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Bigscreen ambitions

HBO Films takes edgy into theatrical terrain

Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff according to Harvey Pekar, creator of the comicbook “American Splendor,” which spawned a bigscreen adaptation.

An exploration of the life and work of Pekar, a grumpy, eccentric ex-Cleveland file clerk who became the hero of his own comicbooks, “Splendor” — which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance — reflects HBO Films’ dedication to provocative, character-driven fare often inspired by real-life events.

Add in such inhouse productions as “Real Women Have Curves,” a realistic exploration of modern Latinas that saw its first domestic theatrical release through Newmarket; “Live From Baghdad,” which portrayed the heady trials and tribulations of CNN journalists during the launch of the first Gulf War; and “Hysterical Blindness,” Mira Nair’s often brutal account of two Jersey girls looking for love in all the wrong places, and the company’s mantra as a creative risk-taker unhindered by commercial considerations is paying off with the critics and auds.

“Splendor,” recently released through Fine Line, is the latest feature from HBO Films to go theatrical — a new trend for the cabler, which has just launched a theatrical distribution division in the U.S.

Distrib shingle will kick off later this year with Gus Van Sant’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner “Elephant.”

“Our day job remains to provide our subscribers with high-quality, entertaining and interesting movies,” says Colin Callender, who took the helm in October 1999 and, along with exec Maud Nadler, has carved out a niche for HBO as an aggressive player in the indie film sector.

The dynamic is very much supported by the long-standing executive ranks the company has built under HBO chair-chief exec Chris Albrecht.

In the loop

Callender says Albrecht, with whom he has worked for the past 15 years in various capacities, is involved in all the major creative decisions. “One of his great skills as an executive is his trust in those who work for him.

“He is good at giving creative space and in turn we are able to give filmmakers that space because we are not being second-guessed and are not second-guessing them. That is pretty central to the process.”

Callender and Nadler oversee the theatrical offerings as well as the cabler’s original pics (see chart). From its investment in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” to John Frankenheimer’s “Path to War” and the Emmy-winning Winston Churchill story “The Gathering Storm,” and upcoming movies from directors Stephen Hopkins (“The Life and Death of Peter Sellers”) and Katja von Garnier (“Iron Jawed Angels”), the shingle has forged a unique identity with work driven by high-profile writers and filmmakers who have had trouble lining up financing due to shifts in the domestic indie marketplace.

“Our goal is still to make quality movies that increasingly you cannot find in other venues,” says Callender. “But because the marketplace has changed so much in other areas, increasingly there are a number of filmmakers who want to work with us because they can’t find a way to make their movies elsewhere.”

At the same time, shingle has upped its budgets — anywhere from $3 million-$4 million to $24 million a movie (“And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself”) — rivaling the theatrical specialty labels, and has expanded its brand name to explore models of financing, production and distribution.

At Cannes this year, HBO officially unveiled its London-based theatrical sales arm, headed by joint managing directors Rosa Bosch and Penny Wolf, to handle worldwide sales in all media on the company’s productions.

Brand identity

With its first domestic release, “Curves,” which won special jury and audience awards at Sundance, it became clear to HBO execs that a moviegoing audience was aware of the cabler’s brand.

“Specifically we were becoming aware that the HBO brand was gaining recognition domestically and internationally and that the movies we were making were every bit as good as those released by the major theatrical distributors,” says Callender. “So it was time to go out to the marketplace and position our movies directly with distributors and build a market for our product.”

As a result, the cabler has crafted a unique distribution arrangement with AOL Time Warner sister company Fine Line Features to release selected titles theatrically in a modest and limited way.

The HBO/Fine Line relationship critically allows HBO to decide which movies to release, does not dilute its brand and its promise of exclusive programming to subscribers and does not simply sell off rights to a third-party distrib.

Its first release under the HBO Films Domestic Theatrical Releasing banner, headed by ex-United Artists marketing veepee Dennis O’Connor, will be “Elephant,” a drama about a Columbine-type high school mass murder. (“Splendor” predates the HBO/Fine Line deal.)

Weighing the options

In terms of which movies will be theatrical, Callender says event pics like Mike Nichols’ six-hour epic “Angels in America,” the division’s most expensive movie, with a $60 million pricetag, and Bruce Beresford’s “And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself,” with Antonio Banderas, will continue to premiere on cable, whereas more idiosyncratic, writer/director-driven festival pictures ala “Elephant” whose profile can benefit from theatrical exposure will go out through Fine Line.

The distribution division expects to release between two to five pictures a year, says Callender, with HBO remaining committed to producing between eight to 10 movies a year.

Time will tell if HBO’s foray into the theatrical distribution business is a wise one, and if HBO can continue its winning streak.

But whatever happens, Callender says the division will always remain true to its creative roots. “Because of the nature of being a pay service and getting money through subscriptions we are able to continue to take creative risks. And whatever we do to expand our theatrical work we want to stay true to that risk-taking mandate.”