HBO original movies show quality can equal profits

Oct 22, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Heaped with critical praise and lauded by friends and foes, HBO can seemingly do no wrong. The pay channel has been cited by critics and rival networks as being at the top of its class when it comes to original movies, and 38 of its 94 Emmy nominations this year are for original films.
“HBO has blazed the trail, and we are all standard-bearers,” said Kevin Reilly, president of entertainment at FX.
HBO’s success in the genre has evolved over the last two decades and has intensified in recent years with such films as “Wit,” “For Love or Country: The Arturo Sandoval Story,” and “If These Walls Could Talk 2.”
“The quality of its programs and movies is above what is on the rest of the [broadcast outlets] and on cable. They don’t always hit it. But when they hit it, they knock it out of the park,” said Los Angeles Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg.
HBO began offering originals in 1983 with “The Terry Fox Story.” The telefilms were an alternative to what could be found at the theater or on TV, said Keri Putnam, senior VP at HBO Films. Such work included the network’s biopics in the mid-’80s on Josephine Baker, Edward R. Murrow and Nelson Mandela.
HBO really hit its stride in the mid-’90s with such films as “And the Band Played On,” “Barbarians at the Gate” and “If These Walls Could Talk,” Ms. Putnam said. Part of HBO’s success comes from the fact that the network is not ad-supported and thus can take more chances. “If everything doesn’t hit everybody, it’s OK because we are not generating ad revenue based on eyeballs.”
HBO produces about 10 movies a year, and during a film’s premiere month it usually runs about six to eight times. The proliferation of cable channels and other viewing options makes it imperative to take an “event” approach to movies, Ms. Putnam said. HBO doesn’t have a checklist when it considers material for production, but the one key ingredient is finding a story that “feels like it is going to surprise the audience a little bit,” she said.
When it comes to movies, there is HBO, then Showtime, then everyone else, said the L.A. Times’ Mr. Rosenberg.
While Showtime often plays second fiddle to HBO, that’s a role it has embraced. “I tip my hat off to what they have been able to accomplish. It almost makes HBO seem like a big studio, and we look at ourselves as more of an independent production company,” said Gary Levine, Showtime’s executive VP of original programming. Showtime produces smaller, quirkier little gems, the kind of movies that Miramax used to make, he said. “I think to some extent we enjoy the benefits of being the little guy. We don’t have to fill the equivalent of Yankee Stadium. We can be an off-Broadway theater,” Mr. Levine said.
While HBO has enjoyed unparalleled success in original movies, the network hasn’t been impervious to mediocrity. After much prodding to find a movie on HBO that wasn’t fabulous, Mr. Rosenberg admits that this year’s “61*” wasn’t “spectacular.”
Still, the network’s success sends an important message, he said. “HBO has shown you can be profitable and do quality work.”