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Risk-taking falls on TV shoulders

HBO Films exec not worried over pressures of grosses

“The real challenge is not making risky films, but marketing risky films and getting them to be seen,” Colin Callender said here Tuesday.

The HBO Films prexy and director Stephen Hopkins, in town for “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers,” which screens in competition Friday, were interviewed by Variety editor in chief Peter Bart as part of the Variety Conference Series.

Callender opined that HBO Films doesn’t have traditional commercial pressures, such as opening-weekend grosses, so it can simply “let filmmakers make the movies they want.”

The exec said his division was patterned on such European models as the U.K.’s Channel Four and FilmFour and France’s Canal Plus. HBO also borrowed a page from Hollywood studios in the late ’60s, where only a handful of people made artistic decisions based on passion, allowing them “to give support to cutting-edge filmmakers.”

Hopkins said he put finishing touches on “Peter Sellers” a week ago and it’s currently being subtitled in Paris.

The biopic proved personal for Hopkins. “For some reason I associated with the character,” he said, explaining Sellers was like a lot of artists “who can’t articulate their life except through their art.”

Callender said HBO Films makes eight to 10 films a year, with no ambitions to increase that volume. He credited part of the pay cabler’s success to its continuity; as a 15-year veteran, he’s one of the newer kids on the block, and that continuity allows the execs a kind of shorthand in their dealings.

His production background has proven invaluable to his work as an exec, Callender said. Understanding the production process — how a scene on a page will be translated on camera, the importance of location choices, the way a scene is edited — “is the greatest credit you can have on your resume and the greatest asset as an executive.”

Acknowledging, “I’m lucky I’m not subject to pressures” such as opening-week grosses or overnight ratings, Callender summed up his mandate: “What we’re trying to do is support interesting filmmakers and filmmaking.”

He said HBO Films has a central question: Is there a group who are going to be interested in this material “and can we reach that constituency?” He said the people in his division are allowed “to embrace the cutting-edge films many of us want to see. We continue to make movies that challenge the status quo.”

Callender praised fest honcho Thierry Fremaux for this year’s fest lineup: “I think we should applaud the boldness and range of his choices.”

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