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'The Badge' Finds a Home With Starz

The film, starring Billy Bob Thornton and a stellar supporting cast, was headed nowhere until the cable outfit stepped in. It will air Saturday night.

September 02, 2002|PATRICIA BRENNAN | WASHINGTON POST

The Starz cable service came to the rescue when a crime drama written and directed by Robby Henson, and starring Oscar-winner Billy Bob Thornton, was about to be orphaned.

Thornton plays a small-town Louisiana sheriff in "The Badge," a movie that originally was to be a theatrical film. Instead, it shows up Saturday at 8 p.m. on Starz. The name-rich cast includes Patricia Arquette, William Devane, Jena Malone, Thomas Hayden Church, Tom Bower, Julie Hagerty, Sela Ward, Rick Dial and Hill Harper.

"The Badge" was made a week or so before Thornton went to work on last year's "Monster's Ball," said Henson. In both films, Thornton plays a Southern lawman who confronts his own bigotry.

"There are differences," said Henson. "Mine is more of a traditional leading-man role: He tells jokes in the beginning, struggles and rights his boat. Even though he has demons, they're not as dark as in 'Monster's Ball.' "

The story opens as a woman in a red dress dashes across a highway at night, causing an 18-wheeler to jackknife and spill its load of shoes. Notified of the wreck the next day, Thornton, as Sheriff Darl Hardwick, sets about distributing the footwear to local folks. Then his deputies find the woman face down in the swamp, and there is speculation that she may have been alive while the sheriff was passing out shoes. At the morgue, the medical examiner finds that "she" is a "he"--with a bullet in his back. Enter Arquette as a New Orleans stripper who says she's the wife of the victim.

Henson said Starz was the white knight for "The Badge," his second theatrical film. "After [original producer] Propaganda Films went bankrupt during post-production of the film, and it was kind of orphaned, Starz stepped in and has been very good for the film. Lions Gate has the theatrical and home video rights."

"We are always on the lookout for quality films," said Stephen Shelanski, vice president of program acquisitions, planning and scheduling for Starz Encore Entertainment. He saw "The Badge" at a Los Angeles film showcase, he said, and "within a day, we had the deal done."

"We were convinced this was a high-quality film. It also has a strong supporting cast.... We can bring these films to a much broader audience than would see them in theaters."

Although the Starz Encore channels are less well-known to most viewers than premium channels such as HBO and Showtime, those channels and their corporate siblings have considerable international reach.

Starz Encore reaches around the globe. Founded as Encore Media Corp. in 1991 by John J. Sie, who is still chairman and chief executive, and renamed Starz Encore in 1999, the company is the country's largest provider of cable and satellite-delivered premium channels through its 15 domestic channels, most of them digital.

As Encore Media, Sie's company was the first in the industry to offer a premium subscription video-on-demand service. Revenue growth for the company increased from $640 million to more than $863 million from 1999 to 2001.

A Rising Star

Sie, who came to the United States from Shanghai when he was 13, rose to prominence as senior vice president at media tycoon John Malone's Jerrold Electronics, where he helped develop interactive television.

He went on to Showtime and TCI before heading up Starz Encore, a subsidiary of Malone's Liberty Media Corp.

Headquartered in Englewood, Colo., Starz Encore owns Starz, which is in 14 million homes, and Encore, "nearing 20 million homes," said Marc McCarthy, executive director of communications; as well as Black Starz and Starz Cinema. Starz and Encore are available to analog subscribers.

By comparison, top-ranked HBO/Cinemax claims 38 million subscribers.

Sie's company also offers satellite and digital cable subscribers the genre channels Love Stories, Action, Mystery, Westerns, True Stories, Starz Family and WAM for children. Its MOVIEplex is a sampler offering films grouped by daily themes from the digital movie channels.

Starz Encore also offers Starz on Demand, a premium subscription video-on-demand service. In August, Starz Encore teamed up with DirecTV and TiVo to test the service over satellite.

Starz Encore Entertainment, a division of Starz Encore Group, finances and produces films (such as "Skins" and "Tortilla Soup") and documentaries (including "Hopalong Cassidy: Public Hero No. 1") and the series "The Directors." Movies made under the Starz Pictures banner include "Funny Valentines," "Bruno" and "Relative Values."

Its International Channel Networks provides movies, news, sports and general entertainment in 26 Asian, European and Middle Eastern languages to subscribers in the United States and Latin America.

Encore International Inc., an affiliate of Starz Encore, was founded in 1995 to develop programming and channels for international distribution, with a focus on Asia. EI is 90% owned by Liberty Media Group and 10% by Sie's JJS II Communications LLC.

Through an agreement with China Central Television, EI supplies programming that airs daily in prime time on CCTV's general entertainment network.

In exchange, Chinese programming from CCTV is shown on Starz Encore's International Channel here.

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