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Rocky Mountain High Life

It's lifts, laughs, libation at HBO's comedy fest, with a bit of dealmaking on the side

During HBO’s U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colo., Chris Albrecht skis double black diamond trails by day and revels in cutting-edge comedy at night.

Pleasure, laughter and skiing are Albrecht’s priorities at the USCAF, and not particularly in that order. Any talk of the biz comes second.

“Chris is not out to shop,” says Carmi Zlotnik, an exec VP at HBO, debunking the showbiz myth that the cabler enforces first-look deals on its festival acts.

It’s no coincidence that Albrecht’s laid-back, laissez faire attitude resonates throughout the event, indirectly encouraging industryites to cavort as opposed to contract.

Even though there’s a festival team of 145 in charge of putting out fires at the five-day event, Albrecht’s influence is felt.

“Chris will give us an overall direction for the festival months in advance,” says USCAF film program director Kevin Haasarud, “however, Chris emphasizes aesthetically that the direction of the fest rests in the hands of the creative group that’s responsible.”

“Chris and HBO treat the USCAF like the people who create their shows: with complete artistic freedom,” says Craig Minassian, who has handled marketing for the event and now shares the title of director.

Broad guidelines that Albrecht has laid out for fest toppers Stu Smiley, Brian Murphy, Pat Tourk Lee and Jon Moffitt include “program events no one can see anywhere else” and “display comedy with a point of view.”

From the onset, Albrecht didn’t want to produce another Just for Laughs Festival, the Montreal event that caters to a broad consumer base. He wanted one that was industry intensive and focused on championing emerging talent.

Going into the festival’s eighth year, Albrecht impressed upon the programmers to reinvent the whole event and change whatever was possible, from the number of celeb honorees to the fest’s logo. What emerged was a post-9/11 theme devoted to freedom of speech. Events included panelists with combative celebs like Oliver Stone and “South Park” creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker. Tributes also were held for comedians who challenge the status quo, such as Lily Tomlin, Bill Maher and Garry Trudeau.

“It became evident by the end of the eighth year, that the festival had a message. This became our mandate going forward,” says Smiley.

USCAF insiders have often suggested a market portion to the festival; however, Albrecht has opted for a less formal approach, more in line with the event’s casual, if deceptively lavish, sense of celebration. A recent set of Albrecht’s postmortem comments specified that there was no need to wine and dine network execs: If the product is unique enough, they’ll come no matter what.

More than a market, Albrecht sees the USCAF as a corporate symbol of pride for HBO. “Comedy is a very specific aspect of the entertainment business,” he says. “The fest doesn’t provide any business benefit to HBO — we don’t make more money from it. In fact, it costs us money. But just the fact that HBO stands for something in the entertainment community, for us to do that is a very rewarding, valuable and enjoyable event.”

Industryites peg the cost of the fest at somewhere between $2 million and $4 million. Every year, HBO and AOL Time Warner review whether they’ll throw another USCAF in Aspen. However, for the past 10 years corporate pride has been winning out and dealmaking falling somewhere between a gentleman’s agreement and a faux pas.

As such, talent reps aren’t bending over backwards to get ski dates with Albrecht so they can chat him up about their must-see clients. Simply put, he is far too high up on the food chain when it comes to pitching.

“Very little direct business is done up in Aspen,” says Bernie Brillstein. “It’s not NATPE. If business happens, then it happens casually. There are no rules up there.”

If there’s a place for Albrecht to talk shop it’s on the chair lift, but that’s usually reserved for the likes of AOL Time Warner chairman Jeff Bewkes. According to Bewkes, their chatter never gets so intense that the duo actually conceives a Sunday night programming grid. Rather it’s an assessment of how the pay cabler is faring among the competition, if not in the media.

“One time Chris and I were discussing how we read in various magazines that our competitors thought we cooked up some secret strategy to produce less episodes for our series,” recalled Bewkes. “The reality was that we had instructed our crop of talented producers to make as many as they could.”

Yet, when you get off the chair lift with Albrecht, you may decide you want to get back on.

An aggressive skier since the early ’90s, Albrecht has a reputation for taking Bewkes and others down double black diamond trails like Gentlemen’s Ridge, a treacherous patch on the back of Belle Mountain.

“I think he pushed me,” quips Bewkes about the experience, “we headed down and soared off the cliff. Pretty much like everything we’ve done at HBO. We just jumped off.”