Pardon the name-dropping, but the best way for me to make the point that Home Box Office is finally becoming the delivery system for quality independent films that it should have been five years ago is by describing a couple of scenes with Paul Newman. The setting was in Brainerd, Minn., 2 1/2 years ago.
Scene 1: A motor home parked in the infield of Brainerd International Raceway. It is between practice runs for Newman's Trans-Am race and he is using the time to read one of several movie scripts he has brought along.
Newman has been bemoaning the general lack of good scripts being offered to him. He is nearly finished with the one sitting in his lap. Its title: "Baja Oklahoma."
"That's from Dan Jenkins' book," I say. "Is it any good?"
"Yeah, it's pretty funny," Newman says, adding that George Roy Hill (who directed him and Robert Redford in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "The Sting") wanted to do it. "But it's got a lot of drug humor in it and I wouldn't touch that."
Scene 2: A plush condominium on a lake a few miles away. Same day.
It is late in the evening and the three men sharing the condo with Newman are sitting in the dining room talking. Newman, who had gone to his room earlier, emerges for a moment. He stands there in his underwear, his reading glasses resting on the tip of his nose, holding a script.
"Well, I think I may have found one," he says, holding up the script. "I've read 40 pages and there are no mistakes so far."
"What is it?," I ask, as he turns to go back to his room.
" 'The Color of Money,' " he says, closing the door behind him.
A lot of money, careers, jobs and movie history were affected by Newman's reaction to those two scripts that day.
Of course, he made "The Color of Money" and won his only Academy Award for it. But his decision not to make "Baja Oklahoma" did much to seal that project's fate as well.
When Newman read "Baja Oklahoma," a comedy about a few love-worn middle-aged country folks along the Texas Panhandle, Shirley Maclaine had already agreed to play one of the two leads, and Hill wanted to direct it.
With Newman cast opposite Maclaine, in a George Roy Hill film, producer Marykay Powell likely would have found a major studio eager to take it on.
But Newman declined and Hill lost interest. Powell eventually signed Bobby Roth ("Heartbreakers") to direct "Baja." When Maclaine dropped out to concentrate on her better-living-through-crystals seminars, Powell replaced her with Lesley Ann Warren.
Peter Coyote got the role that would have gone to Newman and "Baja Oklahoma"--perhaps, all the better for these changes--airs Feb. 20 as an in-house production of HBO. If HBO gets requested waivers from the talent guilds, the movie may open a day earlier for a special one-week run at the Beverly Cineplex.
"This would not be a theatrical release," said Rick Bieber, senior vice president of HBO Pictures. "We're not trying to break new ground. To me, it's like an extended screening. We want to be able to give people in this town an opportunity to see the film on a large screen."
"Baja Oklahoma" is a dramatic departure from the productions HBO used to pass off as Premiere Films. During the first three years that HBO made or financed movies for original programming, we were given mostly bloated, underdeveloped would-be star vehicles.
Where were the small, independent-made films--films!--that the major studios were no longer making and which critics had, in rare bursts of optimism, predicted would show up on cable?
"When we first began, we were a new TV outlet, and by and large, the creative people who came to us were people who grew up in TV," Bieber says. "It took us a while to realize exactly what it was we needed to do and whom we needed to do it with."
Bieber says HBO's sensibilities now are "as feature film producers," and that the pay-TV giant is courting film makers who will "attempt to share our vision of being known as the makers of the best $4-million-to-$6-million-dollar movies anywhere."
That is a tall, and perhaps unachievable, order for HBO. Film makers will always prefer to have their movies released by a theatrical distributor. HBO films are released in theaters overseas and on videocassette at home, but without a wide theatrical release here, the potential for making big money is nonexistent.
Still, HBO is finally exploiting its opportunity to make mature, cost-efficient films that can surpass in quality the bulk of the major studios' mainstream releases.
HBO's audience is older, better educated and more sophisticated than the target audience for most major studio movies. Bieber says HBO films are aimed at people aged 30 and older, compared to the 18-to-24-year-olds who form the prime rib of the general moviegoing body.
"Baja Oklahoma" isn't an isolated example of the new, improved HBO film philosophy. There were other pictures on the service last year that were better bets than a trip to the Bijou.
Director Martin Davidson's "Long Gone," starring William L. Petersen and Virginia Madsen, was a delightful baseball comedy, many times better than Ray Stark's "The Slugger's Wife," a theatrical release a few years back.
Roger Spottiswoode's "The Last Innocent Man," a courtroom drama starring Ed Harris, was more compelling entertainment than Spottiswoode's own "Shoot to Kill," a Disney/Touchstone movie that opens today in theaters across the country.
And for the insights they offered into the horrors of apartheid in South Africa, HBO's "Mandela" was certainly a more sincere, less compromising attempt than Richard Attenborough's "Cry Freedom."
But HBO Pictures seems to have turned a corner. Whether its recent films have worked or not, they were at least distinguishable from made-for-TV movies.
Bieber and his staff should follow stars like Paul Newman around. Whatever they turn down is likely to turn out better than the material being fought over by the networks.