HBO films go where many studios fear to tread

HBO’s dominance of the Emmy Awards for movies and miniseries — including this year’s ostentatious sweep of all eight major categories presented during the main ceremony — certainly qualifies as an embarrassment of riches.

But an embarrassment to whom?

There’s no denying the pay channel is playing a different game by producing prestigious, star-driven movies. Indeed, such material is not only rare on television but increasingly scarce in theatrical circles, where the major studios’ emphasis on tentpoles has diminished the appetite for character-based stories.

In that respect, the hand-wringing by broadcasters over the Emmys — and the 45 minutes of the broadcast that amounted to a parade of HBO victories — speaks to a wider schism between art and commerce, and the evolving nature of the tension between them.

HBO’s near-exclusive claim to longform Emmy awards is hardly a recent development. The pay service has won made-for-TV movie honors 16 of the last 18 years. Congratulations if you came up with the two exceptions, which ought to be enough to win a drink in any Hollywood bar. (For the record, ABC’s “Tuesdays With Morrie” and TNT’s “Door to Door” in 2000 and 2003, respectively.)

It’s no accident that the only real resistance to HBO’s recent dominance has been provided by PBS, where imported British costume dramas (a la “Bleak House,” “Little Dorrit” and “Cranford”) needn’t be instantly evaluated for their performance in the 18-49 demo.

In this respect, the problem cuts much deeper than the Emmys — and extends beyond merely TV to a kind of movie that has fallen out of favor.

Near the end of a recent lament about the quality of this summer’s theatrical releases, Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan lauded HBO’s “Temple Grandin” as “one of the best films I’ve seen in the last few months.”

“But would any studio have financed a film with such an unusual protagonist?” he asked, referring to the title character, who is autistic. “And more to the point, how many people would have gone to a theater to see it?”

Turan’s aside is notable for two reasons: First, it offers a rare (and usually grudging) acknowledgment from somebody whose principal focus is film that a disproportionate share of today’s best screen work is produced for television; and second, his query highlights the dearth of quality fare that dares aim squarely at adults, a question every bit as pertinent to TV as it is to theatrical blockbusters.

In that respect, the Emmy voting — and pressure being exerted by the broadcast networks to ghettoize the movie categories — is emblematic of a larger disconnect.

Broadcasters once made room for at least some quality movies on their schedules, before deciding those resources were better spent elsewhere. One-shot titles were deemed too difficult to promote individually, whereas a successful series can bring audiences back week after week.

Those networks that remain in the movie game — mainly Hallmark Channel and Lifetime — have tackled this dilemma by in essence making the same movie over and over. Only the titles and talent change. There’s a business model there, perhaps, just not one that’s going to develop the next Jack Kevorkian biopic starring Al Pacino.

The nasty little secret, meanwhile, is that even HBO subscribers don’t normally watch the channel’s movies in big numbers. In addition, HBO commissions only a handful of longform projects each year, albeit with a shrewd eye on maximizing bang for its publicity buck.

The dividends come not in terms of huge tune-in but via the media attention and relationships with talent that such exercises forge. Nobody really knows the exact formula (and if somebody inside HBO has one, they’re not divulging it), so it’s almost impossible to assess its value.

Broadcasters are understandably frustrated by this approach, feeling that stripped of responsibility to worry about ratings, they could put on great stuff, too. On the other hand, if popularity is the only criteria the TV academy ought to consider, then by all rights next year’s Emmys ought to carve out space for the cast of “Jersey Shore.”

Where quality and commerce don’t coexist, in other words, can’t there be a few safe havens where one needn’t be sullied by the other?

It’s a question, frankly, worthy of a deeper discussion than simply who takes home an Emmy. As proxy battles go, however, it’s a good place to start — one where the answers might not wholly satisfy anyone, but which should leave us all feeling just a little bit embarrassed.

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