FX is known mostly for its original series, from Sons of Anarchy and Justified to Louie and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. But as much as 80 percent of the cable network's schedule is still devoted to theatrical movies — which is why FX execs have been on a blockbuster buying spree again this summer.
FX has landed the lion's share of this summer's box office No. 1 films, ultimately plopping at least $200 million for movies such as The Avengers, Men in Black 3 and The Amazing Spider-Man. Most recently, FX picked up the rights to last weekend's No. 1 film, The Bourne Legacy.
Even in this age of DVDs and downloads, movies are a key part of most general entertainment cable networks, including USA, TNT, TBS and FX. Movies are DVR-proof, says FX Networks executive vice president Chuck Saftler, who likes the fact that most viewers watch them live — taking in commercials and promos along the way.
Saftler calls it his "flypaper strategy" — throughout a movie's two-to-three hour run, viewers will stumble across a blockbuster they're familiar with and then stay put. "We present movies as comfort food," he says. "We'll pretty close to double our audience from the first quarter hour to the last quarter hour of a movie. People get sucked in and engaged. And really the people watching our movies are watching them in the minute, which means our promos are being seen."
Once upon a time the broadcast networks fiercely competed for the commercial TV premiere rights of hot theatrical movies. But as ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox got out of the movie game, the cable networks stepped up to the plate. Saftler believes FX has been more aggressive with movies this summer because his competitors have focused on acquiring pricy syndication rights to popular network TV shows like NCIS: Los Angeles (USA), Modern Family (USA), The Mentalist (TNT) and Hawaii Five-0 (TNT).
USA is spending around $2.5 million per episode on NCIS: LA, while TNT is plopping down $2.4 million per episode for H50. Movies don't come cheap, either — usually 10 percent to 12 percent of its box office gross (although sometimes a price cap kicks in). Networks will retain rights to movies for around four years. "You pick the top box office films, and many will work well, some will work better than expected and occasionally some won't work as well," Saftler says. "It limits your bets. If something doesn't work, the next movie is likely to work, so it's not like you're stuck with failure."
FX has its share of acquired series, like Two and a Half Men and a new deal for Mike & Molly, but Saftler says he believes maintaining a diverse slate of movies is a better way to draw viewers to FX's original shows. "Ted will be terrific in supporting Sunny and Archer, while The Avengers will be terrific in supporting Sons of Anarchy," he says. "And we can support shows like American Horror Story, which has a younger female audience composition, with Twilight [which FX had previously acquired]."
This summer's blockbusters will start showing up on premium cable networks during the first half of 2013. The commercial TV premieres of movies are usually between 24 and 30 months after theatrical release, which means they'll show up on basic cable some time in 2014. Here's where this summer's box office champs will eventually end up:
Marvel's The Avengers: EPIX (Pay TV); FX
Men In Black 3: STARZ (Pay TV); FX
Snow White and the Huntsman: HBO (Pay TV); FX
Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted: HBO (Pay TV); FX
Brave: STARZ (Pay TV); Disney Channel
Ted: HBO (Pay TV); FX
The Amazing Spider-Man: STARZ (Pay TV); FX
Ice Age: Continental Drift: HBO (Pay TV); FX (expected; no deal yet)
The Dark Knight Rises: HBO (Pay TV); Turner (expected; no deal yet)
The Bourne Legacy: HBO (Pay TV); FX
The Expendables 2: EPIX (Pay TV); TBA