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PARK CITY, Utah -- "The Laramie Project," the opening-night film at Sundance this year, was an HBO made-for-cable movie. So is "Hysterical Blindness," Mira Nair's new film starring Uma Thurman and Gena Rowlands.
"Our America," one of the hits of the dramatic competition, was made for Showtime. "Tadpole," a buzz champ starring Sigourney Weaver, flies the flag of the Independent Film Channel's InDig-Ent Films; Miramax has grabbed it for theatrical release. "Skins," an American Indian drama, was backed by Starz Encore.
This year cable channels have stepped forward to claim a significant share of the action at Sundance and in the independent film world. "Laramie" and Nair's film are two of 10 HBO films here, seven of them documentaries. "The studios these days are focusing on big-budget event movies, or concept comedies," says Colin Callender, head of HBO's moviemaking division. "The middle range is no longer the focus for them."
The trend has been building for years, as studios aim at megamillion-dollar special-effects movies and low-rent teenage sex comedies, and shy away from movies about recognizable people in plausible situations. If you are not a teenager, preferably a boy, you have to devote careful study to the openings at the multiplex to find a movie you might enjoy.
Some independent filmmakers work directly for cable. Others have their movies picked up for cable after they fail to find theatrical distribution. That doesn't mean they're weak movies; it means the mass-release multiplex pattern doesn't fit them.
Allison Anders' powerful "Things Behind the Sun" was a hit at Sundance last year. The story of a self-destructive rock musician who retraces her memories back to a childhood rape, it was sold to Showtime, where it found a big audience.
But, said HBO's Callender, consider "Hedwig And The Angry Inch," also a 2001 Sundance hit. It went out theatrically. "Hedwig" grossed about $8 million, he said. "That's about 350,000 people who saw it. On HBO, it would have reached 10 or 15 times that number."
Attracted by artistic freedom and big audiences, talent from Hollywood's A list is no longer reluctant to work on cable. Consider "Wit," on my list of 2001's best films. It starred Emma Thompson in an Oscar-quality performance as a professor dying of cancer. Mike Nichols was the director. "Nichols and Thompson went into a room and rehearsed that role for a month," Callender said. "By the time shooting started, Emma had lived with the role for four or five months. A studio would have insisted a movie like that have a happy ending--a miracle cure or something. Not on cable."
HBO's forthcoming production of "Angels of America" is an indication that top stars no longer shy away from the small screen. The cast includes Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Jeffrey Wright and Emma Thompson. Why are they working for cable? Because any actor would kill to be in "Angels in America," and no studio wanted to film it.
Cable has a certain freedom from budgets that the studios don't share. Every studio picture is expected to make a profit, but "there is no direct connection," Callender said, "between the cost of a given project and the HBO balance sheet at year's end." Since HBO is funded by its subscribers, individual projects, if greenlighted, might get budgets from several hundred thousand dollars up to the $17 million range of John Frankenheimer's forthcoming Vietnam film "The Path to War," starring Alec Baldwin and Donald Sutherland.
Callender said ruefully that one thing bothers him about his cable movies: "The movie critics don't review them, because they're on TV, and the TV critics don't review them because they have a million shows to cover. But these are movies just as much as multiplex releases are movies--and many of them reach much larger audiences. All of the old definitions are beginning to break down."
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