HBO breaks with tradition

Great packaging still secures filmmaker deals

If HBO is known as the belle of the docu ball, prexy Sheila Nevins is the undisputed queen of the castle, a tastemaker who comes to fests like Sundance not to ogle, not to acquire, but to inspire envy.

“We rarely buy during the festival. We come here to win. We come here to be admired,” Nevins admitted.

But at this year’s fest, HBO broke with tradition and bought “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired,” Marina Zenovich’s documentary about helmer Roman Polanski. Fifteen minutes into the doc, Nevins informed a colleague they had to have it. HBO nabbed all domestic rights for about $1 million, and the Weinstein Co. grabbed international rights for about $600,000.

Still, the Polanski doc had major buzz and several additional theatrical buyers were circling, so why the swift sale to HBO? While Zenovich may have preferred a theatrical release, the answer had to do not only with the need to repay her investors but also with HBO’s deluxe filmmaker-friendly packaging: marketing and delivery support; a one-week Oscar-qualifying run, complete with premiere party plus a potential wider theatrical release; and DVD distribution. None of the theatrical distribution bids, which included various combinations of Netflix, A&E and the History Channel, came close, according to Zenovich’s sales agent, Josh Braun of Submarine.

“They want to make it an event — more people will likely see the film on HBO than in a theater,” Braun said. “They were very aggressive with how much money they put on the table, and it felt like the right fit.”

The tipping point for docs came with the unexpected popularity of Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” in 2004, followed by “March of the Penguins” and last year’s Oscar-winner “An Inconvenient Truth.” Inevitably, these hits inspired a glut of docs, some well received but many forgotten.

HBO’s other fest “acquisition” was Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and Elvis Mitchell’s “The Blacklist,” a project the cabler had been developing since its early stages.

HBO’s high profile and deep pockets allow Nevins to put her money where her mouth is and finance a doc like Lisa Jackson’s “The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo” that so far has garnered little press.

“I don’t know if we’ll win anything, but it won’t be one of the major stories,” Nevins said. But no matter. The doc “makes me feel like I was touched by something,” she said.

Jackson, a freelance producer who has worked for HBO since 1974, shot, edited, wrote, directed and produced this searing look at Congolese women who survived gang rape and mutilation only to find themselves bearing the shame of their family’s rejection. To make the story more accessible to American auds, Jackson, as the film’s narrator, is a figure in the film and tells the story of her own gang rape by muggers two decades ago. Now, Nevins and her staff at HBO will address the challenge of how to spread the word.

“Nobody came to Lisa’s screening; it wasn’t even full,” Nevins said. “But of those who did, there was a lot of sniffling.”

The doc will air April 8 on HBO and then take the film festival route. For Jackson, aligning with HBO was a no-brainer.

“They have over 35 million subscribers — that’s a bully pulpit,” she said. “The film could show at Film Forum for two weeks and sell out every show and 12,000 people would see it. With HBO, millions will see it.” Counting Cinemax subscribers, HBO has 40 million subs.

For Nevins, no matter how good the word on the street is about a doc or a filmmaker, she is unequivocal in the certainty of her taste and about HBO’s top-dog status: “I don’t chase buzz; buzz has to chase me. Buzz often explodes in your face. You can create buzz with a good poster.”

Nevins plays it cool because HBO has long reigned at the top of the heap.

“Three things mean a lot to people: getting nominated for an Academy Award, getting into Sundance and getting on HBO,” Nevins said.

But for all of HBO’s bluster and confidence, there’s change in the air. The company did not land a contender in the feature doc race in this season’s Oscar derby.

Magnolia’s 2007 Sundance docu pickup, the Oscar-nominated “No End in Sight,” was the second highest-grossing documentary behind the Weinstein Co. and Lionsgate’s “Sicko” last year.

Factor in the infusion of cash from Netco stars like Ted Leonsis (at the fest with his soccer doc “Kicking It”), Jeff Skoll’s Participant Films and hedge fund money, and HBO is no longer the only game in town for docu production and distribution.

“There’s so much independent money that Sheila’s power has been diluted,” said one producer who has worked with Nevins and asked to remain anonymous. “Before, if Sheila passed, it was hard to find money. But there are distributors like Miramax and Picturehouse and Think(Film) that have cut into her market. It’s a new day for Sheila, and it’s better for the business that she’s lost her stranglehold.”

Others see the overall doc landscape expanding, thanks in no small part to HBO’s efforts.

“I don’t see us as competitors with HBO,” said ThinkFilm prexy Mark Urman, whose company has two Oscar doc nominees in “Taxi to the Dark Side” and “War/Dance.”

“They’ve done more for nonfiction then just about anybody, and I’ve worked with them a number of times. There isn’t a filmmaker of any import in the nonfiction world who Sheila hasn’t worked with. They really are the birth of documentary civilization as we know it. HBO brought sizzle to nonfiction.”

Nevins left Sundance on Tuesday noting that she hoped the slower pace of acquisitions this year was a harbinger of the fest returning to its roots and shifting away from the marketplace it had recently become. Sundance is one of the few places docs have parity with fiction, Nevins said.

“Nonfiction is always treated as a stepchild,” she said, “but not at Sundance.”