What's Wrong with the HBO Movie?

This is totally a thing! Richard Rushfield went to see a forthcoming HBO movie and came away thinking… hey, that is sure an HBO movie! It’s “an intriguing concept, great art design, some fine actors that somehow doesn’t come together as anything special or present any compelling reason why it should be up on a big screen.” Hey, yeah, that! First, there’s a certain kind of sweeping literalism to the high-end TV movie and miniseries: what’s Temple Grandin about? Oh, Temple Grandin. What’s Too Big to Fail about? What’s Hemingway and Gellhorn about? Ohhhh. I think part of this is: HBO straddles the budgetary line between movie-movies and TV. They make the million- or couple-million-dollar, high-end movie. It’s a great awards and prestige strategy; they can dominate in the space, but still not spend a lot. And they can take films that otherwise have no distribution future—films that should be seen, for sure!—and mold them to the form.

Bob Balaban (recently directing “Nurse Jackie” episodes) has become a specialist in this: when he made Bernard and Doris, which was distributed by HBO, he told me: “Truthfully if we had a dollar more it would have been easier but we didn’t need $20 million to make this movie…. If we had more money, we would have been obligated to have parties and jet planes.” So this actually gets financed in an unusual way: the cast does it for the awards and the fun, shoots are quick and, according to Bernard and Doris producer Dana Brunetti (the president of Kevin Spacey’s production company) sometimes everyone owns a piece of the film. (“Kind of like working at Starbucks,” Brunetti told me.)

So like, with HBO’s future slate, James Gandolfini is executive producer of Hemingway and Gellhorn, along with a cast of others: HBO is happy to take on these relatively low-cost productions, with all these names, and they get a product that’s perfect for the market… and yet sometimes it can feel like a school play. (Mildred Pierce was the ultimate example of this. So many brilliant components, garnering lots of awards, sometimes adding up to less than something.)

HBO manages series shows, in general, better than movies (and manages documentaries, historically, best of all), and of course it’s wonderful that we have access to all this stuff at a really incredibly low subscription price. But there’s something of a formula rut to the HBO movie, which is frustrating. It all feels over-elaborated and yet a little under-thought. Playing to sweep the Emmys isn’t always a fun game for the rest of us.