Almost four decades ago, Lifetime Channel launched as a women-focused network that primarily broadcasts talk shows and syndicated series. Four years later, the entire cable network changed and released its first television movie, “Memories of a Murder.” The 1990 film, starring Nancy Allen, set the tone for what was to come, with a plot about a stepmother who suffers from amnesia and can’t remember why a psychopath is trying to kill her family.
That type of story worked for the network in the ratings; As Lifetime ventured into other types of movies (the following year Reese Witherspoon’s “Wildflower” was released), they realized what their audience wanted.
“All of Lifetime’s most successful movies have stories and characters that people, especially women, can connect with and root for,” says the executive vice president and head of programming. Elaine Fronttain Bryant. “People want to see themselves reflected on screen, so even if it’s a whimsical story, there’s something there that feels personal.”
Fast forward to 2023 and Lifetime has earned 63 Emmy nominations, eight Golden Globe nominations, and 20 Critics Choice nominations. This year, Lifetime aired its 500th movie, one of the “Ripped from the Headlines” genre. “Murdaugh Murders: The Movie”. It came at the perfect time, on the heels of Netflix’s two-season docuseries about Alex Murdaugh, a man accused and convicted of murdering his son and his wife. The trial was broadcast nationwide.
“This story immediately caught our attention because it was at the intersection of the Lifetime brand: fascinating with so many twists and turns, while also captivating the nation. We were all fascinated and the trial was such a phenomenon that when the film team was developing it, there was so much material that it became a two-part film,” says Frontain Bryant. “We quickly decided it had to be the highlight of Lifetime’s ‘Ripped From the Headlines’ fall slate, and to be honest, when we looked at the movie’s schedule, we realized it turned out to be the 500th original movie. from Lifetime. So it was a bit of a happy accident that this incredible story ended up being Lifetime’s 500th milestone.”
Timeliness was on their side in the Murdaugh case, but as senior vice president of films Tia Maggini says, that’s only part of it: “We look for timely stories that have captured the attention of our audience, but focus specifically in stories that our audience connects with on an emotional level, stories that transcend the moment.”
The “icing on the cake” of the project was the casting of Bill Pullman as the protagonist, says Fronttain Bryant. “He played Alex Murdaugh so masterfully that he’s already generating awards for his performance, which shows the complexity of this whole story,” he says.
The complexities, however, are something the network has always been able to succeed at.
In 2012, as the network underwent leadership changes, it debuted another smash hit: the powerful all-black reinvention of “Steel Magnolias.” Variety gave the television movie a very positive review: “This version of ‘Steel Magnolias,’ produced by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who worked with [‘Steel Magnolias’ star Queen] “Latifah in ‘Chicago’: She makes few missteps”. It’s also hard to think of many stories with more perfect lifelong emotion by focusing on the mother-daughter bond.”
“Steel Magnolias” was a change for the network and it worked, attracting more than six million viewers.
“We are committed to let women tell their stories themselves, in his own way,” says Maggini. “We care deeply about delivering diverse storytelling and hiring and empowering authentic voices.”
The cable network not only gained an audience for true crime, but also fed the thirst of those who craved an uplifting story. In that case, it’s no surprise to see how successful they are at releasing new, original Christmas movies like part of his “It’s a Wonderful Lifetime” franchise. In fact, they released their first Christmas movie, “Ebbie,” in 1995.
“We look for characters that our audience can empathize and relate to,” adds Maggini, “stories that provide a rollercoaster of emotions.”
It’s hard to say what doesn’t work for the network. When we look at her most successful films over 40 years, we find a mix of biopics like “The Fantasia Barrino Story: Life Is Not a Fairy Tale,” “Toni Braxton: Unbreak My Heart,” “Whitney,” and “Ana Nicole.” ”; to the critically acclaimed and Emmy and SAG nominated “Flowers in the Attic” and the fan favorite “Lizzie Borden Took an Axe.” Even 1995’s “Almost Golden: The Jessica Savitch Story” remains one of the most watched films of all time.
“We’re always looking for the best stories to tell, whether it’s true crime, biopics or Christmas magic, and we look for stories that will capture the audience’s attention,” explains Frontain Bryant. “Lifetime, having been in the movie business for so long, is often based on what the audience wants and is a reflection of what they care about and what they want to see.”
Within their “Ripped from the Headlines” true crime bucket, they have also grown sub-
franchises, relying on very delicate issues.
“’The Girl in the Basement,’ ‘The Girl in the Bunker,’ and ‘The Girl in the Box’ were difficult stories to tell, but they were also stories of resilience. It is no longer women who are in danger. It is women who survive and go from being victims to being victors,” says Frontain Bryant.
This year, “missing black girl,” directed by Garcelle Beauvais, highlighted the differences in how the media treats the story of a missing white girl versus the story of a missing black girl.
“This sparked a lot of conversation. Its ability to resonate so deeply with audiences led to greater focus and development on sharing stories that address difficult topics and help raise awareness,” says Frontain Bryant. “Similarly, within biopics, Lifetime has the incredible ‘I Am’ franchise where we partner with our subjects to tell their stories in their own way. like smart elizabethLorena Bobbitt and even Victoria Gotti.”
The content will continue to evolve as the television landscape does and will continue to be a competitor to other networks and streamers, he explains.
“Lifetime knows how to make great movies profitably and continues to attract incredible, award-winning talent who want to be a part of Lifetime’s storytelling and community,” says Frontain Bryant, who notes that the network’s execution is much faster. than many of its competitors. “With the cable landscape changing so rapidly, we are also constantly evolving the way we do things to attract viewers and looking for opportunities that allow our films to be seen beyond just a linear audience.”
She points to “The Girl Who Got Away: The Kara Robinson Story” as an example, as they worked alongside Robinson to tell her story and she then became the face of promoting the film on social media.
Thanks to the “power of TikTok,” the trailer went viral and allowed cable-free viewers to purchase the film on Amazon Prime Video or iTunes. It became his most important on-demand film of the year in transactions and revenue.
While ratings are not yet complete for the 500th movie, digital viewing of “Murdaugh Murders” was “86% above the network average,” says Frontain Bryant, “proving that people will always look for a good storytelling and award-worthy performances regardless of the platform.”
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