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From guilty pleasure to Emmy Awards: The delightfully weird history of Lifetime movies

Clockwise: “Steel Magnolias,” “Amanda Knox: Murder on Trial in Italy”; “Betty & Coretta; “The Pregnancy Pact.” (Lifetime)

For many people, the phrase “Lifetime movie” is synonymous with curling up on a lazy weekend afternoon in front of the TV, trying but thoroughly unable to tear yourself away from a movie called “My Stepson, My Lover.”

Okay, maybe the film is called “Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?” or “Crimes of Passion: She Woke Up Pregnant.” Either way, it’s a familiar scene for millions of viewers over the past two decades, thanks to the Lifetime network’s addicting, absurd, sometimes disturbing, always captivating TV movies.

But as the iconic franchise marks its 25th anniversary this year, it’s also the end of an era.

For the past several years, the network has made a concerted effort to distance itself from “guilty pleasure” movies. While the channel might occasionally air something like “Sexting in Suburbia,” Lifetime is focusing its time and finances on movies that will win them a bigger, more mainstream audience; awards; and more respect in the industry.

A 2012 Lifetime movie about a mother trying to uncover the cause of her daughter's suicide. (Video: Lifetime)

The network bolstered its efforts recently with Emmy-nominated films, from “Steel Magnolias” to “Flowers in the Attic,” and is still one of the rare places in Hollywood focusing on women-centric stories and consistently hiring female directors. The network continues the trend Saturday night, with the premiere of the highly anticipated Whitney Houston biopic, “Whitney,” directed by Angela Bassett.

Still, the classic Lifetime movies were the rare piece of pop culture where everyone was in on the joke. As executives talk excitedly about the channel’s new direction, they’re well aware of the extreme curious passion for the low-budget, tabloid-themed movies of Lifetime’s early days. The overwrought acting; the incredible titles; the out-of-control drama; the plots that centered around all the terrible things that could happen, ever. Did we mention the incredible titles?

“Yes, I’ve heard every horrible event in almost everyone’s life I’ve met,” confesses Arturo Interian, the network’s vice president of original movies who started at Lifetime in 2001 and still gets idea pitches from strangers. “I’ll put it this way: People will tell you about some physical ailment they’ve had and it’s very awkward to say, ‘Well, you know, I’m sorry about your terrible limp. But it’s not really a movie.’ ”

In an effort to preserve this delightfully strange slice of TV history, we interviewed Lifetime executives, producers, directors and actors to produce a timeline about how exactly the famous brand was created — and, why after 25 years, people still can’t stop watching.

(QUIZ: Can you tell a fake Lifetime movie from a real one?)

1984 to 1991
When it launched in 1984, the female-aimed Lifetime network (a joint venture by Disney and Hearst) was characterized by the press as a low-rated, “backwater” cable channel, airing syndicated series and lame talk shows. Then newly-installed president Patricia Fili swooped in to save it in 1988. One of her main goals was diving into the TV movie game, a fairly new concept that HBO and Showtime started several years earlier. Cable networks scrambled to catch up with their own made-for-TV movie slate, and Lifetime wanted in on the action with a decidedly melodramatic spin.

As a result, Lifetime’s first-ever TV movie, “Memories of Murder,” premiered on July 31, 1990. It starred Nancy Allen as a wife and stepmom who hits her head, gets amnesia and conveniently can’t remember why a psychopath wants to kill her family. It got lots of viewers — even though critics hated it. “Temporary Amnesia No Excuse for Forgettable ‘Memories of Murder,’ ” groused the Los Angeles Times, as the reviewer noted that the network “can only go uphill with future endeavors.”

And go uphill it did — with ratings, anyway, if not subject matter. That ignited an identity crisis that would fuel and define the network for the next two decades. In the cutthroat world of television, should you focus on “respectable” topics, or the ones that you know millions of viewers secretly want to watch? Is it possible to do both?

Right after “Memories of Murder,” the network did a sweet film called “Wildflower” in 1991, one of Reese Witherspoon’s earliest roles, about a young deaf girl looking for a friend. Perhaps unsurprisingly, “Memories of Murder” scored much better ratings — the contrast helped the network decide what direction it wanted to go.

“We kind of had a push-pull internally, from tabloid to classy. And many times we erred on the tabloid side, or things that were a little more salacious; a little more women-in-jeopardy, because that was really doing it for us in the ratings,” Interian said. “Ratings-wise, we were addicted to the ‘Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?’ sort of thrillers.”

Ah, yes, the 1996 classic starring Tori Spelling — in one of her several Lifetime roles — as a young woman who falls for a charming sociopath. Interian points to that kind of subject matter that hooked viewers from the beginning. And perhaps made them feel better about their own lives.

“I think one thing, certainly about the old Lifetime films, is that there was always a relatable character in it and then the most extreme stuff would happen,” Interian said. “Your husband was a serial killer or you were addicted to gambling. If you were going through a rough patch in life, I guarantee you — your life wasn’t as bad as what was happening to some characters in Lifetime movies.”

Early to mid-1990s
The tabloid movies hit it big, and the channel started acquiring and showing many of them. “Lifetime calls itself the women’s network, and its aggressive pursuit of that image has been a big part of its success,” the New York Times wrote in 1991. “While audience growth has leveled off for other cable networks, Lifetime’s prime-time viewership has continued to increase.”

The more devastating the movie topic, the better for business: Teen deaths, bullying, murder, prostitution, nannies kidnapping babies. The horrifying (but captivating) plots became a running joke within the industry, but the viewers couldn’t get enough. Actors looking to make their mark also clamored for the roles.

“The old mantra of Lifetime was we were like the mafia — we would get you eventually. And by that I mean we’d get you on the way up or we’d get you on the way down,” Interian joked.

Career-wise, young stars that stopped by on the way up included Kirsten Dunst (“Fifteen and Pregnant”) to Kristen Bell (“Gracie’s Choice”) to Zac Efron (“Miracle Run”). On the way down? TV stars that couldn’t quite make the transition to the big screen, from Meredith Baxter (“A Mother’s Fight for Justice”) to Daphne Zuniga (“Gone Missing” ) to Tracey Gold (“The Girl Next Door”).

Candace Cameron Bure, the actress best-known as D.J. Tanner on “Full House,” wanted to try something different from her days on the ABC sitcom. After the show wrapped, she co-starred with Fred Savage (fresh from “The Wonder Years”) in “No One Would Tell,” a cautionary tale about an abusive teen relationship turned deadly.

To this day, Bure remains incredibly proud of the movie, based on a true story — she remembers the filming experience vividly. “I had just gotten engaged so I was at this wonderful time in my life . . . and then I remember going off to Arizona and there I am with Fred Savage on camera who’s just beating me up!” Bure said. “So it was a little bit of this weird dichotomy, emotionally, of what I was going through.”

She also gets e-mails every time it’s on the air — to this day, the movie is shown in health classes.

Late-1990s to mid-2000s
As the movies became more popular, and people discovered the joy of Lifetime movie marathons, the network (and its sister channel, Lifetime Movie Network, launched in 1998) became known for “teens in crisis” and “women in peril” themes. That led to movies such as “Stranger in My House,” “Mom at Sixteen,” “Murder in the Hamptons” and “Baby For Sale.” They’re all about exactly what you would imagine.

But the plan worked: “ ‘Teens in jeopardy’ was an incredibly successful genre for us,” Interian said, detailing how a film like “Cyber Seduction: His Secret Life” was created in 2005. “We would literally sit around a room and talk about all the horrible things that could happen to teens, or what teens could do. Someone said ‘What if a teen’s addicted to Internet porn?’ And we said ‘Great!’ ”

Directed by Tom McLoughlin (a feature film director who helmed several teen-centric movies including “Fab Five: The Texas Cheerleader Scandal” and “She’s Too Young”), “Cyber Seduction” was a living embodiment of a parents’ real-life nightmare. McLoughlin says he heard that after the movie aired, “parents went in and looked at their kids’ computer history and went ‘Oh, my God.’

And oh, those titles. Early on, the network recognized how important it was to create a catchy name, especially if the film wasn’t going to get a big marketing budget. That was the case with another cult favorite, “My Stepson, My Lover,” a 1997 film about a woman who falls for her husband’s son from a previous marriage.

Fun fact: The movie was originally called “No Recourse” (snoozefest!) because the main plotline was a courtroom drama. And sorry to break it to you, but director Mary Lambert, who loved working on the movie, wasn’t a fan of the title switch.

“Honestly, I have to tell you, I’m not crazy about the title,” Lambert said. “After the movie was done, the producers wanted a title that I think described the movie better. I always felt like it described it a little too much, though.”

Mid-to-late 2000s
Make fun of the titles all you want, but the network also delved into more quality “issue” films about serious subjects, such as “Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story” (2003); “Human Trafficking” (2005) or “A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story” (2006) about a transgender teen. Lifetime got Emmy nominations for movies such as “Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy” (2006).

In case you’re wondering why people agree for their stories to be turned into Lifetime movies, just look at Natalie Hawkins: The mother of Olympic gymnast Gabrielle Douglas was always a big fan of the inspirational films. That’s why, out of the many offers Douglas received right after she won the individual all-around gold medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Hawkins said “yes” when producers pitched her family on “The Gabby Douglas Story” for Lifetime.

“We took the leap of faith that it would be a beautiful project, that when people watched it they would shed tears of joy,” Hawkins said. Sure enough, she constantly gets comments from people who were inspired by the film.

Interian has also received grateful messages from people struggling until they saw a Lifetime movie about whatever they were going through.

“When we did ‘A Girl Like Me,’ I got e-mails from teens that were dealing with gender identity issues,” he said. “They talked about how it was such a breath of fresh air, and it was so important to them to see what they were struggling with depicted on screen so they knew they weren’t alone.”

Despite accolades for the more serious films, the network still had a tendency to fall back on the tabloid formula. The channel reached the tipping point in the late 2000s, recognizing that although it did well with guilty pleasure and true crime stories (“Amanda Knox: Murder on Trial in Italy”; “The Pregnancy Pact”; “The Craigslist Killer,” etc.), it was time to really start exploring new, more mainstream material — and be taken seriously in the industry.

In 2009, A&E Television Networks acquired Lifetime. The following year, powerhouse TV executive Nancy Dubuc took over the channel and jumpstarted the effort to rebrand.

“I think the goal was to make the movies more relevant,” said Tanya Lopez, senior vice president of original movies. “Make them feel more contemporary. Make them build a new audience. Not just keep the audience that we had. . . and we really had to turn this cruise ship around.”

So, what was the tipping point to a classier, more mainstream Lifetime? That would be “Steel Magnolias,” the reimagining of the classic movie with an all-black cast starring Queen Latifah that really sparked the network’s reinvention. Alfre Woodard was nominated for an Emmy for her role, and the movie got rave reviews and industry accolades. Plus, about 6.5 million people tuned in, the third highest-rated movie in network history. (Behind “Life is Not a Fairytale: The Fantasia Barrino Story” in 2006 with 6.7 million viewers, and “Almost Golden: The Jessica Savitch Story” in 1995 with 7.1 million viewers).

Queen Latifah starred in the 2012 remake of the 1989 film, chronicling the friendship of six remarkable Southern women. (Video: Lifetime)

“I think ‘Steel Magnolias’ was when we realized we had an audience out there who wanted that kind of quality programming that was for them,” said Lisa Hamilton Daly, Lifetime’s vice president of original movies. “It was a big energizing moment for all of us to think like, okay, we can get that audience there and we can engage them.”

2012 to present

After that, Lifetime shifted its focus to a select number of projects that could make a bigger splash — and started developing more of the network’s own films instead of acquiring them from other sources.

Successes included “Anna Nicole” with “American Psycho” director Mary Harron; “Betty & Coretta,” starring Angela Bassett and Mary J. Blige as the widows of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X; and “Lizzie Borden Took an Ax,” starring Christina Ricci.

Recruiting more high-profile directors and talent helped improve Lifetime’s reputation within Hollywood as well. “We felt like, to be honest with you, we weren’t going to get the community to change their ways of doing business with us; we had to initiate the change and we knew they would come along,” said Lopez, the senior vice president of original movies. “And that’s really what happened.”

In the 2014 Lifetime movie, director Deborah Chow remakes V.C. Andrews's 1979 novel about four children who are forced to live with their cruel grandmother after the sudden death of their father. (Video: Lifetime)

Daly agrees that if someone comes to pitch an idea and says “I have the perfect Lifetime movie for you,” that’s a little bit of a red flag, because that person is thinking of the network in an old-school way.

“Look, I’m a big believer that a lot of the elements of the old Lifetime movie — like the melodrama and the female aspect of it — are really important,” Daly said. “It’s just finding a newer take on it and finding a new way to tell those stories.”

That leads to films like the upcoming “Whitney,” Angela Bassett’s directorial debut. She’s aware of the tough line to walk, and one that fits into Lifetime’s new brand: Making an entertaining, but respectful, movie.

“I’m just trying to tell the best story as honestly and provocatively intriguing as I can . . . and also respect that while this is our entertainment, this is really the life of real people,” Bassett said. “These are dignified individuals who made whatever choices they made in the glare of spotlight.”

What comes next
These days, the network continues to be a haven for movies about complicated female protagonists (still a rarity in Hollywood) as well as female directors. Lifetime estimates about half its films are helmed by women, compared to the shockingly low industry standard of around 6 percent of major films, according to a 2013 study.

“Oh my God, it’s like a salvation,” said Allison Anders, who earned an Emmy nod for directing the June Carter Cash biopic “Ring of Fire.” “I can’t even tell you how often — it’s not just me, any woman director will have had years of this experience — where you go in and you meet on something and they love all your ideas and then they hire some guy to do it. [With Lifetime], it’s so great.”

Meanwhile, the network moves forward and tries to deliver the memo that it’s a different network.

“I get e-mails constantly from everyone that anytime something horrible happens, they just assume it’s a Lifetime movie,” Interian said. “It’s like, ‘Some cannibal ate his wife; Arturo, make this a movie!’ ”

Sorry — not going to happen. But at the same time, everyone involved with Lifetime understands why people look back on those movies so fondly. McLoughlin, the director, speculates that it’s all about remembering where you were when you watched the movies — it feels very personal, which at the end of the day, is why television is such a crucial component of our culture.

“It really is a question of nostalgia,” he said. “As the years go on, people look back at [watching] these things, they were cozy moments.”

Rob Sharenow, Lifetime’s executive vice president and general manager, says that it’s the movies themselves that have made the franchise a classic. “People love a great story,” he said. “And I think at their heart, Lifetime movies are always about great drama and pure storytelling. That’s what it is, as simple as that.”

Yaya DaCosta plays Whitney Houston in Lifetime's biopic directed Angela Bassett, premiering Jan. 17. (Video: Lifetime)