Joseph Fiennes and Gretchen Mol in Paul Schrader’s
Forever Mine (1999).

All moviemakers dreamof having their movies projected
onto 20-foot screens before packed houses in large theaters across
America. Unfortunately, these dreams seldom materialize for the
independent moviemaker, as only major distributors can afford to
release their product this way. There is, however, an alternative
avenue of distribution for the low-budget moviemaker besides the
traditional art house circuit. This path is becoming increasingly
popular for both first-run features and documentary films: it’s
good, old-fashioned cable television. HBO, Cinemax, Showtime, Starz,
Encore and the Sundance Channel are a few of the main cable networks
presenting noteworthy films to millions of viewers each month.

HBO has been producing its own
high-profile, star-studded movies since 1983, including Emmy Award
winners And the Band Played On, Truman and Barbarians
at the Gate.
But it’s their documentary series “America Undercover,”
airing weekly on Sunday nights, and “Cinemax Real Life,” airing
monthly on its sister channel, that are providing numerous opportunities
for independent, low-budget moviemakers looking for ways to distribute
their work.

HBO’s involvement on a project comes at various
stages, from finding an idea and financing it to picking up a
completed film.

Paul Schrader (l) and Spike
Lee (r) are two “big-name” directors who’ve
opted for a cable release.

“Part of the luxury of HBO is the wide range of development,”
says Lisa Heller, Vice President of Original Programming. And each
series looks for different types of films. “A typical America Undercover
is verit? social issues, life unraveling before the camera, unique
stories,” Heller says. “Cinemax Real Life is more art showcase,
critically acclaimed Academy Award winners, international
documentaries-more eclectic.”

Kate Davis recently had her film Southern Comfort
premiere on America Undercover. Winner of the 2001 Sundance Grand
Jury Prize for Best Documentary, it’s a transgender love story
that follows the final months of a transsexual’s life as he battles
ovarian cancer. “It was such an unusual subject,” says Davis,
who filmed the movie as a human drama, not a sensational topic.
Still, she says, “I knew it wouldn’t fit in with a lot of cable
stations’ styles. HBO was an incredible outlet.”

Davis, who met Robert Eads at a female-to-male conference,
was fascinated by his story but knew she had little time to raise
money for production as he was quickly dying. She bought a DV camera
and often operated as a one-person crew during the filming. Initially
she thought about a theatrical run and actually had several offers
from smaller distributors before choosing HBO. “It was the hardest
decision to make,” says Davis, “but the chance of recouping my investment
would have been slim [with just a theatrical run].” Davis does hope
to put the film in theaters post-HBO, but has no regrets about her
recent cable airings. “You get an enormous audience through HBO,”
says Davis. “This way, the story could reach middle America instead
of just art theaters.”

Rob Fruchtman who, along with Rebecca Cammisa, directed
the Cinemax Real Life documentary Sister Helen, describes
HBO as “our fairy godparents.” Winner of the 2002 Sundance Best
Directors Award, Sister Helen profiles streetwise New York
Benedictine sister Helen Travis and her home for substance abusers.
It will premiere in 2003.

Fruchtman and Cammisa started with a nine-minute
piece on their subject that they took to PBS before HBO stepped
in and bought the airing rights, allowing them to complete their
movie. “Finances were a big part of it,” continues Fruchtman,
who lived at the center with Cammisa for a year and shot on DV
so that they could capture events as they happened. “HBO is known
as the place where documentary makers can go and make the film
they want to make. [With] other networks there is not as much
freedom,” he says.

HBO also helped them with the cost of transferring
the video to film, although the network has no specific policy
as to whether and when a film gets a theatrical release. “It’s
on a film-by-film basis,” says Heller, but she knows that a theatrical
run is important for some moviemakers. HBO often gives directors
the opportunity to show their movie in a theatrical setting for
a limited run.

Showtime, like HBO, finances many
of its own movies, but will also pick up films made by others to
fill a specific need
in their schedule, particularly when a movie they
produced in-house is delivered later than originally anticipated. However, unlike
HBO, they primarily want finished product and rarely
show documentaries. “We’re pretty much feature -oriented,” notes Matthew Duda, Executive Vice
President of Program Acqui?sitions & Planning. “The
type of films we look for are the type we might have made.” These
generally involve controversial subject matter with a promotable
cast. “We’re in a unique place in the entertainment spectrum,” continues
Duda. “People pay extra for you and expect things you can’t see

Left to right: Rob Morrow’s Maze

But Duda knows that feature movie?makers, more so
than documentarians, all hope for that theatrical distribution.
When Showtime sees a film they like, they seldom bid for it at the
outset. “People will exhaust the theatrical interest [first]. We
let them know there is another way,” says Duda. And with the theatrical
marketplace so crowded and difficult, moviemakers must decide if
they want to go up against a big film with limited P&A money,
or be presented as a big-time cable premiere. Of course, once the
film has aired on cable, it’s rare that the network would not allow
a post-Showtime premiere theatrically. “We have a flexible template,”
says Duda. “Many of our films have 60-day shopping periods, and
we [often] pair up with distributors.”

One of Showtime’s most notable pick-ups was Adrian
Lyne’s Lolita in 1997. Independently financed and in search
of a theatrical distributor, Lyne found the major studios petrified
of the subject matter. “I realized I was na?ve to think they’d
pick it up,” says Lyne, who even had to eliminate body doubles
from the film to abide by a law, aimed at the Internet, that said
adults could not pretend to be children. “I sat in a cutting room
with a lawyer for six weeks,” he says.

Finally, Showtime stepped in and aired the movie.
“I was thrilled it was getting shown,” says Lyne, who credits
the cable viewing with easing some of the industry’s paranoia.
“Having seen that somebody had released it enabled it to [ultimately]
get a theatrical release.” (Because a timing quirk in its original
air date made Lolita ineligible for Emmy consideration
that year, Showtime actually allowed Lyne one week of limited
theatrical distribution before airing it so the film could be
eligible for Academy Award consideration.)

Henry Bean’s The Believer
(2001), starring Billy Zane and Theresa Russell; and David
Weissman and Bill Weber’s The Cockettes (2002)
have all opted for cable television runs.

More recently, Showtime aired Henry Bean’s The
the story of a Jewish boy turned neo-Nazi, which won
the 2001 Sundance Grand Jury Prize. Independently financed, Bean,
who initially imagined a small art house release, also had trouble
finding theatrical distribution. “The distributors seemed impressed
by the film, but leery of it,” he says. “Perhaps they worried about
potential controversy.”

Showtime got involved with Bean right after Sundance.
“They offered not only money, but a much larger audience than
we could have reached theatrically and, as important, a very different
audience, culturally and demographically, than would have seen
this film in art houses,” Bean adds. The film finally did open
theatrically in New York in May and in about a dozen other larger
markets over the past few weeks.

Starz/Encore is the largest provider
of cable and satellite-delivered premium movie channels in the U.S.
With 15 separate channels to program, including Starz Family, Black
Starz and a half-dozen theme channels, they too are active in pursuing
features and documentaries and get involved in many different ways,
sometimes at the script stage, sometimes with finishing funds, sometimes
with a completed project. “We’re looking for certain things,” says
Stephan Shelanski, Senior Vice President of Program Acquisitions,
Planning & Scheduling. “Films on social issues, critically acclaimed
films, upscale adult films for the 33 to 49-year-old viewer.” Recent
premieres have included Spike Lee’s A Huey P. Newton Story,
Rob Morrow’s Maze and Paul Schrader’s Forever Mine.

There are many good independent films in the marketplace
to choose from, which is a reflection of the current distribution
business. “In today’s environment, hardly anyone is willing to
take the risk in theatrical releases. There are limited returns
on small films,” continues Shelanski, who regards the movies that
Starz/Encore picks up and did not make to theaters as “their loss,
our gain.”

As with most cable channels, moviemakers will usually
find a larger audience for their films on television than with
a limited theatrical run. Sometimes a theatrical run can actually
hurt a film. “It can ruin a pay TV premiere,” says Shelanski.
“We will aggressively promote [first-run movies]. Plus, a lot
of times a filmmaker uses proceeds from a TV sale to put it out
theatrically.” Starz/Encore encourages this and will even help
financing with P&A in a theatrical run, sometimes partnering
with a distributor.

The Sundance Channel, now in its
seventh year of operation, doesn’t finance features or documentaries,
but actively pursues them at festivals, film markets and through
submissions. Naturally, their first source is the Sundance Film
Festival. “We try to get as many [of the films] on the channel
that have our heritage,” says Paola Freccero, Senior Vice President
of Film Programming. In fact, nine out of 10 films airing on the
channel have played at one festival or another. “It gives us a
sense of how a film will meet the public,” adds Freccero.

Unlike the other cable channels, a large number
of films premiering on Sundance Channel have had theatrical distribution,
often from a small distributor like Lot 47, Cowboy or Zeitgeist.
“The beauty of Sundance,” continues Freccero, “is that it rarely
has to be either/or.”

Robert Eads and Lola Cola in Kate Davis’
Southern Comfort (2001).

Sometimes Sundance will even team up with a distributor,
as it did with Strand Releasing on The Cockettes, a feature
length documentary on the gender-bending hippies who attended midnight
shows at San Francisco’s Palace Theater in the late ’60s and early
’70s. The two film entities collaborated on marketing efforts beginning
with a national sneak preview of the movie on Sundance Channel following
the film’s San Francisco premiere engagement this past May, leading
into a theatrical roll-out. After its theatrical run, the film will
return to Sundance for its pay television window. “By collaborating
with Strand Releasing, the two companies can jointly create a much
larger national profile for the film,” says Freccero.

This past January, Robert Redford, Founder and Creative
Director of Sundance Channel, announced that later this year he
will launch a channel devoted exclusively to documentary films.
“At the heart of the decision to launch this channel? is a belief
that these films not only deserve a broader audience, but will
attract [one] if we put them out there,” said Redford in a statement.
Freccero adds, “We’ve been discussing a documentary channel for
a long time. We receive an enormous amount of viewer feedback
and praise on the documentaries we show now.”

One reason for the sudden interest in documentaries
is the public’s new awareness of non-fiction. “There’s been a
change in tide over the past few years,” says Freccero. The onslaught
of reality television has brought documentary-style moviemaking
into the mainstream and has showed the world that they can be
entertaining experiences, not merely educational devices.

While the Sundance Channel will still air documentaries,
they will focus on moviemakers and moviemaking. The documentary
channel, says Freccero, “Will be about ideas, not about film.”

With so few documentaries getting theatrical releases,
and those that do earning so little money, cable television is
becoming the natural choice to recoup an investment and find a
sizable audience for the moviemaker. And with the cost of promoting
a feature film often higher than its entire budget, it’s becoming
a more and more popular choice for the fiction teller as well.