Three new films will benefit from HBO’s recent decision to allow a limited number of its documentaries to be released theatrically in advance of their television premieres on the U.S. pay-TV channel. The 2003 Academy Award-nominated doc Spellbound, by director Jeff Blitz, and the much-buzzed-about Brazilian doc Bus 174, by José Padilha, will be released in U.S. theaters by New York, U.S.-based ThinkFilm, in association with HBO/Cinemax Documentary Films, a new moniker created for projects distributed in this manner. The channel has also teamed with New York-based distrib Magnolia Pictures to release Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans, which took home the grand jury prize in the documentary competition at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival.
‘We’re helping the promotion of the films strategically and to some degree financially,’ explains Nancy Abraham, HBO’s VP of original programming, documentaries. HBO previously applied a policy of ‘premieres only’ to its doc fare, presuming films without any theatrical exposure were more valuable. In January, the channel reconsidered its position – provided it can be involved in a release – and paired with Artisan Entertainment in Santa Monica, U.S. to put Lee Hirsch and Sherry Simpson’s doc Amandla! a revolution in four-part harmony in theaters (see ‘The Buddy System’, RealScreen, January 2003).
The strategy obviously worked, although Abraham says she was disappointed with the lack of press coverage generated by the release. ‘That’s something we’re trying to strategize with these future releases,’ she adds.
Mark Urman, head of distribution for ThinkFilm, says the distributor and HBO both picked up Spellbound shortly after it screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2002. ThinkFilm took on Bus 174 at the end of March. ‘In the old days, a lot of people felt that having a television entity and its logo affixed to a film going out theatrically somehow diminished it or confused the audience,’ he explains. ‘I find the affiliation prestigious. To have a corporation of [HBO's] wealth and experience in trafficking non-fiction entertainment to supplement our efforts has been very helpful.’
Spellbound premieres theatrically at Film Forum in New York on April 30, its wider national release timed to coincide with this year’s National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. – one subject of the film. It will air on HBO at the end of the year. Bus 174 will also open at Film Forum, on October 8. Its broadcast is set for spring 2004. Capturing the Friedmans hits New York theaters at the end of May. It’s also scheduled to air on HBO in 2004.