Elliott Lester’s David Oyelowo starrer “Nightingale” premiered at the L.A. Film Festival in summer 2014. Nicole Kidman’s Grace Kelly biopic “Grace of Monaco” opened the Cannes Film Festival one month earlier. And Nikole Beckwith’s “Stockholm, Pennsylvania,” featuring bravura turns from Saoirse Ronan and Cynthia Nixon, bowed in competition this spring at Sundance. All were subsequently picked up for distribution and are expected to cast a serious shadow on the upcoming awards race.
Of course, the awards in question are Emmys, and the distribs are HBO, Lifetime and Lifetime, respectively. While television’s pull on topnotch feature helmers and actors is old news, cable networks have recently started looking to film festivals to supply quality product. And filmmakers are finding a new avenue to chase viewers and laurels outside of the beleaguered indie distribution apparatus.
In the case of “Nightingale,” the film bowed to scant attention while Oyelowo was busy filming Ava DuVernay’s “Selma,” which in addition to roles in “Interstellar” and “A Most Violent Year” vaulted the Brit’s name to the top of the year’s list of breakout actors. Looking to capitalize on his rising profile, Oyelowo recruited Brad Pitt’s production shingle Plan B to help get the film in front of HBO programmers.
“I was very invested in trying to get it out into the world,” Oyelowo recalls of “Nightingale,” an intense, probing, one-man show in which the actor portrays a cracked military veteran marooned in his house. “And the truth of the matter is, yes we showed it a while ago, but we didn’t get much love from distributors because they just didn’t know what to do with it.”
Though “Nightingale” director Lester notes that there were indie distribs interested in the film, “the alternative (to HBO) might have been opening in three theaters in New York and Los Angeles. But by virtue of Plan B and HBO, millions more people will get to see the film. I think this is the new model.”
HBO is hardly a novice player when it comes to distributing auteur cinema — Steven Soderbergh’s Cannes entry “Behind the Candelabra” picked up 11 Emmys for the net. But the prospect of awards consideration for films that might otherwise be lost in the shuffle is emerging as a potent lure for networks like Lifetime, previously better known for ersatz movie-of-the-week content.
Per Christian Drobnyk, Lifetime’s head of acquisitions and scheduling, in addition to looking for films that fit the cabler’s femme-centric programming model, “we’re also looking for what kind of talent are in the film, and will we have an opportunity, in picking the film up, to potentially also win awards? Specifically, will we put ourselves in Emmy contention? That’s an increasingly important thing for us as we look to evolve the Lifetime brand to be a place that can attract high-end talent for our original movies.”
“Stockholm, Pennsylvania” director Beckwith admits that she wasn’t a part of negotiations with Lifetime for her kidnapping melodrama, but lauds the opportunity for broader exposure.
“I definitely wasn’t expecting it,” she says. “But I think it’s exciting to think that TV is finding a way to support artists more directly, and to support risky visions more directly, instead of only creating their own content.”
While there’s certainly optimism to be found in cable’s emerging savior role for otherwise lost indie films, one could just as easily argue that it reflects the declining efficacy of the fest-to-arthouse trajectory. Oyelowo pins some of the blame on the fests themselves, which, he says, “are becoming very commercialized and homogenized, and drawn toward star power as opposed to what’s genuinely artistically challenging.”
And then there’s the simple fact that Lifetime picked up “Grace of Monaco” and “Stockholm” from fests without actually having buyers present there, meaning the fest play only served to put the title on the network’s radar.
“We’re cognizant that we’re not going to compete with the big theatrical buyers,” Drobnyk says, noting that Lifetime plans to have representatives at bigger fests down the road. “(But) there’s still tremendous opportunity from our perspective. You don’t necessarily have to be bidding while the festival is still going on.”
Another hurdle that Drobnyk says has scuppered a few earlier fest acquisitions: filmmakers insisting on holding out for theatrical release, however comparatively minor that release might prove to be. That’s a hangup Oyelowo got over rather quickly.
“If you’ve grown up feeling like the zenith of achievement for a film is to have a theatrical release, then no matter the size of the film you’re always aiming for that,” Oyelowo says. “But the truth of the matter is, an insular story told by one actor in one location like ‘Nightingale’ doesn’t necessarily necessitate the bigscreen. I think there is something perfect about it being on HBO. The film has kind of told us where it wants to be.”