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HBO leads the herd with 'Elephant,' 'Splendor'

See lineupCablers are making big strides in the indie arena, having produced or helped finance some of the past season’s film fest faves and, in some cases, B.O. hits.

Leading the charge is HBO, which backed Cannes winner “Elephant” and Sundance champs “American Splendor” and “Capturing the Friedmans.” Already a force with its HBO Films and HBO Documentary production shingles, channel recently launched a theatrical distribution wing with Fine Line Features.

Showtime also has upped its cachet, producing pics with filmmakers including Nancy Savoca and Ernest Dickerson as part of its initiative to finance an annual handful of low-budget projects. Cabler also wrested some Park City screen time, unspooling pics including Salma Hayek’s “The Maldonado Miracle.”

And while PBS continues to churn out quality docs from around the world, niche nets — Independent Film Channel and Sundance Channel, specifically — have stepped up their mandates to supporting independent cinema.

IFC has widened its original programming reach beyond films about indies to passion projects from filmmakers. Among upcoming fare is John Landis docu “Slasher,” about the world of used-car sales.

The Sundance Film Series will move the channel into theatrical distribution, starting with films such as sudsy sendup “Die Mommie Die” and Spanish pic “The Other Side of theBed,” in partnership with the Loews Cineplex chain.

Inching their way into the independent circuit are cable nets A&E and Bravo: Both increasingly have dipped into the indie pool for programming needs. A&E co-financed “The Nazi Officer’s Wife,” based on the memoir by Edith Hahn Beer and Susan Dworkin, and Bravo continues to air indie classics from John Sayles and Christopher Guest.

SUNDANCE CHANNEL

COMPANY LINE: Gotham-based net is a venture between Robert Redford, Showtime and Universal Studios. Channel airs indie cinema uncut without commercials. Channel also acquires films for its home video line, most recently picking up the features “Searching for Paradise” and “Swimming.”

EXECS: Paola Freccero, senior VP of programming; Christian Vesper, VP, acquisitions

MISSION: “Plain and simple, we’re the conduit between great independent films and hungry, curious and smart viewers,” Frecerro says.

BUDGET: Roughly half of the channel’s annual $10 million programming BUDGET is used for acquisitions. For 90% of TV rights, net pays “under $100,000 — we are the low-paying network,” Freccero says.

PRODUCT: Specifically seeking American, foreign lingo, docus, animation and shorts (roughly 150 shorts annually).

OUTPUT DEALS: none

RECENT PICKUPS: “Even Hand” and “Trembling Before G-d”;

IFC

COMPANY LINE: Launched in 1994, IFC is the first and largest network dedicated solely to independent films.

EXECS: Ed Carrol, exec VP-GM; George Lentz, VP of acquisitions; Allison Bourke, director of original programming; Debbie DeMontreux, director of PRODUCTion development

MISSION: “In the past, our focus had been more narrow. We were looking for projects specifically about independent film and independent filmmakers. Now we’re casting a wider net — we want passion projects from people within the indie scene, or original docs and series that bring people into their world.” Channel also broadcasts the Cannes Film Festival awards ceremony and IFP’s Independent Spirit Awards.

BUDGETS: Mid- to high-seven-figures for library acquisitions. IFC also finances original PRODUCTions.

OUTPUT DEALS: Miramax, UA, New Line, Lions Gate, Fox Searchlight, IFC Films and Sony Classics

RECENT PICKUPS: “Max,” “Lantana,” “Magnolia,” and “American History X”

PBS

COMPANY LINE: Almost everything that airs on the pubcaster is an indie film. Net comMISSIONs or acquires virtually all of its programming.

EXEC: Jacoba “Coby” Atlas, senior VP-co-chief of programming

MISSION: Through its Icon, Independent Lens and American Masters series, PBS offers a variety of documentaries on topics ranging from the hunt for a missing time capsule in the town of Livermore, Calif. to Gore Vidal.

PRODUCT: Mostly documentaries — “We aren’t the best outlet to bring fiction to,” Atlas says.

OUTPUT DEALS: PBS affiliate companies and the Independent Television Service

RECENT PICKUPS: “Daughter from Danang,” “What I Want My Words to Do to You,” and “The Weather Underground.”

BUDGETS: $20,000 to $200,000 for both comMISSIONed and acquired films

SHOWTIME

COMPANY LINE: Viacom-owned pay cabler has become a major buyer of specialty indie films, bringing five of its acquisitions (Ernest Dickerson’s “Good Fences,” and Frank Pierson’s “A Soldier’s Girl” among them) to this year’s Sundance. Net, which operates and manages the Sundance Channel, has also mandated a stepped-up producing role, with past titles including “Gods and Monsters” and “The House of Mirth.”

EXEC: Matthew Duda, exec VP, program acquisitions

MISSION: Under its new Independent Feature Initiative, Showtime is aggressively making strides in the producing arena. Net looks to work with established specialty producers and directors to fully finance and produce six to eight low BUDGET films for theatrical premiere. Recent PRODUCTion credits include upcoming hip hop musical “Just Another Story,” Jace Alexander’s “Carry Me Home” and Nancy Savoca’s “Dirt.”

BUDGETS: “low- to mid-six-figures” per acquired film

PRODUCT: “Our appetite is pretty much across the board because of the numerous channels we’re acquiring for. We’re just not looking to buy things for really small children. We’re looking for the ‘no limits’ profile. Something with some bite that you couldn’t find on broadcast,” Duda says.

OUTPUT DEALS: For broadcast: specialty shingles including Stratosphere, Artisan and Polygram Filmed Entertainment; for post-Showtime theatrical release: Phoenix Pictures, varies by producer

RECENT PICKUPS: “The Boys of 2nd Street Park”; docu “James Ellroy’s Feast of Death”

HBO

COMPANY LINE: Premium multichannel cabler owned by AOL Time Warner. Also develops and finances original pics via film and documentary units. Pic division recently made a deal to distribute titles theatrically via Fine Line.

EXECS: Steve Scheffer, president, film programming, video and enterprises; Colin Callender, prexy, HBO Films; Sheila Nevins, exec VP, original programming, doc and family programming

MISSION: Beyond Emmy-winning original series, HBO has gotten into business with filmmakers such Mike Nichols and Gus Van Sant. Specialty pics “Real Women Have Curves,” “Elephant” and “American Splendor” have made fest rounds, winning kudos and moving on to theaters.

BUDGETS: License fees and BUDGETs not disclosed; industry sources say HBO comMISSIONed films can range from low-BUDGET to about $20 million

PRODUCT: Filmmaker-driven projects, specialty pics with emphasis on personal journeys and provocative docs

OUTPUT DEALS: 20th Century Fox, Sony, Dreamworks, Regency Entertainment, Lions Gate, Universal (50% of output), Warner Bros.

RECENT PICKUPS: docs “Born Rich,” “Spellbound”