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HBO Films Redefined the TV Movie — Now It’s Poised to Redefine Itself

694 nominations. 162 wins.

No network has so dominated a category at the Emmy Awards as HBO has TV movies. Its unprecedented run dates back to 1993 with a double win for “Barbarians at the Gate” and “Stalin”; since then, it’s lost just four times.

This year, it has two high-profile contenders — “The Wizard of Lies,” starring Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer, and “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” headlined by Oprah Winfrey — as part of the cabler’s overall 111 nominations. Poised to play spoiler are a new iteration of PBS’ “Sherlock” (which won last year) and the “San Junipero” episode of Netflix’s “Black Mirror.”

“If you look at the category, we know there are a lot of things that maybe aren’t necessarily movies,” says HBO Films president Len Amato, a not-so-thinly veiled slight against the stand-alone episode of “Black Mirror.” “But we just continue to play our game.”

Netflix’s strategic category shuffle is about more than just awards gamesmanship: There’s certainly less competition in the TV movie race, given the high-intensity heat that now characterizes limited series (the categories were merged in 2011 but divided again three years later). While FX’s “Feud” and HBO’s “Big Little Lies” will battle it out for the top prize, both speak to the appeal of the format for talent — short episode runs, no contract commitment, creative freedom.

But Amato and his team insist there’s appetite aplenty for their brand of long-form content. “There’s a place for miniseries, and a place for a limited series, and a place for a dramatic series, but there needs to remain a place for movies,” says Amato. “The landscape has created more competition. But I like the competition.”

Given that, the banner is looking to expand its purview. Long known for its political potboilers and in-depth character studies (“Don’t call them biopics,” insists Amato), HBO Films is branching out into fiction and more innovative narratives.

Along with Barry Levinson’s Joe Paterno project, starring Al Pacino (“I don’t think it’ll be what people expect,” teases Amato), on tap is “Fahrenheit 451,” an adaptation of the classic Ray Bradbury novel to be directed by Ramin Bahrani (“99 Homes”) and starring Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon. And then there’s “My Dinner With Hervé,” “a quirky character movie,” per Amato, headlined by “Game of Thrones” star Peter Dinklage and Jamie Dornan (“Fifty Shades of Grey”), which recounts a fateful one-night encounter between Hervé Villechaize and struggling journalist Danny Tate shortly before the actor’s death.

HBO’s Greatest Hits
The projects churned out by the films division have drawn sizable audiences. Here’s the top 10 list by gross viewers since 2004
11.45m
Behind the Candelabra (5/26/2013)
10.45m
Taking Chance (02/21/2009)
10.14m
Lackawanna Blues (2/12/2005)
10.04m
Game Change (3/10/2012)
9.75m
Something the Lord Made (5/30/2004)
8.93m
The Wizard of Lies (5/20/2017)
8.00m
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (05/27/2007)
7.80m
Temple Grandin (02/06/2010
7.80m
Iron Jawed Angels (2/15/2004)
7.45m
Grey Gardens (04/18/2009)

Casey Bloys, who assumed the helm of HBO programming in May 2016, points to “Fahrenheit” as a prime example of his vision for HBO Films, since it features an Iranian-American director and an African-American star (Jordan) and tackles government censorship. “A good guiding principle if we’re going to get into fiction is, is it moving the needle in some way? Is it a diverse filmmaker? Does it advance the conversation?” Bloys posits. “That makes it a compelling piece for us.”

Recent features like “Moonlight” and “Hidden Figures,” he says, would have fit perfectly on the platform.

Says Amato, “We’re very interested in diverse directors. We’re very interested in diverse talent and new actors. And I think HBO has had a tradition of breaking people before they hit.” Witness Dee Rees, who helmed 2015’s “Bessie,” starring Queen Latifah. She’s gone on to direct the feature film “Mudbound” — which Netflix bought for $12.5 million at Sundance.

Since it was founded in 1983, HBO Films has built a storied legacy of critically acclaimed projects from A-list filmmakers: “Game Change,” “Temple Grandin,” “Behind the Candelabra,” “The Normal Heart.”

“The one unifying theme has been to subvert expectations,” says Amato. “People wonder, ‘Well, how are you gonna make a movie about hanging chads?’ or ‘How are you gonna make a movie about somebody who talks to animals and wants to reform the slaughterhouses?’ And we end up making ‘Recount’ and ‘Temple Grandin.’” “Grandin” went on to win seven Emmys;  “Recount” earned three.

While award recognition isn’t the ultimate goal, it is “always part of the calculation,” says Bloys. “The point of what we’re going for is not just to get Emmys. We’re looking for quality work, artists with a point of view. I like to think award recognition follows that.”

That support of the artist’s vision is what lures top talent — behind and in front of the camera. Nicole Kidman cited her experience making 2012’s “Hemingway & Gellhorn” as a key reason she steered “Big Little Lies,” for which she served as an executive producer, to the cabler. “As much as they say in this industry, ‘Business is business, and don’t take anything personally,’ I take everything personally. Because I’m personal,” she says. “I had a great experience with these people. That was personal. And I wanted to go back there.”

That’s a sentiment echoed by Winfrey, who not only starred in but also executive produced “Henrietta Lacks.” “HBO Films offers a wonderful canvas to paint your dreams,” she says. “They are committed to telling unvarnished stories in a powerful and commanding way that might otherwise have been forgotten or glossed over.”

Amato has led HBO Films for 10 years; from that perch, he’s witnessed a sea change in the industry. Features have become dominated by superhero movies and franchise sequels, leaving independent movies struggling to find distribution — and audiences.

HBO believes it can benefit as a landing pad for frustrated creatives. “Not a lot has changed for us making the films, but the landscape around us has changed quite a bit,” says Amato. “It used to be that you call in all the favors and make your independent film, but at the end of the day, you’d get your movie made,” he says. “But now you call in all the favors and you get your movie made, and somehow in the distribution process, it just disappears. It’s like the last betrayal, and it’s heartbreaking.”

The filmmakers in HBO’s stable stand as witness: Having a project at HBO, they say, guarantees it will find an audience. “You’re not worrying if your film is ever going to be seen,” says Levinson (“You Don’t Know Jack,” “The Wizard of Lies”), who recounts the making of a film he did with Al Pacino, “The Humbling,” on a budget of just $2 million. He even shot half of it in his own house to keep costs down. But the company that acquired it went bankrupt. “It’s a precarious world out in the marketplace,” he says wearily.

“The great thing about HBO is that they just want to make good films,” echoes Jay Roach (“Recount,” “Game Change”). “Their business model is if we just make good films, if we can come across to our potential subscribers as a place where if you just want to see a great film on a regular basis, they’ll happen to subscribe. And that happens to align with any storyteller’s ambitions.”

HBO’s annual slate of three or four movies — most of which are developed in-house — is on par with those of some studios, says Amato, who came to the network after having worked on the other side of the table as a producer and as the president of Spring Creek Prods. “But if you ask me if I could make more movies, would I want us to make more movies? Yes.” Of course, parent company Time Warner’s pending merger with AT&T looms large, and its impact on HBO’s budgets remains to be seen.

While Amato won’t name exact dollar figures for the cabler’s projects (“They’re bigger in some cases and smaller in other cases,” as compared with features), he allows that he hasn’t “run into a case where there hasn’t been enough money and enough time to make the movie right.”

Roach points to his experience making “Game Change,” which starred Julianne Moore, Ed Harris and Woody Harrelson. “You could have made that film anywhere else or as an independent film, but I don’t know that you would have had that support to spend that kind of money on those kinds of people,” he says.

HBO veteran Peter Dinklage embodies Hervé Villechaize for the upcoming “My Dinner With Hervé.”
Courtesy of HBO

That star power has come to characterize HBO Films, but Amato insists it isn’t about “star-fucking,” as he puts it. ”It’s true that a big name will help get the movie seen, because journalists follow big names,” he says. “But the most important thing is finding the right fit for the project.”

What will continue to set HBO Films apart, says Amato, is its willingness to take risks, to tackle controversial subjects that may hold little appeal for major studios.

Consider “Mosaic,” Steven Soderbergh’s mysterious new project that somehow allows the viewer to direct the narrative via an app. “You’re experiencing a story where you are in control of making some choices about different points of view on the story,” says Amato. “It could be the future of storytelling.”

Levinson, who’s brought several projects to the network since his days on “Oz,” now considers HBO home. “If you take Kevorkian and his belief in euthanasia, theatrical wouldn’t even consider it. Period,” he says. “The same thing applies to ‘Wizard of Lies.’”

And while others may shy away from politics, fearing audience exhaustion, the cabler has returned again and again to the subject. Roach says it comes from the top.
“I don’t know anyone who loves political storytelling more than [chairman and CEO] Richard Plepler,” says Roach. “Whenever I get to sit down with him, it’s a stress fiesta. We make these stories as therapy.”

He’s in development on another political project with Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, this time tackling the 2016 election.

“It’s definitely going to be tricky,” Roach admits. “There’s so much attention on the real-life experience of our political situation right now, the challenge is going to be surprising people or revealing something in more depth that might shed new light on what happened.” But at a recent dinner with Halperin and Heilemann, he was surprised by what they’d already uncovered.

Roach was primarily known for his work in comedy when he was recruited to adapt “Recount.” He’s been grateful ever since HBO took the risk on him — he’s now under an overall deal with the cabler.

“One of the ways you can define a collaboration is how well you get along when you disagree. And you do disagree,” says Roach, who reports he “gets into it” with Amato. (He’s not alone: “Even with Steven,” jokes Amato about arguing with Soderbergh.)

Roach recalls working on “All the Way,” the adaptation of the Tony-winning play about Lyndon B. Johnson starring Bryan Cranston. He’d discovered a “treasure trove” of black-and-white photographs taken by the White House photographer, as well as black-and-white footage from the 1964 convention. So he wanted to shoot the project in black-and-white, and made his case to the execs with an extensive multimedia presentation. “But they pointed out that it just was going to push the audience back,” Roach says. “And we were already risking that in doing a political story.”

“I’ll always wonder about it,” he says reflectively. “But I ended up figuring out a way to shoot in color but have the color be desaturated enough and consistent enough with the feel of the black-and-white footage. It probably worked better, but it was just nice to feel like you got to make your case.”

Levinson, too, has had his disagreements with Amato. “I think it makes for a healthy dialogue,” Levinson says. “But it’s not bound by the conventional language you might hear: ‘Are we going to care about this person?’ ‘Is this too extreme?’ ‘Are we going to like this person?’ It’s all about how are we going to tell this story as best we can.”

Roach says he’d like to broaden outside political dramas — he’s had several projects in development that simply got scooped, like a concussion film that was beaten to the screen by the Will Smith movie. But he has a few more in mind: “I’ve been working on a couple of ideas about film musicals,” he reveals.

That’s the passion that ultimately earns any project a greenlight at HBO.

“There’s still a certain amount of human gut reaction to material,” says Amato. “Analytics come into play with everything, but how connected the filmmakers are to the material is really important. People respond to that here. Because if they don’t care, if it’s just a gig, then that’s probably less likely to turn somebody on. But if people really care, here that’s meaningful.”

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