HBO Savors Record, Focuses on Future

Sep 26, 2004  •  Post A Comment

After winning more Emmys than any network ever, HBO has a tough act to follow. Again.

“The excitement’s worn off and we’re already focused on what we’re going to do next year,” Colin Callender, president of HBO Films, said last Thursday. “The attention has switched over to what do we do next year. The truth is we come out of every year saying the same thing to ourselves.”

HBO had winners across the board, taking 16 of the 27 awards presented during “The 56th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards” show broadcast Sept. 19 by ABC.

“The Sopranos” finally won for best drama-the first cable series to take that prize-with its stars Drea de Matteo and Michael Imperioli named best supporting actress and actor in a drama series. The final season of “Sex and the City” got a sendoff with Cynthia Nixon taking home the trophy for best supporting actress in a comedy series. Walter Hill won for directing the pilot of “Deadwood,” and the irrepressible Elaine Stritch won for her performance in her HBO special.

While any non-HBO winner could be called something of a surprise, the winner of best comedy was a stunner, with Fox’s “Arrested Development” topping the field. The show was barely renewed due to low ratings during its freshman season last year.

But HBO really cleaned up in the movie and miniseries category. “Something the Lord Made” was the top made-for-television movie, and “Angels in America” swept the rest of the miniseries and movie categories, breaking a record long held by “Roots.” Winners for “Angels” included Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Jeffrey Wright, Mary-Louise Parker and director Mike Nichols.

That’s a very hard group to top, Mr. Callender admitted.

“It is true that an `Angels in America’ is a once-in-a-lifetime sort of project. You can’t suddenly order up one `Angels in America’ every year. It is a rare and unique thing and you’re lucky if they come along at all,” he said.

But in the next breath, Mr. Callender noted that HBO does have something up its sleeve for next year: “Empire Falls,” a miniseries based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Richard Russo. (Although he’s in charge of movies for HBO, Mr. Callender oversaw both “Angels” and “Empire Falls.”)

“Empire Falls” is being produced by Paul Newman, who is also one of the miniseries’ stars. The all-star cast also includes Joanne Woodward, Ed Harris, Helen Hunt, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright Penn, Aidan Quinn and Theresa Russell.

“That’s our miniseries contender,” Mr. Callender said.

HBO’s Emmy success has long been a source of sniping from the broadcast networks. “They can program in a way that pleases their audiences in New York and L.A. We have to program for the other 48 states as well,” sniffed one broadcast network executive.

But even the broadcasters had to give HBO its due last week.

“HBO had a great year. Hats off to them,” said Chris Ender, executive VP of corporate communications at CBS, which will televise next year’s Emmy Awards program. “It’s too early to predict who will come out on top next year. HBO has great programming, but they’re in a very different business than the broadcast networks, which churn out 22 hours of programming a week. [HBO] can program to a niche audience. We can’t. That’s not a complaint. We tip our hat to their success. It’s just a reality.”

HBO has heard a lot about the reasons for its success at award shows.

“I know that people talk about the fact that HBO has a strategy geared toward winning Emmys. The truth is we have a strategy geared toward making great programming. That’s the honest truth of it,” Mr. Callender said.

He points to HBO’s success with “Something the Lord Made,” a movie that didn’t have huge stars or use explicit language or violence.

“The talent involved are wonderful, wonderful talent, but I don’t necessarily believe that’s a movie that couldn’t have been made by a broadcast network,” Mr. Callender said. “They’ve just decided not to make films like that. I don’t think it’s because we have some editorial advantage over our competitors.”

Other rivals note that the broadcasters are making fewer movies than they used to. Mr. Callender acknowledges the change. “It’s true the competition from the networks has diminished, but the competition is being increased from other cable companies.”

Mr. Callender noted that last year HBO had four of the five best movie nominees and TNT won for “Door to Door.” “So you never know,” he said.

While HBO’s success helps it attract talent to appear in front of the camera, its success also comes from the talent it employs behind the camera, Mr. Callender said.

“If you think about the look of `Deadwood’ and ‘Carnivale’-‘Carnivale’ got a number of awards in the craft categories, and when you look at it you understand why. The look of `Deadwood’ or the look of `Carnivale’ and the feel of it, the mood of it, which is created in part not just by the director and the writing, but also by production design and cinematography and editing. That’s part of the texture of the world those series create,” he said.

HBO also spends money on location, shooting “The Sopranos” in New Jersey and “Sex and the City” in New York, rather than saving money in Los Angeles or Toronto.

“You shoot them in New Jersey or in New York firstly because those are characters in the series and secondly because it adds to the authenticity and the reality. And it is a dollar question, but it’s also a creative question. If you really want to re-create this world so it’s authentic, you really need to be there,” Mr. Callender said.

He added that “Something the Lord Made” was shot at Johns Hopkins, which is where the film was set. “It’s part of what makes the audience feel this is authentic, it’s credible, it’s believable, it transcends the artifice,” he said.

He expects to do more of the same going forward. “That’s all we can do is keep looking for great projects and keep on attracting wonderful talent in front of and behind the camera and keeping your fingers crossed and hoping it all works. It’s not a science,” he said.

‘Frasier’ Scores

Other Emmy winners included Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce for their best actor and best supporting actor roles in NBC’s now-retired show “Frasier.”

James Spader was named best lead actor in a drama series for ABC’s “The Practice,” and Allison Janney won for lead actress in a drama series for NBC’s “The West Wing.”

CBS’s “The Amazing Race” was the best reality-competition program.

In addition to its Emmy as best comedy series, “Arrested Development” won for Joe Russo and Anthony Russo’s directing and Mitchell Hurwitz’s writing.

Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” won for best variety, music or comedy series and best writing for a variety, music or comedy program, and Louis Horvitz won for directing the Academy Awards show.