- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 17, 2002

PARK CITY, Utah — HBO and Showtime are going indie. The premium cable channels have emerged as important nurturers of independent films, securing a major presence at the Sundance Film Festival.

Both cable networks have become regular providers of films at Sundance, the nation's main indie-movie showcase. Premium cable has its most high-profile slate yet at this year's festival, with three of the event's 18 premiere slots going to HBO or Showtime films.

The festival opened last week with HBO's "The Laramie Project," directed by Moises Kaufman from his play. Sundance's centerpiece premiere, marking the festival's midpoint, was director Mira Nair's "Hysterical Blindness," another HBO film, which screened yesterday.

Showtime premiered its urban drama "Our America" at Sundance last weekend. HBO has a film in the dramatic competition, "Real Women Have Curves," from first-time director Patricia Cardosa.

Independent film in the United States is geared largely toward theatrical release, but these cable-produced projects mirror the edgy personal films that have been a staple for decades on television overseas, notably on England's Channel Four. Such filmmakers as Stephen Frears and Mike Leigh cut their teeth making independent-spirited movies for British television.

Colin Callendar, president of HBO Films, says cable TV has become a friendlier outlet for some types of independent film in an age when the theatrical market is dominated by big studio action flicks and comedies.

All three of HBO's Sundance entries are "films that either were unlikely to have been made as theatrical films or were unlikely to have survived the really brutal theatrical marketplace," Mr. Callendar says. "They'd have had trouble finding an audience in theaters, but there is no question they will find their audience on HBO."

"The Laramie Project" features a huge ensemble cast in a chronicle based on the journey Mr. Kaufman's theater troupe took to Laramie, Wyo., to examine the community where homosexual student Matthew Shepard was fatally beaten and lashed to a fence. It premieres on HBO in March.

The comic drama "Real Women Have Curves" follows a young Mexican-American woman stuck between her own dreams of college and the family and cultural expectations of her manipulative mother.

"Hysterical Blindness" stars Uma Thurman, Juliette Lewis and Gena Rowlands in the story of two women anxiously pursuing romance in 1980s New Jersey.

HBO expects to debut "Hysterical Blindness" and "Real Women Have Curves" in the second half of the year.

Based on a true story, "Our America" is the story of two ghetto teens in Chicago and a National Public Radio producer who collaborate to create stirring radio documentaries about the landscape of violence in which the boys live. Showtime expects to air "Our America" in July.

"Showtime and HBO in a way have become the biggest independent film production companies," says Jerry Offsay, Showtime's president of programming. "Studios focus on the big roller-coaster-ride action films. The little films can get left on the sidelines."

HBO and Showtime also have become big buyers of finished films, scouring Sundance and other festivals for independent projects to air exclusively on their networks.

Showtime picked up last year's Sundance dramatic competition winner, "The Believer,"along with Alison Anders' "Things Behind the Sun," one of last year's Sundance premieres. It plans to air "The Believer" this March.

"The independent arena has always been a theatrical arena on one level," says Sundance festival co-director Geoffrey Gilmore. "But the fact is, the production and programming leadership at companies like HBO and Showtime have really decided this is a vein that very much fits for them."

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