LOS ANGELES — While the latest in movie-lizard technology gobbles up New York City, the television networks have been feeding on the hype that precedes big-disaster flicks such as "Godzilla," hoping that although screen size matters at the movies, it will matter less in the safety of your own home.
ABC recently offered a remake of Peter Benchley's "The Creature," and Fox dished out what it dubbed its most expensive original made-for-television movie ever ($8 million), "Gargantua." Both have mutant creatures run amok, serious scientists, an array of irresponsible journalists, islanders, and ex-significant others, much like "Godzilla." NBC beat this summer's comet/end-of the-world flicks to the punch with "Asteroid," which it has aired twice in the past year. Fox has a small-screen "Exorcist," and another mutant-monster flick, "Simian," on its coming TV schedule.
What does this all mean, beyond an obvious attempt by the networks to cash in on the big-screen reptile or disaster of the moment?
According to David Grant, president of Fox TV Studios, these films are not the standard movie of the week, but rather original films for television, with higher concepts and significantly bigger budgets. The new "Exorcist" is budgeted at more than $10 million (compared with a mere $8.5 million for the first big-event movie, 1975's "Jaws"). The Fox executive says that in order to compete with proliferating cable and satellite outlets, the networks need bigger and better movies.
But TV films, cued off of high-tech movies with little critical merit (reviews for "Godzilla" have praised the monster and panned the script), may be bigger, but they're not better, says Jerry Isenberg, executive director of electronic media programs at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles (USC). "A movie like 'The Creature' is not a step up in any critical sense from the old disease-of-the-week movie," he notes. "This is nothing more than a short-term search for ratings," he adds.
The flurry of ripped-from-the-big-screen TV flicks is also evidence of a deeper industry trend the professor observes. "The networks are in trouble," he says. The ratings share has been on a steady decline for the past decade, and the USC industry analyst says there is virtually nothing the networks can do to stop it.
According to Gaby Hoffman, Fox senior vice president of made-for-television movies and miniseries, these big-event TV films represent a new and serious direction for the network.
But despite what Mr. Isenberg calls the networks' inflated rhetoric about a renewed commitment to the original movie for television, he calls these big-budget efforts nothing more than a high-tech bid to stop the flight of viewers to cable and video. He explains, "These are the big-event concepts, used to draw viewers in at a certain time period in order to see promotions for the rest of the season."
The cues TV has taken from the big screen aren't limited to plot lines, either. Many of the recent technology-heavy TV movies, such as this spring's "Merlin" and last year's "The Odyssey" and "Gulliver's Travels," were financed with foreign money.
Comments Isenberg, "Once the TV industry realized that these big, splashy entertainment movies sold well overseas, that spelled the end of serious movies on network television."
For that reason the professor adds, these movies do not represent a return to the kind of commitment that produced a "Roots" or "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittmann." The only home on the air for that sort of challenging quality is on various cables channels such as Showtime and HBO.