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Is there a way to tell which movies will end up on HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, etc.? Do certain studios like Columbia or Paramount always release their movies to the same cable stations?

— Robert, First Avenue

Yay! Another Hollywood question! I hop right on these, since it's so much fun toying with their little paranoid heads. Anyway, Robert, there is a way to predict when and where you will be falling asleep on your couch watching Antz. All the biggie studios have exclusive long-term contracts with one of the three premium channel groups: HBO/Cinemax, Showtime/Movie Channel, and Starz/Encore. As usual when we knock on the show biz door, somebody, somewhere makes us sign a blood oath of secrecy. In this case, we promised we would set fire to our Rolodex before we'd reveal who gave us this info. I will only say that he/she/it probably can write off any premium-channel charges on his/her/its taxes as a business expense.

HBO/Cinemax is the exclusive outlet for Warner Brothers, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Columbia, DreamWorks, and New Regency. Showtime/Movie Channel: Tristar, MGM/UA, Dimension, Castle Rock, and Polygram. Starz/Encore: Universal, New Line, Miramax. Independent films are acquired through various routes, generally one at a time.

Here's a rough guide to the natural history of a big-studio film. Once they've squeezed out of us every possible box office dollar and the film is withdrawn from general release, it will be on home video in about six months. A month or two later, it will be available on pay-per-view. Four months later (about one year post-multiplex) it will show up on a premium channel. It's consigned to the trash heap of broadcast TV once the premium's performance rights have run.

The contract says where a film will go, but the box office receipts determine how much the premiums will have to pay the studio to show it. See why the TV news guys bore us with all those numbers when a film opens? The value of a film's afterlife (video, TV, plastic action figures, Big Gulp cups, and other merchandising trash) is tied to how much we were willing to pay to see it the first time around. If they hype the box office receipts during the evening "news," maybe more of us mindless sheep will take a break from buying Beanie Babies on the Internet and go see the flick. Bigger box office, higher TV fees.

To be fair about that blood oath thing -- which I hate to do, but -- the premium channels are not allowed to promote their connections with the studios or do any sort of advance promotion (see "box office receipts," above). So Deep Remote was afraid if his/her/its little revelation brought down the industry, then the only job he/she/it could get would be as the 28th scriptwriter on some WB sitcom.

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