HBO Tests In-Theater Releases

May 26, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Ever the trendsetter, HBO is testing an innovative distribution model with some of its documentaries-a shared theatrical and television release.
The ethos of experimentation and taking chances informs not only the premium network’s content but now also the strategies behind the dissemination of it.
HBO and Cinemax air about 40 documentaries each year and began a new initiative with Amandla this year to accommodate theatrical releases for about six to seven of its documentaries when appropriate.
“[Some] filmmakers really want to do theatrical releases,” said Sheila Nevins, executive VP, original programming, at HBO. “A small theatrical release won’t hurt our business.”
Here’s how it works: In most cases, a limited theatrical release comes first followed by the HBO premiere a few months later. With this first crop of films, HBO hopes to learn on what type of projects this strategy works best and how much attention and publicity HBO can generate as it is attached to the theatrical release.
The HBO logo is carried on the film during the opening and closing credits, affording some visibility for the premium network in theatres. Beyond that, Ms. Nevins would like to see shared promotions. “[We want] to be part of the theatrical promotional campaign so we can be sure we are thought about properly and are part of the ultimate marriage of the filmmaker and the distribution plan. I want to get signage. I want HBO’s moniker to appear in reviews. I want acknowledgement between theatrical and TV distribution that this is part of the wonderful world of exposure and that this can be compatible,” she said.
The challenge is to ensure that theatrical distribution does not hinder the later television broadcast. The release needs to extend the HBO brand beyond TV without diminishing the impact of HBO as a haven for documentary projects, she said.
“We don’t know yet, but the instinct is that special-interest documentaries won’t hurt eventual television airing,” Ms. Nevins said.
What HBO gains from the cooperation is the chance to attract the best filmmakers with the additional hook. “If a producer wants that and you deprive him of that, you might be making HBO not the best place for documentaries, and it needs to be. In a sense we are accommodating or not accommodating the fact that somebody might go elsewhere,” she said. “It’s our job to keep the producers happy.”
A theatrical release isn’t appropriate for every documentary. “Some things need spectacle and some things need living rooms and some survive in both. I’m not going to put Real Sex there or Autopsy there,” Ms. Nevins said.
Next up are Spellbound, in theatres now and slated for an HBO premiere later this year, and Capturing the Friedmans, which opens May 30 in theatres and will air on HBO in 2004.
Expanding the distribution possibilities is wise since television continues to evolve into an on-demand world and DVDs proliferate. “The marketplace is consistently and constantly changing, and you have to change your game plans based on products and distribution and don’t hold onto rigid and fast rules,” Ms. Nevins said.
Discovery Networks also plans to test a shared distribution model in a joint venture with producer/distributor CameraPlanet. The pair will produce a series of films called Discovery Docs and CameraPlanet will distribute the films theatrically in at least five cities before they air on Discovery Networks. The partnership makes sense because filmmakers crave the prestige of a theatrical release, while Discovery gets the added exposure from it, said Discovery. Discovery will have first right of refusal on proposed theatrical documentaries from the filmmakers involved, including Barbara Kopple, Michael Apted, Nannette Burstein, and Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker
While HBO stands alone among premium networks, and, frankly, most ad-supported ones, in its aggressive commitment to nonfiction programming, fellow pay network Showtime has taken a laid-back approach. Showtime does not allocate a specific number of slots for documentaries each year and usually carries five to six. “We do as many stories as we are motivated to do,” said Gary Levine, executive VP, original programming, for Showtime. In September, the network will carry The Boys of 2nd Street Park, a story that explores the different paths taken by a generation of boys who grew up in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, in the 1960s, and in early 2004 will air The Opposite of Sex, a series of feature length films on sex change operations.
“I salute HBO and the work they have done in that area, and we are not trying to compete with them at all in [documentaries]. We are concentrating on giving [viewers] some good fare whether its scripted series, movies or documentaries,” said Mr. Levine.
HBO are evolving in other ways too. More and more people can grab their DVCams and capture an intimate conversation in the living room, said Lisa Heller, VP, original programming documentaries, at HBO. “You never know where there might be a gem lurking in someone’s home movies.”
The network is also experimenting with hybrid forms of documentaries. Earlier this year it aired Unchained Memories based on a collection of interviews in the 1930s from former slaves. The text became the basis for an unusual movie in which prominent actors such as Samuel L. Jackson, Oprah Winfrey and Alfre Woodard read the parts in character against a black backdrop. The result was a sort of stage meets documentary meets historical archive film.
Another trend is the increased interest in international programming. Ms. Heller said she is screening more films from around the world, and audiences are embracing global stories, such as The Day I’ll Never Forget on female circumcision in Africa and To Live Is Better Than to Die on AIDS in China, which will air on HBO later this year and early next year.
HBO has played a major role in popularizing documentaries and has poured a lot of money into production of them, said Cara Mertes, executive director of POV, a social issues documentary series that airs on PBS. “I think they are definitely one of the most important documentary entities in the field,” she said.