Big budgets mark network's film, mini moxie

NEW YORK — It’s a very short list of execs whose names carry weight in both movie and television circles. And topping the list, no matter who seems to be compiling it, is Colin Callender.

In his 20 years at HBO, the HBO Films prexy has seen — and often created — many landmark changes. HBO has risen from a small pay service to a net with an audience of 30 million upscale subscribers and, under Callender’s auspices, built a film production division that has been behind memorable pics like “Wit,” “61*” and “If These Walls Could Talk 2.”

Through it all, the Brit who broke onto the scene in the early 1980s as the producer behind the mini “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” has managed to create that rare alchemy that has kept subscribers loyal to HBO: a prestige-heavy lineup of costume dramas and edifying historical pics that mix with broad, zeitgeist-defining hits.

HBO Films is, by pretty much any definition, an anomaly: a production company associated with a television net that consistently makes theatrical-level films. Now in a particularly robust period, HBO Films is currently spending theatrical-size budgets on its biggest projects — more than $200 million on the Playtone WWII 10-hour mini “The Pacific” and more than $100 million on the same shingle’s American history mini “John Adams.”

“The water has been bubbling for a while. Now you’re starting to see the steam,” says the former stage manager, who has long expressed enthusiasm for such quintessentially American subjects as colonial U.S. history.

But even as HBO Films undertakes some of the biggest projects in its history, it is also trying to diversify the company’s bets.

“Obviously what we’re selling is scale and scope, but we also want to mix and match the bigger projects with smaller movies,” Callender says, pointing to projects like the smaller film “Primo,” based on the life of Primo Levi.

The goal is not only to keep budgets manageable but to avoid overtaxing the marketing department, which needs time and resources to put forth its trademark event movies and minis.

Flexibility reigns

In many ways, HBO Films is in its most enviable position since it was formed eight years ago through the merger of two HBO movie divisions. The shingle has great flexibility on the shape and length of projects: When contemplating the adaptation of Richard Russo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Empire Falls,” Callender thought about making the project as a straight movie but realized the story needed four hours and went with a mini. (It turned into a ratings success.)

Company also has been beefing up its Gotham office, hiring heavyweights like former Miramax vet Julie Goldstein. And thanks to the strength of theatrical pipeline Picturehouse, HBO is flush with distribution options.

Topical projects like “Recount,” the movie about the 2000 election that Sydney Pollack will direct (and which Callender describes as “taking you into the kitchen of politics to see how the food is cooked”) will air on HBO, since they both want to make a splash with the broadest aud possible. On the other hand, “Kit Kittredge: An American Girl Mystery,” which is part of the larger pact HBO signed with the doll brand, will likely go theatrical, since it has the potential to appeal to a focused but devoted aud.

Still, the issue of how the theatrical piece of the equation can fit into HBO Films’ plans could prove a difficult one. Picturehouse’s release of HBO Films title “The Notorious Bettie Page,” for example, was a dud at the box office.

“There are still a lot of questions about whether the combination of Picturehouse and HBO Films can work,” says one rival indie film exec. “The precedent for these kinds of partnership isn’t that great.”

The shingle must also be creative about financing as budgets rise and subscriber growth levels off.

“Ancillary rights are very important for (financing of) our productions,” Callender acknowledges. “And it’s not easy to look at something like the homevideo market and know what it will be like two or three years from now.”

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