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‘The Tale’ and HBO: A Sundance Paradigm Shift?

The buzziest movie of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival will not be coming to a theater near you. But does that even matter anymore?

Every major deal that comes out of the Sundance Film Festival symbolizes something.

Sometimes it symbolizes perfectly tuned populist instinct (“Little Miss Sunshine” to Fox Searchlight for $10.5 million, “Manchester by the Sea” to Amazon Studios for $10 million). Sometimes it symbolizes a myopic collapse in judgment (“Happy, Texas” to Miramax for $10 million, “Son of Rambow” to Paramount Vantage for $7 million), sometimes it symbolizes an exquisite fusion of taste and savvy (“The Kids Are All Right” to Focus Features for $4.8 million, “The Blair Witch Project” to Artisan for $1 million), and sometimes it symbolizes a good hunch undercut by bad karma (“The Birth of a Nation” to Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million). But the one thing that every big Sundance deal — good or bad, wise or foolish — symbolizes is possibility. The hope that a movie will find a major audience.

The deal-making at Sundance this year occurred at a notably, if not historically, low ebb (at least, compared to anything in the last decade). That said, plenty of films were picked up for distribution, and others remain in the mix, negotiated over as we speak. The chosen ones include many of the festival’s more well-regarded titles, like “Colette” and “RBG” and “Assassination Nation” (the year’s one token $10 million deal). Yet even those films didn’t generate the level of electric chatter that one could truly call “buzz.”

Buzz is a tricky thing to define, but you know it when you hear it. This year, the buzz at Sundance crackled and swirled around a movie whose title came up more than any other when you asked the proverbial festival question, “What have you seen that you liked?” The film was mentioned early and often, and it never faded from the conversation. For some, it was the film of the festival, and it was unquestionably something you had to see.

That movie was “The Tale,” Jennifer Fox’s heady, ripped-from-the-splintered-soul autobiographical drama of child sexual abuse, starring Laura Dern (in a highly lauded performance) as a 48-year-old survivor coming to grips with what happened to her. It’s a movie that divided viewers: Some found it heroic and haunting, some (like me) found it darkly intriguing but scattershot. Yet “The Tale” is a movie that’s very much connected to its moment. It’s not just about an experience, it’s about the recollection of that experience — about memory, and testimony, and the moral urgency of being believed. That’s why it’s called “The Tale.” It came as no surprise when it landed one of the bigger deals of the festival, snagged for an undisclosed sum that’s reported to be in the high seven figures (in other words, somewhere between $5 and $10 million).

The surprise is that it was bought by HBO, with everything that implies. That’s right: “The Tale,” despite all that buzz, will not be coming to a theater near you. Ever. It will premiere on cable television, and then be available on VOD and streaming services. A fact you might respond to by saying, “And this amounts to a hill of beans because…?”

I think the purchase of “The Tale” by HBO matters because it symbolizes something: the transmogrification of movies into a home-viewing experience. That, of course, has been building for a long time, and let’s be clear: Numerous films at Sundance, over the years, have gone straight to television channels. It happens with documentaries all the time — and, in fact, HBO, which makes superb documentaries, many of which are chosen to play at Sundance (like this year’s “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind” and “King in the Wilderness”), has grown used to treating the festival as a kind of lofty preview space.

Yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that HBO’s purchase of “The Tale” is riding the wave of a new paradigm. Call it the Netflix-ization of movie culture. The film probably has a chance to reach a lot more eyeballs on HBO than it might have at a handful of independent theaters or on the shoebox 12th screen of a megaplex (if, indeed, it ever made it that far). Yet to attain this goal, Fox and her producers are giving up the ghost of theatrical. They’re saying, bottom line: It just doesn’t matter all that much. And that is new. That’s different. That’s a game-changing play.

There’s a case to be made that “The Tale” actually belongs on the small screen. It’s an intimate drama with one shocking element: Fox presents her main character, as a girl in the ’70s, in bed with the local track coach, who believes he’s “seducing” her — and the actress who plays her in these scenes is 11 years old. It was a courageous choice to portray this kind of crime with such disquieting authenticity. Yet it lends the movie a squirmy and disturbing quality that people tend to shy away from in movie theaters (and may feel more comfortable confronting at home). Beyond that, “The Tale,” aside from these edgy and upsetting scenes (which take up perhaps five minutes of the film), felt to me like a sketchy postmodern Lifetime movie. Would it have been a breakout indie sensation? My guess is probably not. But now we’ll never know.

The larger question, of course, is does it matter? Movies and television have become twin mediums flowing into each other like a river going in two directions. A lot of observers — and the film’s creators — might say: Who cares how people see “The Tale,” as long as they see it? Yet that very attitude conveys something of the moment — a rote acceptance of the fading of the mythological power of movies. “The Tale” was the most talked-about film at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, and it was talked about because it was experienced as a piece of cinema. It sprung to life in the dark and became, over the course of one week, an event. It may get more eyeballs on HBO, but will it be an event there, or will it fade into the 24/7 wallpaper of programming? If so, it will be a small but telling reminder of why the act of going to see a movie in a theater still matters. If “The Tale,” on the other hand, does find a buzz-worthy moment on HBO, it will be a significant spur to other filmmakers, notably those at Sundance, to start looking at the small screen as a bigger home than they thought.

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