It was May a year ago that the Fox network kicked off "Fox Night at the Movies" with the critical and popular hit "The Fly." Since then, "Night at the Movies" has ap peared sporadically--first on Wednesdays, now on Mondays--and it has been filled with such undistinguished fare as "Less Than Zero," "A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon" and "Earth Girls Are Easy."
This week, Fox seeks to boost its ratings and prestige with "Working Trash," the first movie made for "Fox Night at the Movies." Fox is aiming to get into the business of making movies for television without jeopardizing its image as the nonconformist network.
Its executives promise there will be no disease-of-the-week movies, no women-in-jeopardy movies and no social issue movies. They say they will air different fare from the typical movies-of-the-week on the other three networks.
"We are hoping to be on the edge," said Larry Jones, president of FNM Co., the Fox Inc. company that produces the films for Fox Broadcasting.
"(The films) have to be either on the edge in their comedy, their sensibility in their drama or the way they tell their story. You can see (movies like) 'Roe vs. Wade' on NBC. They are important movies and from a personal standpoint, I am happy they are being made, but they are not for us. They are not for our audience."
Senior analyst Larry Gerbrandt of Paul Kagan Associates, a media analyst firm, said Fox has made a wise decision to stick to entertainment films. "Those (issue) movies actually tend to do better than the entertainment movies in the ratings, but they have very little residual value. They have become known in syndication as 'disease-of-the-week movies.' And what is highly topical here in the U.S. may not be highly topical overseas, and that is where you make back your money. They must go to the foreign marketplace for syndication."
Fox's hopes are pinned on "Working Trash," which premieres Monday. The two-hour comedy was written by Jon Connolly, co-writer of the 1989 feature "The Dream Team," and directed by Alan Metter (director of "Back to School"). It stars stand-up comic George Carlin and MTV's Ben Stiller as two Wall Street janitors who strike it rich by investing on information picked up from company trash.
"Working Trash" was originally a feature script that FNM optioned after it was shelved by a studio.
Jones said: "It is in many ways typical of what we are trying to do--take a concept that we really like, whether it is a comedy or a drama or an action-adventure, and marry it with talented writers, writers who don't necessarily do TV or maybe brand new writers. And then we try to cast it with clever casting, not necessarily TV casting.
"Our goal is to try to take talents at all different levels that are not that well known, like a Ben Stiller, or who are known in a different area, like George Carlin, put them together and take writers who are not known as directors and let them direct."
"Working Trash" is the first starring role for veteran comic Carlin. "I have always wanted to add acting to my career," Carlin said. "I felt in the 1960s, the logical time to establish my acting, that I didn't have any confidence. I felt I was lost in the acting setting. Now I am able to approach the acting with a little more confidence."
Carlin said audiences are tired of run-of-the-mill TV movies. "It seems every time I see one of the three traditional networks, whenever I see any of their movies of the week, it is about some cripple or some person with cancer who recovers to make the gym team or something. This is an all-out comedy."
Though Fox has not announced or scheduled its next original film, the network's executives hope to air three new films plus one feature each month. Though Jones believes this could happen by next fall, Fox hasn't set a start date.
The budget of its average film will be less than the other three networks' movies.
"But," Jones said, "the production values will clearly be equal to other TV movies. When you have an Alan Metter directing 'Working Trash,' you are going to get the quality level of TV movies or hopefully better. Our pictures are not star-driven, so that will reduce costs."
Gerbrandt doesn't think the lower budgets and the fact Fox's movies will not be star-driven will hinder the quality and success of the films: "Their strategy has succeeded so far with their shows that don't have very well known stars. Tracey Ullman was not a household name. It looks again like Fox is staying within its formula that they can create new stars on their own. By and large they have been successful."
FNM develops the movies and pays for the production. "We then license them to Fox and they distribute the films," Jones said. To help recoup expenses, the movies also will air on television worldwide. In some cases, when the project or the budget warrants it, the movies will be distributed internationally as theatrical films. "We will exploit our movies in any manner possible," he said.
One such production is "Robin Hood," starring Patrick Bergin and Uma Thurman, which started filming in Britain last month. "It's a large international film," Jones said. "We will deliver it to Fox Broadcasting as a three-hour special event for their broadcast, hopefully in the spring, and will license it throughout the world as a major theatrical motion picture.
"We will have a couple more movies that can be (released as) theatricals throughout the rest of the world. That is where we make up the deficit between our production costs and our licensing fee, through our international distribution."
Producing these movies is both fun and a challenge, said Jones. "It's not an easy task, but it's an empty canvas which we get to paint whatever we can figure out looks good."
"Working Trash" airs Monday at 8 p.m. on Channels 11 and 6.