Thinking Inside the Box

Test-Tube Babies

 The Laramie Project, Sundance 2002's grand opener, won't be coming to a theater near you; nor will Audience Award winner Real Women Have Curves or the festival's centerpiece premiere, Mira Nair's Hysterical Blindness. That's because they're all HBO films, produced by the cable network exclusively for your living room.

"The paradigms are changing," says Colin Callendar, president of HBO Films. "I'm delighted that our Sundance entries are challenging people's preconceived notions of how to categorize a movie." Callendar is referring to the assumption that movies show in movie theaters. "The intent is that these films will premiere on HBO and play only for HBO subscribers," he says. The channel gets to broaden its range of exclusive programming, and the policy also protects its titles from a "complicated and brutal theatrical market. There's no value in us taking that risk."

Citing films like Mike Nichols's Wit and Cheryl Dunye's Stranger Inside, Callendar feels that HBO can provide respite from the dog-eat-dog worlds of creatively conservative Hollywood and financially strapped Indiewood. "Because we're freed up from the traditional pressures of the box office and the ratings," he says, "we're making smaller films that are having an increasingly difficult time being made elsewhere."

America Ferrera in Real Women Have Curves
photo: Nicola Good/HBO
America Ferrera in Real Women Have Curves

"Indie filmmakers over-fetishize the theatrical release," says Good Machine's Ted Hope, one of the executive producers on Laramie (which debuts March 9). "When a film goes out on HBO, the average movie gets 11 million viewers. When was the last time an indie movie had 11 million viewers? That's almost $100 million at the box office."

For The Laramie Project, an adaptation of Moises Kaufman's play chronicling hundreds of interviews conducted in the town where Matthew Shepard was murdered, Hope feels the broad reach of the cable channel is especially important. "If you're making a movie with an aim for social change," he says, "you want that sort of flashpoint of conversation at the water cooler, all across the country. You don't get that with a theatrical release, because its success is drawn out over cocktail conversations for 12 weeks."

Hope is also turning to the channel to fund his next project, American Splendor, an adaptation of Harvey Pekar's celebrated comic-book series. While that film may yet show in theaters because of Good Machine's particular financing deal with HBO, Hope says, "We have to face the fact that most people see our movies on a box."

There's also the industry-wide belief that theatrical runs after cable premieres fare poorly. One of the few exceptions was October Films' release of John Dahl's The Last Seduction in 1994, originally an HBO production (before Callendar's tenure). Others have tried (Silver Nitrate's release of Cinemax's Animal Factory) and continue to do so (IDP's upcoming release of Showtime acquisition The Believer).

Even Real Women Have Curves' cowriter-producer George LaVoo held out hopes of a theatrical run. When the HBO production about a Mexican American mother and daughter won Sundance's Audience Award and a Special Jury Prize for actresses Lupe Ontiveros and America Ferrera, the filmmaker fielded calls from Miramax and Artisan, but had to pass them on to the cable network. "You want to say, Let Miramax distribute the movie and work with HBO," says LaVoo. "But the corporation decided, we're keeping it our special thing for our special channel." (Before airing next December, however, the movie has nabbed another prestigious festival slot: opening New Directors/New Films next month.)

LaVoo is still grateful for HBO's support. After he produced 1999's Getting to Know You—praised by critics, but never acquired for theatrical release (it did play Film Forum in the summer of 2000)—he wasn't looking forward to another uphill battle in the theatrical market. "This was a chance not to worry about distribution," he says. "And I probably had more freedom on [Real Women] than anything I've ever worked on." By all accounts, production on the company's more low-budget titles such as Stranger Inside and Real Women are a breeze. Effie Brown, a producer on both films, says of HBO, "They were really hands-off. We only talked to them once a week."

LaVoo likens the network's recent foray into financing indies to European television's long-standing support for art-house fare. However, Euro-channels like the BBC, Canal Plus, and ZDF don't limit their productions to television. Whether or not theatrical prospects eventually open up for more U.S. cable titles, as LaVoo says, "The ground is now shifting, and we're going to have to get used to it."

 
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