Burgeoning genres include channels for romance films, independent movies, African-American films, classic movies and multiplexes of movie flavors with more choices than a Chinese menu.
Although the movie network genre grows more specialized with each new launch, industry experts say the most finely tuned niche in the world means nothing without distribution.
Based on the early reviews of some of these specialized movie networks, it appears that what separates the winners from the losers will be the backing of an operator or an established sister network.
Romance Classics has gained carriage from its association with sister network American Movie Classics, a basic network with 64 million subscribers, and with parent company Cablevision Systems, the sixth-largest cable operator with 2.8 million subscribers.
Network executives say unlike in the late '80s, when new cable networks typically were launched to 30 million to 40 million households, specialized movie networks are launching with lowered initial expectations and a steeper growth curve.
"The days of the 40-plus million subscriber launch are pretty much over," says Dalton Delan, VP-programming for Sundance Channel, an independent film channel launched last year by Showtime and filmmaker/actor Robert Redford.
"This is not one of those unrealistic start-up basics that's trying to grow bigger than its own trousers," he says.
Targeted movie networks must finely tune their marketing plans to develop a subscriber base.
BET Movies President Nina Henderson says the network's strategy is to go after systems with a high volume of potential African-American TV households.
"It's knowing that the network doesn't make sense on every cable system," she says.
Ms. Henderson said BET, launched in February by Black Entertainment Television and Encore Media, hopes to tap into the esti-Tuned in: Recent movie channel fare: "Kafka," "Do the Right Thing" & "All About Eve"
Cable heeding film buffs
mated 5 million African-American television households that subscribe to premium movie services.
Initially opened to 300,000 subscribers in California, Louisiana and Washington, D.C., BET Movies is offered as a three-network package with Encore and Starz! channels for $15.95 per month.
Kathleen Dore, president of Independent Film Channel, says specialized movie networks can build up a healthy subscriber base if they're willing to experiment with distribution.
"That may be on a tier or some level of distribution that's not seen by all basic subscribers," Ms. Dore says.
Movie networks are being offered on special tiers, which cluster cable for a mini-pay price ranging between $4 and $8 a month. The downside: Such an approach reaches only a percentage of cable operators' subscribers.
RULES ARE CHANGED
Direct broadcast satellite services have altered the distribution ground rules, giving specialized movie networks entry into non-cable households. There are now approximately 6.5 million DBS homes in the U.S. with industry estimates predicting DBS could reach 15 million to 20 million homes by 2000.
"DBS is radically changing the competitive landscape for movie services. It has re-awakened what all these movie network players have to offer," says Mr. Delan, whose approximately 1 million subscribers come mostly from DBS.
But while DBS has served as a movie network launching pad, most executives say new networks cannot live by DBS alone.
"Your business plan had better include serving different facets of the marketplace if you are going to have a chance of succeeding," says Ms. Dore.
Not all new movie channels aim for a narrow, specialized audience.
"We don't see ourselves as another niche movie channel, but a broad-based service," says Kate McEnroe, president of Romance Classics.
Romance Classics, launched in January on multiple tiers, has an ambitious subscriber target goal: the 51% of the U.S. population who are women.
Ms. McEnroe says Romance Classics' goal is to be in 35 million households by 2003. So far the network has secured 1.8 million subscribers and will pick up an estimated 4.1 million homes when it moves onto DirecTV and PrimeStar this month.
Meanwhile, Tom Karsch, senior VP and general manager of Turner Classic Movies, the commercial-free movie network begun in 1994 that reaches an estimated 12 million subscribers, says there's not enough cable space for all half-dozen movie networks launched the last two years.
"Those with the most appealing product will get on," Mr. Karsch says.
The source of that appealing product is, of course, the bedrock on which a successful network is built.
When it comes to a product pipeline, Mark Sonnenberg, exec VP-entertainment at fX Networks, which operates movie network fXM, says his network has a leg up.
"We've got a [Fox] studio that's been making films for 60 years," he pointed out, "and is still making them."