HBO – not just TV anymore
NEW YORK (AP) – The people at HBO Films have a rooting interest at the Cannes Film Festival this week. A film they bankrolled, Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, is among the 20 competing for the prestigious Palme d’Or.
The story based on Kurt Cobain’s descent toward suicide will be in movie theatres this summer and probably won’t be seen on America’s channel HBO for at least a year.
Making movies for theatres would seem counterintuitive for a premium cable channel, but it’s a strategy that HBO Films is following on select titles to burnish its reputation and direct attention to projects that may otherwise be overlooked.
HBO and New Line Cinema announced in March that they had formed a new company to distribute films theatrically, acquiring the Newmarket Films distribution system.
“I hope it’s a way of saying to filmmakers that there are a multitude of ways you can work with HBO,” said Colin Callender, president of HBO Films. “It is sort of one-stop shopping. This furthers the notion that we’re not constrained by traditional forms.”
The risk for HBO lies in alienating subscribers who pay a monthly premium for the service and expect original films as part of the deal. Callender said the majority of HBO films will still premiere on the cable channel.
HBO first tried this approach in 2002 with Real Women Have Curves, a movie about a Mexican-American woman’s struggle to get a college education in spite of her traditionalist family’s desire she get a husband instead. It was made with an unknown cast and likely to get lost in a year HBO had a full slate of films coming out.
To get some attention, HBO took the movie to the Sundance Film Festival. It won two audience awards, and Callender was approached by people who wanted to release it theatrically.
At first he balked. Then, after thinking it over, he decided to give it a try. He saw a marketing opportunity with a shortage of films for adults in the theatres.
It was a success in the indie film world, grossing $6 million US after costing less than $4 million to make. Real Women Have Curves took the traditional route out of the theatres, appearing first on DVD and pay-per-view before finally debuting on HBO more than a year after movie fans could buy a ticket to see it.
When it finally came on HBO, it had a track record of success and drew more interest from subscribers than it would have if it had appeared new on television, he said.
And it had already made the company a profit.
HBO Films has since gone to theatres first with American Splendor, starring Paul Giamatti in the role of comic book writer Harvey Pekar; Van Sant’s Elephant; and Maria Full of Grace, which earned Catalina Sandino Moreno a best actress Oscar nomination for her portrayal of a heroin smuggler.
In terms of reputation, most HBO films are worthy of being played in a theatre, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations, a firm that tracks Hollywood box-office results.
For the general public, a theatrical release gives a movie “an aura of prestige,” he said.
“I think a lot of people will be looking at this to see if it works,” Dergarabedian said. “For small movies, it’s a way to get the movies seen by a lot of people.”
The most obvious candidates for a theatrical release are indie-type films likely to succeed through critical acclaim and word-of-mouth. Big concept, or star vehicles, are more suited to cable – where Empire Falls, packed with names like Ed Harris, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Helen Hunt and Paul Newman, will debut May 28.
Generally, HBO premieres about six to eight original movies a year. One or two go first to theatres, although that may be stepped up next year.
“We were and continue to be very conscious of our obligation to and unwritten contract with subscribers that we would provide them with exclusive and original movies,” Callender said. “We had always resisted going out theatrically because it seemed at odds with that promise.”
To use a business term in vogue, HBO is looking for ways to extend the brand. It makes a big difference that, particularly after the Newmarket deal, the company knows the movies will be released under the HBO Films banner.
It has tried other ways to give its movies more attention and circulation. Earlier this year, HBO agreed to let PBS air three of its current events-oriented movies, including Dirty War, a month after they appeared on the premium service. Rerun rights to the miniseries about the 1980s AIDS crisis, Angels in America, were sold to Logo, the gay and lesbian-oriented network that is to debut next month.
Someday HBO might try debuting a film on the network on a Sunday, for instance, and put it into theatres the following Friday, he said.
If HBO is lucky, Callender will face more dilemmas similar to the one he had this winter.
He was in a Los Angeles area movie theatre, where a chiefly black test audience was watching Lackawanna Blues. The Halle Berry-produced film about a Pennsylvania rooming house during the final days of segregation was to debut on HBO a few weeks later.
The test scores were among the highest he had ever seen. Callender panicked. Did he make a mistake scheduling it for HBO? Should it be in theatres?
He took over running a focus group discussion that he had planned to watch from behind a screen.
Participants advocated both viewpoints.
“In the end we went ahead with doing it on HBO,” he said, “because we had done all the groundwork and to take it off would, in some sense, break that promise with viewers.”
HBO – not just TV anymore