big-budget, big-hype, big-screen-type projects.

”Not unlike the feature-film world, ‘the bigger the better’ often holds true with television, too,” says Barbara Lieberman, ABC’s senior VP of movies/miniseries. Which is why NBC’s upcoming $15 million disaster pic Asteroid, with Annabella Sciorra, will be made by feature producer John Davis (Courage Under Fire, Daylight). ”Television movies have been flaky,” says Davis, who’s also producing the volcano movie Fire on the Mountain for ABC. ”[Asteroid] will feel real.”

Of course, bigger is better for the bottom line as well. A 30-second commercial during a typical TV movie costs about $80,000 to $100,000. For the more hypeable, expensive movies and miniseries, however, rates can start at around $200,000. With about 28 spots every two hours, that’s a minimum of $11.2 million in revenue for a four-hour special. Add in rebroadcasts and other profit sharing — NBC, for example, earns a percentage of Gulliver‘s video sales — and it’s clear why networks are developing slicker fare. But beware: These are not your mother’s miniseries. So what can we expect?

History teachers may soon want to assign TV movies for extra credit. ABC is developing Cleopatra, based on a forthcoming novel by Margaret George, which will shoot on location in Egypt. ABC is also working on Stanley and Livingstone, based on the journals of the famed explorers. And NBC is mounting what may be the most ambitious project of the season: a $30 million adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, starring Armand Assante and Isabella Rossellini. ”It will probably be the most expensive miniseries ever made,” says Lindy DeKoven, senior VP of miniseries/movies at NBC. The network is putting up approximately $10 million, with Halmi’s production company — which, with nearly 80 projects in the works, has clearly benefited the most from the post-Gulliver‘s boom — footing the rest of the bill.

Gulliver's Travels
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