HBO helps build Eastern blocks

It airs challenging content that pubcasters won't touch

Prague– Western European pubcasters, while not averse to populist content, generally take pride in producing less commercial fare — educational and socially relevant skeins that win kudos for originality.

The same can’t be said of the former Eastern bloc, where state TV gets little funding and can’t afford such luxuries.

Indeed, up until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of Communist rule, most of the state TV webs in the region aired shows intended to calm and distract viewers from serious debate — and many are struggling to get past that position.

Enter HBO, which is helping to fill the programming gap.

“We’re happy to take on the films others won’t produce,” says Aurelian Nica, HBO Romania’s original productions manager. The cabler’s Central and Eastern European branches have committed to a growing slate of original regional docus that wouldn’t be out of place on the BBC.

These include “The World According to Ion B,” by debut helmer Alexander Nanau, about a homeless Bucharest man whose 1,800 collages spanning 40 years have made him the toast of the art world; “Heaven, Hell,” by Czech helmer David Calek, about the double lives of S&M devotees; and Polish docu “Let’s Run Away From Her,” by Marcin Koszalka, about family bereavement.

Calek, who regularly produces docs for pubcaster Czech TV, says he finds HBO more willing to listen when he pitches challenging projects. It also has the money to spend above and below the line.

“I have to work with Czech TV, but the equipment … ” he says, shaking his head.

Production values can be lean even at a global cable giant, as Nanau can attest, but HBO only had to hear his idea for “Ion B” and it committed, he says.

HBO is also backing the pic’s run at U.S. fests — something many Romanian helmers can only dream of.

Czech TV docu acquisitions chief, Alena Mullerova, insists the pubcaster is also seeking out fresh voices, adding, “We are looking for documentaries and nonfiction programs about important phenomena of contemporary society.”

The pubcaster does carry a regular assortment of original docus on one of its four channels to balance out the sports programming and back episodes of such U.S. fare as “Sex in the City” it says it needs to help drive ad sales, a continuing part of Czech TV’s funding.

Independent producers, however, complain of being relegated to midweek slots and odd hours of the evening.

Cristian Tabara, director of film at Romania’s SRTV, admits the pubcaster is unlikely to air the work of the Romanian New Wave that auds at foreign arthouses and film fests enjoy.

“We would like to show noncommercial films, but we must also think about what our audiences enjoy,” he says.

Polish pubcaster PTV, meanwhile, has hit one crisis after another in recent years, as its budget has been slashed.

Meanwhile, HBO doesn’t disclose how much coin it’s committing to original docus but, says Marc Lorber, head of original programming in Central and Eastern Europe, the slate is steadily growing.

“We’re not looking to supplant the commercial broadcasters nor the public TV channels,” he says, “certainly not when we’re only producing four-to-six documentaries per key country. But, on the other hand, lacking commercial advertising as well as certain time restrictions does give us a freedom to explore stories that other channels might not be able to.”

And, while the cabler doesn’t feel educational programming is a prime obligation, he adds, the strong stories and characters in the content “often enlighten as much as they entertain.”

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