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HBO Emerges as a Mecca for Maverick Filmmakers

September 19, 2004|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

Independent filmmakers have complained for years that Hollywood's specialized film companies have grown from artistic gamblers into cautious corporations, as former art-house heroes like Miramax Films turn to $100-million epics and splashy star vehicles.

But there's new hope for maverick movies, and, in an odd twist, it's coming not from some new studio or well-heeled cineaste but from TV. Or, in the parlance of its marketing slogan, it's not TV, it's HBO.

Much of HBO's reach into moviemaking will be on display tonight at the 56th annual Emmy Awards, at which the cable television network is nominated for a record 124 awards.

Although HBO has been the dominant player at the Emmys for several years (it won a leading 18 awards at the 2003 ceremony), the influence of its tiny HBO Films unit has been largely invisible outside the entertainment industry. Yet HBO Films, thanks largely to its adaptation of "Angels in America," is responsible for no fewer than 44 of HBO's total Emmy nominations, more than ABC and as many as CBS.

"HBO Films has been the best thing that's happened to independent film in the last 10 years," said longtime independent film producer Ted Hope, who made "American Splendor" for HBO Films.

The HBO Films path isn't perfect. It makes only a handful of movies a year, and even though HBO spent more than $60 million making "Angels in America," production budgets on other works can be austere.

Agents complain that there is no clear HBO Films storytelling viewpoint and that for every hiring of a daring filmmaker such as Mary Harron ("American Psycho") or Mira Nair ("Monsoon Wedding"), HBO brings on an equal number of judicious veterans such as Fred Schepisi ("Mr. Baseball") and Joseph Sargent ("Jaws: The Revenge").

But just as HBO lured top writers and directors into its television series fold ("Six Feet Under," for example, was created by Oscar-winning "American Beauty" screenwriter Alan Ball), HBO Films is attracting another wave of filmmaking talent that a few years ago wouldn't contemplate working for a cable TV channel.

As soon as actor-producer Paul Newman purchased movie rights to Richard Russo's novel "Empire Falls," he took the project not to Universal, Disney or Paramount, but to HBO Films.

Independent producer Christine Vachon similarly bypassed her usual stamping grounds of Miramax, Fox Searchlight and Lions Gate and is making "The Ballad of Bettie Page" for the cable network. "Good Will Hunting" director Gus Van Sant has made his last two movies with HBO Films.

Although many HBO Films productions debut on television and never reach movie theaters, an increasing number now premiere at the multiplex. In the last two years, HBO Films' "Real Women Have Curves," "American Splendor" and "Maria Full of Grace" emerged as popular art-house releases, each grossing more than $5 million, a good return on modestly budgeted productions.

Movies made by HBO Films are not guaranteed theatrical releases. Those films that do make it into theaters can take ages to reach the 27.5 million TV subscribers who underwrite their costs while they suffer through endless reruns of Steven Seagal movies. Filmed in 2002, "American Splendor" debuted on HBO only this weekend, and the network has yet to schedule its own debut of "Elephant," which began showing at film festivals more than a year ago and is already available on DVD.

The occasional HBO Films production -- Billy Crystal's "61*" or "Gia," with Angelina Jolie -- might not be reviewed much better than network movies of the week.

All the same, creative talent no longer views making movies for a cable channel as slumming, especially considering that the network's reach and DVDs can potentially deliver a larger audience than a limited theatrical release.

"For filmmakers, HBO is no longer a compromise but an attractive, sexy place to go with your script," said Joshua Marston, who wrote and directed "Maria Full of Grace."

HBO Films' ascent comes just as some established benefactors of quality films are retrenching or changing their programming philosophies.

Long the standard-bearer for risky cinema, Miramax is laying off scores of employees, recently was barred by parent Walt Disney Co. from releasing Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," and may soon lose its co-founder, Harvey Weinstein. Fine Line Features, which distributed the Oscar-winning "Shine," has been folded into parent New Line Cinema.

Although top specialized studios such as Fox Searchlight ("28 Days Later") and Focus Features ("Far From Heaven") continue to finance distinguished titles, the trend at other companies is to concentrate on genre subjects, such as "Resident Evil: Apocalypse" (Screen Gems), or pricier, star-laden dramas, such as Leonardo DiCaprio's "The Aviator" (Miramax).

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