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Emmys: Can an Adventurous 'Steel Magnolias' Put Lifetime in the Game?

Date June 21, 2013

LOS ANGELES (TheWrap.com) - Over the years, a perception has grown of what Lifetime fare is supposed to be: prolific ripped-from-the-headlines television movies and biopics.

And then there's the perception of what Lifetime's programs aren't supposed to be: Emmy winners. In the almost three decades since the network was launched, Lifetime has only been nominated seven times in the television movie category, and it has never won.

But "Steel Magnolias", Lifetime's TV version of the 1989 movie about a group of Southern women who gather around a beauty salon, flies in the face of those perceptions and might give the network a strong chance to break through with voters as well as viewers.

Asked if the movie represents a departure for Lifetime, the network's executive vice president of programming, Rob Sharenow, told TheWrap that he "absolutely" thinks it is, adding that Lifetime worked to attract the caliber of talent to the project that doesn't normally appear in made-for-television movies.

Executive producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, who are also working on the Lifetime miniseries "Bonnie and Clyde", NBC's live broadcast of "The Sound of Music" and their second consecutive Academy Awards show, said they weren't worried that "Steel Magnolias" didn't fit the network.

"We never look at the network and say, ‘Is this the kind of stuff they want to do?' We always look at what we want to do," Zadan told TheWrap.

The producers brought "Steel Magnolias" to Lifetime at a point when the network was looking for something special. "I think the original source material is timeless," Sharenow said of the 1987 play by Robert Harling, which was made into the hit feature starring Sally Field two years later. "It's one of the great pieces of American theater. It was a great movie. And we knew the story itself had enormous resonance with our audience. I think the big question for us was, How do you make it fresh and bring it into the new century in a different way?"

Zadan and Meron suggested an all African-American cast, an idea that Harling himself had floated years earlier as a way of showing how universal his play was.

"It immediately clicked as the right thing to do," Sharenow said. "I think it really speaks to the universality of the story - and it's exactly what we're trying to say about Lifetime. We don't want Lifetime movies to be factory-made. We want them to be acts of passion and love and creativity."

The project began to gain momentum after director Kenny Leon came on, followed by Queen Latifah in the role of M'Lynn, the mother who's desperately protective of her diabetic daughter. The executive producer, actress and rapper previously worked with Meron and Zadan on the Chicago and Hairspray movies.

"Kenny is a real actor's director," said Meron. "We said to Queen Latifah that he was going to direct her in a different way than she's had before, because he's very intense with actors. And she said, ‘Good.'"

For the pivotal role of M'Lynn's daughter Shelby - a part that landed Julia Roberts her first Oscar nomination - the producers settled on up-and-coming Broadway actress Condola Rashad, the daughter of Phylicia Rashad. Condola was then joined by her mother, along with Alfre Woodard, Jill Scott and Adepero Oduye.

Other than small updates for advances in diabetes care and pop-culture references, the producers stuck to the source material for their movie, which they shot in Atlanta over only 18 days. The film earned praise from reviewers, and its premiere last October drew an audience of 6.5 million, Lifetime's third-best original-movie premiere ever.

"It's the perfect storm of good," Sharenow said. "It was incredibly high quality. It got incredibly high ratings. It was the highest-rated movie ever for women for us -- you can't ask for better than that."

But can it turn around Lifetime's typically tepid showing with Emmy voters? "I think we have an excellent chance," Sharenow said. "We've already gotten a lot of award attention. We had two NAACP Image awards for miniseries, and Alfre Woodard won. It was a little bit of an image game-changer in that we brought big talent and big stars to the network. It was a real win on all levels, and it set the bar for what we're trying to do going forward."

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