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Made-for-TV movies make a comeback

Call it the High School Musical effect, if you will. Not only has the made-for-TV Disney musical spawned two sequels (one theatrical that's grossed upwards of US$245 million worldwide since its October 2008 release) and helped revive the tween live-action market, it seems to have ushered in a new age for kids movies made to order for the small screen. There's no doubt that HSM is a franchise that keeps on giving, with a fourth movie in the works and a booming consumer products business that has now surpassed US$650 million annually at retail. Other kidnets like Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon have been quick to follow. CN, for example, has a slate of live-action movies in the hopper that include Scooby-Doo: The Beginning and several movies being adapted from comic books. Nick, meanwhile, bowed its first musical Spectacular! last month. So, it's no wonder that prodcos that once concentrated on pitching series ideas are starting to look at developing small-screen film franchises.
February 17, 2009

Call it the High School Musical effect, if you will. Not only has the made-for-TV Disney musical spawned two sequels (one theatrical that’s grossed upwards of US$245 million worldwide since its October 2008 release) and helped revive the tween live-action market, it seems to have ushered in a new age for kids movies made to order for the small screen. There’s no doubt that HSM is a franchise that keeps on giving, with a fourth movie in the works and a booming consumer products business that has now surpassed US$650 million annually at retail. Other kidnets like Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon have been quick to follow. CN, for example, has a slate of live-action movies in the hopper that include Scooby-Doo: The Beginning and several movies being adapted from comic books. Nick, meanwhile, bowed its first musical Spectacular! last month. So, it’s no wonder that prodcos that once concentrated on pitching series ideas are starting to look at developing small-screen film franchises.

Franchise ownership
‘All three majors are circling back to having a dedicated slot for films,’ says Toronto, Canada-based Breakthrough Entertainment’s executive producer Ira Levy. ‘The new home for films is clearly on the channels that cater to kids and family audiences, versus a more general audience you might find on networks,’ he adds.

As such, Breakthrough expanded its television movies division last summer to encompass original development and production. The company brought in Marina Cordoni as head of sales and business development, charging her with acquiring movie scripts, developing and producing TV movies, and the distribution of original and acquired movies internationally. Already in development and slated to go into production for next year is a film series called Shadow Island Mysteries. The TV movies revolve around a young female hotel keeper who solves mysteries on a spooky island resort in the middle of Shadow Lake. Another untitled movie series about a group of kids that embarks on a mythical quest is also on the drawing board. As well, the company is distributing a musical called King of the Camp from Toronto, Canada-based Bensondale Productions that takes place at a summer camp’s annual Olympiad in which the winners are crowned king and queen of the camp. Levy says the title should expand into a ‘King of’ brand.

In fact, franchiseable ideas, ones that lend themselves to a series of films that kids want to watch repeatedly, seem to be the Holy Grail for many kids producers right now. The business model has much to recommend it. Shooting two or three movies at once allows the producer to amortize costs more effectively. For example, it’s only necessary to build sets once.

Such was the case for Miami, Florida-based Dolphin Entertainment and its Roxy Hunter movie series, about a precocious nine-year-old girl who finds herself solving mysteries at every turn. Dolphin’s president Bill O’Dowd says he created the concept as a film series from the outset and shot the first two movies back-to-back.

‘We took a big gamble with Roxy Hunter and were fortunate enough to sell it to Nickelodeon in the US,’ says O’Dowd, who already had a rapport with the channel .(Dolphin produces Nick series Zoey 101 and Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide.) So far, it’s working out. Four Roxy Hunter movies, broadcast over 2007 and 2008, are reeling in a core tween girl audience. And they rated well enough to help Dolphin land a direct-to-retail licensing deal for a Roxy Hunter apparel line with Limited Too and Justice Stores that launched in the US last year. Penguin Children’s Books has also picked up the Roxy license and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has taken worldwide DVD distribution rights for the first four films.

On moving from producing series to kids TV movies, O’Dowd says his company and the industry is aiming to reach the heights of HSM, while figuring out best practices and business models. ‘Series have a limited upside, but they have a pretty sure revenue stream,’ says O’Dowd, adding that you can make money, but you’ll never double your money, as you could with a theatrical release, for example. As for TV movies, ‘in theory, your potential has more upside if you can sell DVDs,’ he says.

The Sony DVD distribution deal is in fact vital to Dolphin’s profitability for the Roxy Hunter series. ‘If a TV movie is not commissioned, the TV license fees won’t cover the cost of the production budget,’ O’Dowd says. Gym Teacher, a one-off movie Dolphin produced for Nickelodeon, is bowing on DVD this month and, he says, the DVD revenues are needed to cover the cost of making the movie.

Dolphin wasn’t the only company that took a gamble on Roxy Hunter. Sony signed on when the first movie had been shot, but before it had aired.

‘A big factor in getting a DVD distributor is how much of the budget you ask them to advance,’ says O’Dowd. Though he wouldn’t divulge specific budgets or advances on Dolphin movies, he did admit that he’s had product he believed in so much that he made it without an advance. He’s also done projects where a partner put up 50% of the budget upfront. And he routinely evaluates movies for potential financing that come with an advance of between 10% and 20% from the domestic home entertainment distributor.

‘US$4-million movies that have a US$400,000 to US$800,000 advance is a pretty common number,’ he says. ‘You need that 10% to 20%, and then you need to start earning royalties or else it won’t be a good business for you.’ O’Dowd explains that unlike the kids feature film home video business, the kids TV movie market is still in its infancy. However, the momentum he’s created with Dolphin’s movies for Nickelodeon has made a long-lasting partner out of Sony.

Both O’Dowd and Breakthrough’s Levy note that kids don’t have hang-ups about watching an original TV movie on DVD the way adults seem to be prejudiced against buying a movie that wasn’t released in theaters. Kids movies also often become evergreen products that get retail placement year after year, as opposed to adult made-for-TV films, which look outdated almost immediately after they air. What O’Dowd has yet to see, however, is whether or not a non-musical made-for-TV movie can generate the sales volume on DVD that HSM did (22 million units and counting).

In the meantime, the Dolphin crew is hedging its bets with Spectacular!, Nickelodeon’s first song-and-dance movie and answer to High School Musical. O’Dowd says the film differs from traditional musicals where viewers give theatrical license to characters to spontaneously burst into song on, say, the basketball court. Spectacular! keeps the musical numbers in the context of live performance. The film revolves around an aspiring rock star who joins the school choir and the musical action stays confined to the stage. O’Dowd says the movie is being positioned as a major event on Nickelodeon and expects the DVD sales potential to be much better than that of an average TV movie.

Event planning
Indeed, a large part of the appeal of family-oriented TV movies right now comes from their co-viewing potential and positioning as event television. ‘They tend to garner higher ratings than an episode of the regular series would,’ says O’Dowd. He admits that a fifth airing of a TV movie, for example, easily scores better ratings than an episode of Zoey 101, Dolphin’s most popular series to date.

And made-for-TV movie success isn’t restricted to tween-girl-heavy audiences like those tuning into Disney Channel. Michael Goldsmith, director of original content at Canada’s animation specialist Teletoon says movies are the channel’s top rated programming across all demos, so he’s pumping up its 7 p.m. Saturday night slot, branded Teletoon Presents, with more original flicks. ‘You can create real events with movies and one can be a great springboard to another feature or an episodic series,’ he says.

Teletoon’s two commissioned live-action movies in production take place far from the sunny hallways of East High. Comic book-based Tales from Cryptville from Cookie Jar and My Babysitter’s a Vampire from Fresh are in development. On the creepy vampire vibe that both features offer, Goldsmith says, ‘We think there’s room for updated spooky, scary content for our tween boy and girl audience.’ He also explains that while the movies are live action, they fit Teletoon’s mission of being related to animation in some way – Cryptville is based on a comic book and Babysitter has CGI elements.

Additionally, Goldsmith says producing a movie, rather than going straight to series, lessens his risk as a broadcaster. He says that movies can play out like expanded pilots, offering room to develop an idea, while not committing to a whole series. ‘Our hope is that both movies eventually lead to series.’

However, Goldsmith says he isn’t looking for more movie pitches at the moment. In fact, both Cryptville and Babysitter initially came in the door as series concepts, but ended up being reworked because they fit the bill for the channel’s movie strategy. As far as acquisitions go, Goldsmith says he picks up about four or five first-run Canadian premieres a year.

Positioning TV movies as pilots is a strategy that Fernando Szew, president of MarVista Entertainment, employs regularly. The company’s been producing made-for-TV movies for the last five years and its one-off 90-minute TV movie, Pit Pony, for example, first aired on Canuck public broadcaster, CBC in 1997. It was then picked up by the pubnet as a 44 x half-hour series in 1999.

Storming the globe
Besides creating a franchise that can lend itself to DVD sales and potentially spark a TV series, international broadcast sales are providing a significant piece of the made-for-TV-movie revenue pie. Dolphin’s O’Dowd sees a ready appetite abroad for TV movies, especially ones with success in the US, like the Roxy Hunter features, which have been sold into more than 100 territories since their debut in 2007.

Similarly, MarVista has had success placing its movies around the world on both DVD and broadcast. Two of the studio’s most successful titles, Cop Dog and the Shiloh trilogy, have dog-related, family-friendly plot lines that tend to appeal to European pubcasters.

‘Broadcasters with kid-targeted slots need content that isn’t serialized, especially around the holidays,’ says Szew. Though MarVista has sold its movies all over the world, Szew says Latin American and the burgeoning Eastern European TV market are hot territories for TV movie distribution. His company traditionally banks between 40% and 50% of a movie’s production budget to come from international sales.

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