Magazine article Variety

Church & Slate

Magazine article Variety

Church & Slate

Article excerpt

JUST WHEN IT SEEMS THAT THE WORLD'S LARGEST MEDIA congloms are tightening their grip on the airwaves, an independent TV production boom has erupted in the nation's heartland.

In Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Louisiana, Michigan and other states, a new breed of low-budget telepic and series producers is responding to the spike in demand for familyand faith-friendly content from a clutch of growing cable and digital multicast channels.

Indie outfits such as Up, Magic Johnson's Aspire, INSP, TV One, Bounce TV and BYUtv as well as OWN, BET, Hallmark Channel, Lifetime and Lifetime Movie Network are all in need of a steady supply of fresh programming, particularly made-fors. That has helped create an ecosystem for producers working well outside traditional showbiz entities to deliver productions with unabashedly feel-good themes and inspirational stories.

Movies made on six-figure budgets that would be within a rounding error on even midrange studio pictures are now hot tickets, thanks to heightened competition among niche channels. Producers targeting the African-American demo have seen a windfall, with startups Aspire, TV One and Bounce TV taking aim at BET's dominance.

"What we do is not considered relevant by Hollywood standards," says Eric Tomosunas, producer and owner of Atlanta-based Swirl Films. "Yet we've built a successful business. We employ a lot of people and provide a lot of work for actors."

Execs and producers say the expansion of the indie telepic market has been aided by a number of converging trends:

»The significant drop in the cost of lensing and post-production work, thanks to innovations in digital equipment and editing systems

» The growth of production tax incentive programs in various states

»The ancillary revenue potential from post-premiere VOD and digitallicensing opportunities, as well as international sales

»The availability of producers, writers and directors with deep experience in the telepic format

"We've hit a watershed moment in the faith film arena," says Cindy Bond, a veteran film producer and co-founder of Mission Pictures Inti. Noting the swell of faithand Bible-driven projects hitting multiplexes this year, Bond asserts: "This audience isn't a fluke any more. For the longest time, Hollywood has been going toward fare that is not right for this market. The next step for us is to raise the bar in terms of quality, because this audience deserves it."

The importance of the willingness of established producers to work on microbudget projects cannot be overstated, says Up senior VP of original programming Barbara Fisher, who headed programming for Lifetime and Hallmark Channel before joining the new net two years ago.

Fisher notes that the generation of créatives who once made a good living producing telepics for the Big Three networks in the 1970s and '80s have struggled for years to find work in longform production. Fisher and others say they've been pleasantly surprised at the number of actors willing to work for union scale wages because they like the material.

Over the past two years, Atlanta-based Up has dramatically stepped up production and licensing of made-fors as a centerpiece of its programming strategy. The câbler has 18 movies on deck for this year, and plans at least 20 for 2015, including the biblical miniseries "Noah." Up vice chairman Brad Siegel also oversees Aspire in partnership with Johnson, and the two cablers share a good deal of programming.

"There are a lot of very talented people who are anxious to work, and love telling stories in this two-hour form," Fisher says. "It may sound cornball to some people (in the TV biz), but we are recognizing that there's a big country out there that hungers for programming that makes them feel hopeful. I'm seeing a new kind of respect for this programming. It doesn't have to be schlocky or subpar."

Fisher emphasizes that when she visits movie sets, she often has actors and crew members thank her for allowing them to be part of warm-and-fuzzy fare. …

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