Term Paper: TV Movies Producers

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Television & Movies

Made-for-Television Movies

The purpose of this essay is to discuss made-for-television movies and the impact they have had - or not had - on the cinema and home-viewing market. The role of the producer will be examined, and the differences between theatrical release producing and television producing will be discussed. Furthermore, the success of the telemovie on pay-TV as opposed to free-to-air broadcast will also be considered.

The made-for-television movie got its start in the United States in the early 1960s, when television networks and their biggest clients - advertisers - were attempting to woo the cinema crowd home again. The explosion of cinema in America in the 1950s meant that much advertising revenue was being lost to the theatres, and television producers needed a way to lure the population 'back to the box'. It is generally acknowledged that the first such movie to be aired was See How They Run, which screened on American network NBC in October of 1964 (Hilmes 2004). Early telemovies featured well-known actors, and many were accorded a higher budget than most dramatic series airing at the time; some even garnered more funds than theatrical releases. Initial runtimes were around the 90-minute mark, including commercials, although this has expanded in later years to focus on a two-hour bench-mark more in line with the average cinematic release.

The most-watched telemovie in history was the 1983 ABC production, The Day After, which focused on a nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union (Abramson 2003). Capitalising on much-hyped anti-Soviet feeling in the United States at the time, it screened to an estimated audience of 100 million people. To make a comparison, if 100 million people paid to see a current release film, the box-office takings would be roughly 900 million dollars - only 100 million short of the worldwide takings of the current all-time box-office champion, Titanic.

Other telemovies have spawned a television series as an off-shoot. In 2003, The Sci-Fi Channel aired a 4-hour telemovie based on the 1970s television show, Battlestar Galactica. The telemovie was so successful that network executives gave the green light to a series, which is currently in its fourth season.

Initially, telemovies promised viewers all the excitement of a big-screen release in the comfort of their living rooms. As it has evolved through the decades, however, the telemovie rarely duplicates such a feat. Increasingly, made-for-television movies became the 'red-headed stepchild' of the television industry; low budgets, lesser-known actors, low production values, and plots ripped straight from tabloid headlines. Such films have even become pop-culture references in themselves; many television series and films have had characters make derisive remarks about "movies of the week," usually in regard to a situation filled with melodrama. An exception is the American premium cable channel HBO, which consistently turns out telemovies and miniseries featuring well-known actors, scripts by award-winning writers, and has won the Emmy for Outstanding Made-For-Television movie almost every year since 1993.

Producers of telemovies face different challenges to theatrical producers, though some may claim that their role is fundamentally easier. Since the collapse of studio system in the United States in the early 20th century, film producers, who used to maintain complete creative and financial control over a project, have been relegated somewhat to being the 'money people.' There are hands-on creative producers, of course, and many recent television producers are becoming as well-known as film directors, and command just as loyal a following - JJ Richards of Lost, Alias and Felicity fame and Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly, to name two. The intrinsic differences between the roles of a telemovie producer and a theatrical-release producer come down to money, time, talent and audience. A film producer's role is to find funding from various sources - some theatrical films will have as many as fifty companies and hundreds of investors, all of whom have been pursued and solicited by a producer. Funding a feature film, especially one not backed by a major studio, as is the case for nearly every Australian feature film ever made, is an ongoing process. Funds will be sought and required over a period of years - finding and establishing the script, reworking the script, auditions, casting, rehearsals, equipment hire, crew, catering, location permits, telecine, post-production houses, special effects, re-shoots, dailies screening for studios, and - most expensive of all after production costs, and in some cases, higher - advertising and finding a distributor. A telemovie producer is hired, often from in-house - such as a director of one of the network's regular dramas - by a network, who in most cases are the sole source of funding. HBO has been known to outsource some of their funding and produce joint-ventures with independent film companies, though this approach is rare. A two-hour feature film may spend years in the development and making; a two-hour telemovie given the greenlight in March can be on the air by May or June. In the case of a telemovie, the producer is responsible for bringing the process into a cohesive whole - overseeing casting, hiring crew, getting the word spread and coming up with advertising strategies. But in most cases, they have the full weight and support of a network behind them, access to studios, equipment, post-production offices, special effects departments, wardrobe, makeup and catering - all in-house, and all provided for in the initial budget. The project is usually shot on inexpensive video, the distributor is inbuilt, and advertising costs are shouldered by the network. This lifts an immense burden from a telemovie producer's shoulders.

In terms of the budget, there are large differences between a feature film and a made-for-television film. The cost of "blockbuster" feature films keeps spiraling upwards - at last count, the most expensive films are hovering around the 200 million dollar mark just to produce. Made-for-television productions (depending on quality) will rarely breach the three million-dollar mark, with some coming in as low as 750,000 USD. These costs are kept low by short shooting times, with the average shooting time for a 2-hour Movie of the Week a mere three to four weeks in length with a 30-day preproduction time. A high-profile undertaking, such as HBO's Angels In America, or a film shot overseas, may touch the six million mark, but such cases are the exception rather than the rule. Considering that the major networks who finance these undertakings are reporting combined revenue of up to twenty billion dollars a year, it is easy to see why made-for-television movies are a cheap, attractive option for them.

In terms of talent, the made-for-television movie producer has a much more limited pool from which to draw their actors. Since telemovie productions usually adhere to Screen Actors Guild guidelines in pay-scale, such projects are not attractive to actors used to earning several million dollars a project. However, what may hamper a film producer - star salary - may help a telemovie producer. HBO, in particular, has a stellar track record of attracting high-profile actors who are willing to 'work for scale' in order to be part of quality productions. The average telemovie, however, relies on B. Or C. grade actors for their star-power, usually a lead from a television series, or a film actor whose star has somewhat tarnished. Some actors, such as former Facts of Life actress Nancy McKeon, or former Little House on the Prairie actress Melissa Gilbert, have made something of a name for themselves (usually a derisive name) by their willingness to repeatedly feature in sub-standard Movies of the Week.

In the case of audiences, the made-for-television producer has a much smoother run than a feature film producer. In the end, the budget of a production will be based on how much business the project… [END OF PREVIEW]

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