HBO and New Line create a new indie film distributor -- Newmarket's Bob Berney will head the still-nameless company


Tony Soprano loves movies; and so, it seems, does his corporate capo. Flush with subscriber fees and DVD dollars, pay-cable giant HBO has dipped its toe into cineplexes in recent years, yielding such acclaimed indie hits as American Splendor (2003) and Maria Full of Grace (2004). But on March 23, the company best known for tube sensations like Sex and the City made a commitment to the film biz, forming a new specialty distributor with New Line Cinema. (Both companies are owned by EW parent Time Warner.) The as-yet-unnamed outfit will be headed by Newmarket Films president Bob Berney, storied marketing architect of The Passion of the Christ and, while at IFC, My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Hmmm. . .an autonomous New York-based distributor embedded in a large conglomerate, with declared indie motives and deep corporate pockets — sounds like the old Miramax!

Maybe — if you imagine a Miramax where the bosses play well with others. Producer Lawrence Bender (whose The Chumscrubber will be released by the new company) notes the extraordinary ”goodwill” the well-liked troika — Berney, HBO Films president Colin Callender, and New Line cochairman Michael Lynne — bring to the new company. And American Splendor director Shari Springer Berman expects HBO will give it a non-studio feel: ”They run the business like a family, not like a corporation.”

”What we’re trying to achieve hasn’t been done before,” says Callender, and he’s right: No one’s ever attempted to fuse the creative gestalts of an ambitious cable channel and a midsize movie studio into an indie film distributor. Callender once debated placing the HBO name on its 2002 theatrical release Real Women Have Curves because he was unsure if it would translate into big-screen prestige. But, he says, testing revealed that audiences connected ”HBO” with quality, regardless of medium.

”Just a few years ago, anyone would’ve been reluctant to collaborate with HBO, because if audiences saw that HBO label, they might’ve thought, ‘This isn’t theatrical — this is TV,”’ notes Mark Urman, president of distribution for rival indie THINKFilm (which distributed HBO’s Oscar-winning Born Into Brothels). ”HBO overcame that. One of the best films anyone saw last year was Angels in America. People care less and less whether they’re seeing it on TV, on DVD, or in theaters. It’s all the same.”

Thus, HBO will gain an outlet for its expanding film-production wing — though Callender notes, ”Our first duty is to our subscribers, providing them with high-quality content on HBO.” New Line will also contribute offerings. Berney is expected to bring in festival acquisitions.

But Urman wonders if corporate culture and indie cred are compatible. ”The biggest movie to go through Newmarket was a movie no studio would touch,” says Urman. ”Can Berney still do that? Can he still release Mel Gibson’s Jesus movie?”

”We’ll find out when he brings it,” says Lynne. ”I think one thing we all agree on is, this isn’t merely a prestige organization. It has to be profitable.”