Tuesday, October 20, 2015

COMING TO A NETWORK NEAR YOU

Ok here's a post from my late lamented now returned Blog that I thought you all may enjoy. Before news magazines and reality competition shows networks would rely on movies, both originals and theatricals, to cover large chunks of the schedule. Back in the day acquiring and scheduling theatricals was an important part of the scheduling job so here are some memorable stories. Enjoy.

Last night we aired NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM. Theatricals used to be big events on the broadcast networks. Now they're just filler. I grew up in a world of double (sometimes triple) features. Most Saturdays I would get on the bus to downtown Flushing (for a dime), go to the Century Prospect or RKO Kieths theaters (about 35 cents) to watch a double feature and then have a "slice" and a Coke for 25 cents at Gloria's or Triple Nickel. For whatever reason I was always interested in what movies would play together. There were theaters in all the boroughs of New York that ran triple features and I would comb through the movie listings looking for those theaters, excited to see the combos. I grew up in the Grindhouse era so there were always interesting and weird movies playing. My parents had an 8mm movie projector and I would save my money and buy three minute reels of movies (mostly sci fi or Abbot Costello/3 Stooges) and I would play movie theater owner coming up with double features that I would show to my family. So I guess it was natural to eventually wind up in scheduling (although I still dream of owning a small revival theater) and one thing that I've enjoyed over the years was acquiring and scheduling movies for two broadcast networks. Theatricals used to be a big deal on the networks and were often key elements in sweeps strategies. Through most of my time scheduling NBC all three networks aired movies on Sunday night, and one of my favorite challenges was to figure out what movie (theatrical or made-for) to schedule against the two alternatives. When I was in research, living in Queens, I would walk my dog Bella through my neighborhood on Sunday night and look in windows to see which network movie was being watched. I would report my results to Brandon Tartikoff. He expected me to get arrested one day. Now that this era is coming to an end, I thought I would share some of my favorite stories about scheduling and acquiring theatricals on broadcast television. 

      JURASSIC PARK/SCHINDLER'S LIST.....  While at NBC I worked closely with John (the Godfather) Agoglia to acquire theatricals. John would solicit my opinion on the movies, asking me how I would use them strategically and how many runs of a movie did I think we could air. The deal that I will always remember was for Jurassic Park. We desperately wanted to get it, knowing that it would be a huge weapon in a sweep (it was) and we were willing to over pay, as were the other networks. What sealed the deal for us was that we agreed to include Schindler's List in the buy. We were also willing to accept Steven Spielberg's conditions as to how the movie could air on broadcast television. JP was a big success for us in terms of ratings and profits but we were not sure what to do with Schindler's List. We took a gamble and aired it in a February sweep. We conformed to all the stipulations and our Sales peeps went out looking for a single sponsor for the movie. Of course we went to our parent company GE who passed. Then Ford stepped up. They were so supportive that they did not take advantage of the opportunity to insert a commercial during the intermission. We were all nervous as to whether the movie would get a rating but we were proud to have acquired the movie and to have aired it in a respectful way. We woke up on Monday morning to surprisingly large ratings. I called up my good friend in Sales to thank him for all that he had done to make this happen. He was in a foul mood because he had just got off the phone with Bob Wright, the head of NBC, who, rather than congratulating my friend, wanted to know why we hadn't approached GE about sponsoring the now high rated movie. Being involved in airing Schindler's List on a broadcast network is still one of the most satisfying moments of my career and it also reinforced one of the golden rules of television: No good deed goes unpunished.
KINDERGARTEN COP.....Early in my scheduling career at NBC we bought two movie packages from Universal where all the films bypassed cable and went directly to the network. Both packages featured a few "blockbusters" and then we needed to cherrypick a bunch of movies to round out the buy.  The fun was finding the gems among the rest of the litter....but more on that later. One package included Kindergarten Cop as one of the "A" movies and part of my job was to decide how many times I would air it. We would then spread the cost of the movie over the runs. I think I said that I could run KC six or seven times. It was another home run in a sweep and I ran the sprockets off of it. I started getting angry calls from affiliate GM's who begged me not to run it again but I ignored them and starting making bets with some of the GM's as to what the rating would be for the 6th or 7th run. I made a lot of money on that movie.
TREMORS.....This one was a gem among the runts in the Universal package and Tremors wound up as one of the top 5 movies of the season in 18-49 adults. No one believed the ratings the morning after it aired but those were the days when counter programming really mattered and I put it against two very "female" skewing movies. Another hidden gem was FRIED GREEN TOMATOES which I aired in a May sweep on Mother's Day. This movie was a textbook example of how research can help in scheduling the network. We did concept tests on all our movies (including theatricals) and this one had an amazingly high interest and intent to view score. We also did competitive research putting FGT against potential movies on the other two nets and it did surprisingly well. I took a gamble and put it in a sweep. I got one of my "Don't come in to the office tomorrow if this doesn't work" speeches from Don Ohlmeyer but there was just too much positive research on this movie. FGT popped and we repeated it against the AMA's on a Monday night and I think we beat them. I sent a plate of fried green tomatoes to my counterpart in scheduling at ABC to rub it in.....I used to be a real dick back then (some would say I still am). Speaking of being a dick.
BACKDRAFT was another movie that was part of the Universal package and helped us big time in a sweep. We had three runs (I believe) of the movie and I was down to my final run. Here's how I used it: One day Lindy DeKoven, our head of movies and mini-series, called me to say that FOX had just scheduled an off-night episode of Beverly Hills 90210 right up against the world premiere of a Monday made-for-TV movie which starred 90201 star Tiffani Amber Theissen. Lindy told me that the star and the producers were ballistic and I had to do something. I explained there really wasn't much I could do but to appease her I called Doug Binzak who was doing the scheduling at FOX at the time. I explained the situation and asked him why he wanted to piss off a star on his network. Doug said that there was nothing that he could do about it. I told him that I would need to retaliate because I had a crazed executive on my hands. That summer FOX premiered an original scripted series about firefighters. I put my final run of Backdraft up against it and killed their series. Doug called and asked if we were even.
CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON....The way we generally figured out a license fee for a theatrical was by its box office gross. Back then, a network would generally pay 15% of box office for x number of runs. Sometimes there would be a cap. Several years ago I was out our local art theater and I saw a trailer for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. We (FOX) were in the process of buying a movie from Sony and they gave us a list of features and asked us to buy one more movie. I told our head of business affairs that I had seen a trailer for Crouching Tiger (it had not come out yet) and it might be worth a shot. I felt it was a sleeper. We threw it into the package. The movie came out and wound up grossing over 120 million dollars. We suddenly had a movie with an outrageous license fee. We were screwed and only aired it once.
THE FUGITIVE...At some point the networks started pre-buying movies i.e. making deals for a movie even before we saw the box office. The first movie we pre-bought at NBC was The Fugitive. After we made the deal we started to panic.  We had paid a large license fee in order to take it off the market. We went out on our own dime and bought the rights to air the final three episodes of the television series and ran them on the week before the movie premiered. Fortunately, The Fugitive opened and we gave Warner Brothers all this free publicity. Pre-buying is a game of chicken between the movie studio and the network. We wanted to pre-buy Godzilla from Sony and made a generous offer. Sony turned it down and said that they were happy to wait until the movie opened. The Saturday morning after Godzilla opened we got the box office faxed to us from another studio and we knew it had bombed. Suddenly Sony claimed that they had accepted our offer. We held them up for more runs for the same price. We also demanded additional runs of A Few Good Men and Men in Black 2 (two movies that we had bought in an earlier package).
RICHIE RICH, BEETHOVEN, JURASSIC PARK, NATIONAL LAMPOON'S XMAS VACATION Our Sales Department loved when we aired theatricals over Thanksgiving weekend and I would have fun putting together packages of movies to air Thursday-Sunday. One year I pitched Vince Manze (our promo guy) the idea of doing promos for the Thanksgiving movies where the children of NBC employees take over the network and demand that we air these four movies. Vince liked the idea and we made it into a big party inviting our co-workers to bring their kids to the Burbank lot for the shoot. My daughter and son were in the promo (my daughter actually had a speaking part). One problem: we had just renovated the executive conference room and we pretty much destroyed it during the shoot. It took the whole weekend to get it looking like new again and I thought for sure I was going to get fired.
So now theatricals are becoming extinct on the broadcast networks. It was fun while it lasted and I had an opportunity to fulfill one of my childhood dreams.


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