Month of miniseries
During sweeps, networks hope to clean up on viewers
From Sherri Sylvester
Los Angeles (CNN) -- It seems that once upon a time, TV miniseries producers contented themselves with cheerleader-murder plots, disease-of-the-week heartwarmers and women avenging the deaths of children.
The miniseries competing for viewers during this television-audience ratings-sweeps period are more reminiscent of big-screen historical dramas with big-name casts and the budgets to match.
The big-three networks are banking on three star-studded epics to rope in and retain viewers.
An ark, another Arc, and Cleo
CBS' "Joan of Arc" and ABC's "Cleopatra" are set to do battle against NBC's "Noah's Ark," which already has sailed.
"The pressure's on them to get the ratings," says Franc Roddam, "Cleopatra" director. "And the pressure's on me to make it rate-able. They give you a very good budget, a substantial amount of money, over $30 million, and for me it was a bit of a joy."
What does $30 million buy? In the case of Roddam's "Cleopatra," the the biggest set ever built in Morocco. Along with it came 600 horses; 2,000 costumes; 5,000 extras; and one producer who happens to be armed with the most stellar reputation in the "TV event" business.
Ego on parade
"I can compete today with any feature movie there is, in scope or in content or in effects." That's Robert Halmi Sr. talking. He's the executive producer of both "Cleopatra" and "Noah's Ark."
"Nothing that Mr. Spielberg does, I or we cannot do."
Take that, Steven.
Nevertheless, Alexandria wasn't built in a day, and neither was Pharaoh Halmi's miniseries. The set took six months to build, cost $2.5 million and when completed measured a quarter of a mile from end to end.
The Queen of the Nile is played by "The Man in the Iron Mask" alumna Leonor Varela. Former 007 agent Timothy Dalton ("License to Kill" and "The Living Daylights") gets into the imperial business as Julius Caesar. And "Titanic" and "Orlando" veteran Billy Zane beats the big breastplate as Marc Antony.
Justifying our love -- of opulence
"In order to draw the kind of numbers networks used to expect, you need to be able to deliver something that is truly special to people," says Susan Lyne, executive vice president of ABC Miniseries.
CBS' "Joan of Arc" cost $21 million to bring to the small screen. That figure includes Joan's $60,000 suit of armor, 52 sets, location shooting in the Czech Republic, and an Oscar-caliber cast.
To get the most bang for the buck, the miniseries is even being hyped on the megascreen.
"There're previews for it in the movie theater," says 16-year-old Leelee Sobieski, who plays Joan.
She's joined by Powers Boothe as Jacques d'Arc, Jacqueline Bisset as Isabelle d'Arc, Olympia Dukakis as Sister Babette and stage and screen actor (and, yes, Doogie) Neil Patrick Harris as the Dauphin Charles. Special appearances are put in by no less a trio than Maximilian Schell, Peter O'Toole and Shirley MacLaine.
CBS' marketing strategy includes not only that theatrical trailer but also a dedicated Web site -- an effort to sell this repackaged bit of historical lore to a new generation of TV viewers.
Sobieski seems to have caught on to precisely the mystique with which CBS hopes to woo viewers -- the legend of the Maid of Orléans who was so famously executed in 1431. "This girl at 17 really led an army, this girl at 19 really burned at the stake by her own choice. And you sit there and you want to figure out why did she make these choices? How did she live such a life?"
Clearly, CBS executives believe their audience is crying for answers to the same questions -- and can only hope those inquiring minds will be attracted to the show.
ABC and CBS must also hope their miniseries can weather possible audience erosion from critical response.
"Noah's Ark" got some bad reviews, but still managed to attract more than 60 million viewers over two nights.
"In one night, we're going to reach an audience larger than 'Titanic' did in months," says Zane.
Indeed, two nights of "Noah's Ark" would translate into $300 million at the cinema box office. That gives Joan and Cleo a golden opportunity to compete with a sinking ship ... and one full of animals.
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