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O’Connor set at HBO films

Exec will head new group, with 'Elephant' as first release

This article was updated July 25, 2003 at 1:04 p.m.

Consolidating moves toward becoming a significant film player, HBO Films has officially announced its domestic theatrical distribution pact with Fine Line Features and appointed United Artists marketing VP Dennis O’Connor to head the division.

HBO has launched HBO Films Domestic Theatrical Releasing and releases will go out under an HBO Films banner, followed by the Fine Line logo. Deal exclusively covers HBO productions, with no plan currently to expand into acquisitions.

Agreement has been brewing since Cannes, where HBO and Fine Line first teamed as producer and distributor, respectively, of “American Splendor,” which screened in Un Certain Regard after taking the top prize at Sundance. Pic was acquired by Fine Line in advance of the new deal and will open domestically Aug. 15.

“We took our time doing this because we didn’t want to do just another distribution deal,” Callender said. “Over time there’s been lots of conversations about us doing our movies theatrically, and in the past, we said we wouldn’t do it. There never seemed any point in making movies and then having them become someone else’s.”

“The experience of the last two years has been really interesting,” he continued. “We’ve been on a real learning curve. With ‘Real Women Have Curves,’ it was clear that the moviegoing audience were aware of the HBO brand and what it stood for. So what we wanted to do was craft an arrangement in which we were a principal, not simply selling off our rights.”

The first release through the newly formed joint banner will be “Elephant,” Gus van Sant’s Palme d’Or-winning drama about a Columbine-type high school mass murder, scheduled for Oct. 24 release.

A fuller slate of releases is expected for 2004, though no other titles have been announced.

“HBO wanted to have a theatrical distribution mechanism, so we formed this partnership that enables them to have that,” Fine Line prexy Mark Ordesky told Daily Variety. “They are HBO films, but the Fine Line partnership gives HBO the means to release them.”

O’Connor will remain based in Los Angeles at HBO Films, reporting to division president Colin Callender. He will oversee domestic theatrical distribution and marketing of HBO titles released through Fine Line, serving as a liaison within HBO with the Fine Line marketing and distribution team led by Steven Friedlander and Marian Koltai-Levine.

“HBO films have pulled off the extraordinary feat of winning the top prizes in this year’s Sundance and Cannes — two of the world’s most prominent film festivals,” O’Connor said. “They produce the type of provocative, character-driven fare that has long been abandoned at the big studios.”

Until now, HBO has struck individual deals for theatrical release of its movies, beginning with “Real Women Have Curves,” which last year went out through Newmarket and grossed $6 million domestically.

The formal arrangement with Fine Line underscores HBO’s intention to feed a more sustained yet selective product stream through the theatrical channel.

Event pics cable-ready

Callender said event movies such as Mike Nichols’ upcoming “Angels in America” and Bruce Beresford’s “And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself,” with Antonio Banderas, will continue to premiere on cable.

However, more idiosyncratic, writer- or director-driven fest pictures whose profile can benefit from theatrical exposure will go out through Fine Line.

“We feel we can bring HBO’s unique marketing and promotional skills to help some of these movies, which rely on word of mouth, find an audience in the theatrical marketplace,” Callender added. “Our bigger budget event movies will of course continue to be a vital part of the programming mix available available exclusively to HBO subscribers.”

No set numbers have been established, but the pact is expected to yield two to five releases per year.

While titles will be chosen by Callender, Fine Line will have the option of approaching HBO to suggest candidates from its production slate for theatrical consideration.

Terms for P&A will vary from title to title, with HBO and Fine Line negotiating various levels of coverage depending on the release.

Deal represents a shot in the arm for Fine Line, which has moved away from acquisitions to focus on production. O’Connor has 15 years of industry experience in exhibition, marketing, distribution and acquisition of independent and foreign-language films.

Before joining UA in 2001 (he oversaw the campaigns for Oscar winners “No Man’s Land” and “Bowling for Columbine” there), O’Connor was VP of theatrical distribution for Universal’s then newly launched Focus division.

Previously, he headed the theatrical division of Trimark Pictures, bought films for arthouse chain Landmark Theaters and worked in marketing for the Samuel Goldwyn Co., among others.

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