Emile Hirsch and Holiday Grainger in Lifetime’s Bonnie and Clyde. Photo courtesy of Joseph Viles
Emile Hirsch and Holiday Grainger in Lifetime’s Bonnie and Clyde. Photo courtesy of Joseph Viles

A Change of Frame By Gina Piccalo For Emmy.

By embracing filmmakers and edgier fare, Lifetime is breaking records and bringing in new fans.

Lifetime, long known for its sentimental movie fare, has shed its old skin — and tagline and logo. Now its buzzword is unexpected. But that’s not just a buzzword — it’s also a mandate that has led to a series of eyebrow-raising choices, from a remake of the 1989 film Steel Magnolias with an all-black cast to a dark take on the Anna Nicole Smith story, directed by American Psycho filmmaker Mary Harron. The bold steps are paying off, as proved by the ratings for Lifetime’s Bonnie & Clyde and Flowers in the Attic.

This kind of change is what A&E Networks CEO Nancy Dubuc meant when she heralded Lifetime’s new era of “unapologetic programming”: it’s more stylized and filmmaker-driven — and edgy enough to let a few four-letter words fly, as on any serious cable network. So far, the strategy is working.

In the past year, Lifetime has been setting and breaking its own records with each new splashy premiere. It earned twelve Primetime Emmy nominations in 2013 (more than in any of its twenty-seven years), and it reached its youngest median age in sixteen years. It’s even been trending on Twitter.

“Part of what’s benefiting us is that the movie business has changed,” says Rob Sharenow, Lifetime’s executive vice-president and general manager. “You don’t see studios doing a lot of straight dramas, biopics or period pieces. Most of them are backing comic-book and horror movies. It becomes much more extraordinary to see a movie like Flowers in the Attic [in theaters]. That’s presented an opportunity to us — both on TV and on the theatrical side — to get into business with amazing creatives.”

Just as Lifetime is rebooting its TV image, it’s also quietly launching Lifetime Films, a division of A&E Studios, the new in-house production arm of A&E Networks. The team’s first release, The Last of Robin Hood, screened at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall and is set for theatrical release this summer. Kevin Kline stars as Errol Flynn, Dakota Fanning as his teenage lover and Susan Sarandon as her starstruck mother. Lifetime’s next festival premiere is Lila and Eve, a revenge story with a twist. Starring Viola Davis and Jennifer Lopez, it’s due later this year or early 2015.

“We wanted the high-caliber talent and storytelling,” says Tanya Lopez, the network’s senior vice-president of original movies, so they decided to “just go make them ourselves, get theatrical distribution and then acquire the first premiere window” for television.

These changes date back to 2009, when A&E Networks acquired the flailing network. The formula that had worked so well for Lifetime through the 1980s, ‘90s and early ‘00s was falling apart, and so were the ratings.

“We had to take a deeper look at this particular genre that had become iconic for Lifetime,” Lopez says. “How had we not evolved with the rest of the television audience? What could we do to feel like we weren’t doing our mothers’ Lifetime movies, but instead, movies for the current generation and the generation to come?”

When Dubuc took on oversight of Lifetime in 2010, she set about luring a younger, more au courant audience with better storylines, bold new unscripted series and celebrities — just as she’d done at History channel.

“We have never worked with an executive that had such a strong vision and that was as courageous as she is,” says producer Neil Meron, who with Craig Zadan produced both Steel Magnolias and Bonnie & Clyde. “She’s fearless.”

And Dubuc instilled that same drive in the team she put in place. In 2011 she brought Sharenow over from A&E and, together with Lopez, they set about convincing the creative community that Lifetime is now truly filmmaker-driven.

By May 2012, they launched Lifetime’s new brand identity (its third in six years) with a tagline aimed at today’s overburdened working woman: “Your life. Your time.” They doubled the network’s original programming, leading to its strongest year-on-year growth in key demographics in more than a decade. By fall of that year, the Steel Magnolias premiere averaged 6.5 million total viewers, becoming Lifetime’s third most-watched telecast. It also earned star Alfre Woodard an Emmy nomination.

Steel Magnolias. Photo courtesy of Annette Brown.
Steel Magnolias. Photo courtesy of Annette Brown.

Steel Magnolias was followed a month later by Liz & Dick, a buzz-worthy event that landed Lindsay Lohan–as–Liz on the cover of Interview magazine. It became the fourth-most-watched original movie premiere of 2012 and earned its own Emmy nods for hair and makeup. In June 2013, Jewel starred as country music legend June Carter Cash in Lifetime’s Ring of Fire, which earned director Allison Anders the network’s first Emmy nomination for directing.

“When I came to Lifetime, one of the goals was to raise the creative bar on the movies,” Sharenow says. Known for success with unscripted TV at A&E and History, he also moonlights as a writer of well-received, issue oriented young adult novels. “We’ve done that in a big way... getting into business with better storytellers and better actors, trying to make the best movies on television, rather than the best Lifetime movies. That was kind of a liberating mandate.”

It can also be a daunting one, Lopez says. “Lifetime comes with an unbelievably iconic image... and such a strong brand. And it can often work against us. It’s beloved, but it comes with so many years of certain [kinds of] movies being made, which have maybe been the brunt of a joke.”

Lifetime may have the last laugh. In this year’s Primetime Emmy competition, Outstanding Miniseries and Outstanding Television Movie have been reinstated as separate categories, perhaps increasing the channel’s odds for winning Emmy Awards. And Lifetime is ahead of the curve, because it has long had the infrastructure to produce and market TV movies quickly and on budget.

“People don’t want to watch twenty-two or twenty-four episodes,” Zadan says. “That’s why the movie and miniseries is a really tasty proposition these days — because you can have great material, a great director and great actors, and give somebody a special treat for one, two, three nights. And they’ll turn out in droves.”

Flowers in the Attic. Photo courtesy of James Dittiger; Bob Mahoney
Flowers in the Attic. Photo courtesy of James Dittiger; Bob Mahoney

Slowly but surely, the creative community is coming around, too.

Oscar-nominated director Bruce Beresford, best known for Driving Miss Daisy and Tender Mercies, admits he was skeptical about directing for Lifetime when he first read the script for Bonnie & Clyde. He said he’d only directed one TV movie in his decades-long career, And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself for HBO in 2003. But he liked the updated take on the infamous young bank robbers and was encouraged by the network’s relatively hands-off approach — a relief considering the budget demanded shooting three hours of action-packed sequences in forty-two days.

“When you go into these things, you go, ‘Oh, I’ve got to deal with all those executives — it’s going to be a nightmare,’” Beresford says. “But it wasn’t. They’re a very smart, astute bunch and incredibly supportive and helpful. I must say, I was a bit surprised. I even would look forward to their comments on the cuts, because they were so sharp. And if I disagreed, they’d say, ‘Okay.’”

Allison Anders has been directing episodic television for more than a decade, but she’s an indie filmmaker at heart, known for Gas Food Lodging and Mi Vida Loca. She was eager to direct Ring of Fire when it came her way, but she was still surprised to find Lifetime giving her so much freedom, choosing a more expensive soundtrack producer than had been budgeted and casting Big Love’s Matt Ross as Johnny Cash.

The Trip to Bountiful. Photo courtesy of James Dittiger; Bob Mahoney
The Trip to Bountiful. Photo courtesy of James Dittiger; Bob Mahoney

“It was really like making one of my own movies,” Anders says. And in terms of how it found an audience, she believes TV may have provided a better platform than a theatrical release. “At some point you have to stop seeing yourself as a filmmaker [and more] as a storyteller. You’re going to go where you can tell the stories.... That first screening [of Ring], a million people watched my movie. There was the support, the infrastructure to get the word out in a way that nobody was ever able to get the word out on my theatrical movies.”

Kate Aurthur, chief Los Angeles correspondent for BuzzFeed, credits the network for reaching out to black audiences with both Magnolias and the film adaptation of Horton Foote’s beloved play The Trip to Bountiful, starring Cicely Tyson in the Broadway role that earned her a Tony. And there was A Day Late and a Dollar Short, based on the Terry McMillan novel and executive-produced by star Whoopi Goldberg. It’s a particularly wise move, Aurthur says, “when African-American people are so active on Twitter and Facebook.” (Indeed, a Pew Research Center report found that 22 percent of blacks who were online in 2013 used Twitter, compared with just 16 percent of whites who were online.)

“They’re definitely figuring out ways to get attention,” Aurthur says of Lifetime’s programming team.

If you saw Emile Hirsch and Holliday Grainger’s lovely, blood-splattered faces advertising Bonnie & Clyde on bus shelters around the country during last year’s holiday season, you’d have to agree. Those striking images weren’t the kind generally associated with Lifetime.

Anna Nicole. Photo courtesy of James Dittiger; Bob Mahoney
Anna Nicole. Photo courtesy of James Dittiger; Bob Mahoney

But they worked. That premiere — broadcast simultaneously on A&E, History and Lifetime — reached 9.8 million viewers, helped by Sharenow’s willingness to break the network’s staid formula and create a compelling cross-network event. “That was a real moment for us,” Sharenow says. “That was an unexpected choice for Lifetime.”

Right on the heels of Bonnie & Clyde, Lifetime tapped a long pent-up fan frenzy by adapting Flowers in the Attic, V.C. Andrews’s 1979 gothic bestseller, with Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn, Heather Graham and Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka. Even before the film’s premiere, Lifetime announced that its sequel, Petals on the Wind, was in development.

Flowers in the Attic came out of sitting around and saying, ‘What are we fans of?’” Lopez says. “We went around the office and asked, ‘Where were you when you read that book?’ No one read it where their mom could see it. That was the fun of it. Then we decided to truly be authentic to the fans of the book and elevate the production level.”

Flowers earned 6.1 million viewers its first night, becoming the mostwatched original movie on ad-supported cable since November 2012. And with that, Lifetime finally hit a nerve with the very generation that had eluded it: people who’d grown up in the late 1970s and early ‘80s.

“Lifetime has always done a pretty good job getting people to care about TV movies, which is hard,” Aurthur says. “But I doubt that any other channel is doing it as ambitiously as they continue to do. HBO makes a couple movies a year at this point. But these events, which are coming back into vogue, are the key to making people sit down and watch these things live. That is the thing that every broadcaster is looking for.”

And now, unexpectedly, they know where to find it.

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