Steven Soderbergh did not intend for Behind the Candelabra, his Liberace biopic starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, to wind up on HBO. The director described its bumpy journey to the network upon its premiere, explaining that his initial pitch—requesting a mere $5 million to shoot a script by Richard LaGravenese, with those marquee names already attached—was met with uniform rejection by Hollywood studios. He told the Wrap that “[everybody] said it was too gay,” and in a more in-depth interview with Mother Jones, he argued that the “economics” of the theatrical market rendered such a path impossible. Movie studios’ loss turned out to be HBO’s gain: Behind the Candelabra earned universal acclaim among TV and film critics alike, won 11 Emmy Awards, and hit a near-decade viewership record.
Given HBO’s resources, the success of Behind the Candelabra should not be the anomaly that it is. For decades, the pay-cabler’s model for TV movies has been frustratingly static: It takes rich historical material and spins it into movies that, no matter the talent of the people involved, usually come up short on ambition and middling in execution. It’s the very opposite of the cutting-edge brand HBO has cultivated for itself in series and documentaries. For every Candelabra there’s a Phil Spector and a Mary and Martha—movies that aired in the same season as Candelabra, respectively starred Al Pacino and Hilary Swank, and faded from relevance the moment their credits rolled. For every Bessie, Dee Rees’ uneven but galvanizing biopic starring Queen Latifah, there’s a Confirmation and an All the Way, both of which squandered the dramatic potential of ever-timely political crises.
HBO movies are reliably mediocre. There are no fascinating failures in the HBO Movies canon—OK, maybe Project Greenlight laugher The Leisure Class—only missed opportunities, deflating treatments of engrossing subjects. Save the rare exception, they are “TV Movies” in the purest, most derided sense of the word—dutiful, steady, boring—and that formula has remained unchanged in the 30-plus years the network has been at it. The ripped-from-the-headlines aesthetic of many, from the 2008 election pic Game Change to the financial crisis thriller Too Big to Fail, tends to result in big performances, hammy dialogue, and near-invisible direction. They move fast and are driven by social issues, and yet they don’t come alive; they plod.
For nearly three decades, HBO’s path was par for the course. But with streaming services like Netflix and Amazon getting into not just distribution but also production, the notion of a “TV Movie” has either drastically evolved or been systematically dismantled. These are ostensibly HBO’s competitors: They’re primarily in the series business, intently focused on glitzy Emmy campaigns, and fighting for development deals with big-name creators like Matthew Weiner and Jenji Kohan. And yet their movies are anything but small-screen in scope: Netflix is backing Bong Joon-ho’s upcoming Okja, premiering in competition at Cannes, while Amazon is financing promising auteur projects like Beautiful Boy, Oscar nominee Felix van Groeningen’s addiction drama starring Steve Carell and Amy Ryan, and Richard Linklater’s new movie with Bryan Cranston. The ways in which these films are being released, consumed, and experienced are generating plenty of debate, but there’s no doubting the ambition and quality being put on display. HBO isn’t even in that realm of moviemaking. You’re likelier to see Barry Levinson’s name on two forgettable HBO films in one year than you are to see someone like Linklater get behind something for the network.
Within the current landscape, HBO’s commitment to awards-season original movies, exclusively viewable on its cable and streaming services, seems downright bizarre. The Emmys’ TV Movie field has long been a wasteland, with HBO fare left to compete against Lifetime originals and feature-length episodes of Sherlock. The latter actually beat All the Way and Confirmation in 2016, and the year before, when Bessie triumphed, the category was so barren that the Television Academy booted its presentation off of the main telecast. While the network has demonstrated a commitment to diversity in its movie programming—with projects like Confirmation, Bessie, Nightingale, The Normal Heart, and last month’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks—the fact that these movies don’t ultimately make much of a mark undermines HBO’s intent. With the “TV Movie” bar so rapidly raised—or altogether removed, depending on your perspective—HBO’s disdain for innovation feels glaringly limiting.
While Netflix and Amazon will premiere major movies this year, HBO has Henrietta Lacks, an erratic and ultimately shapeless drama featuring a terrific Oprah Winfrey performance, and The Wizard of Lies, Levinson’s latest embrace of the HBO formula with Robert De Niro in the role of Bernie Madoff. Neither is terrible; both are uninspired. Both will fade into HBO’s vast movie catalog, without much to distinguish them. One will likely win the TV Movie Emmy, Oprah and De Niro will probably score acting nominations—but at this point, such accolades feel less like successes and more like dead ends.
HBO knows how to work effectively with filmmakers. Some of its best miniseries feature acclaimed directors working at the peak of their powers, from Mike Nichols (Angels in America) to Paul Haggis (Show Me a Hero) to Lisa Cholodenko (Olive Kitteridge). There’s no format to their works; they merely reflect the visions of the people behind them, in the creation of great and surprising art. This year, HBO delivered another smashing success: Big Little Lies. Cut together with director Jean-Marc Vallée’s trademark editing, fast and disorienting and fragmented, the series’ alternately disturbing and satirical story meshed perfectly with its filmmaker’s style. Given his spotty record in features, it’s arguably the best work of Vallée’s career—and the same goes for Cholodenko’s Olive Kitteridge, her sweeping humanistic epic from 2014. This is a network that has long demonstrated the ability to lure great directors and A-list actors to explore subjects studios aren’t so interested in. But in one area, it continues to take an antiquated, wasteful, maddeningly indifferent approach. It’s time HBO finally gets out of the TV movie business—and gets into the real movie business once and for all.