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HBO bails out on a gay-themed documentary by two local filmmakers

Wednesday, Aug 7 2002
In a controversial and highly unusual turn of events, HBO yanked its commitment midway through production of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's gay-themed Fire Island documentary (Reel World, June 12). The cable network had agreed to fund and broadcast a one-hour movie by the Oscar-winning local filmmakers -- who had originally pitched a six-part reality series -- about a group of gay men sharing a house for the summer. Epstein and Friedman (and their producer, Michael Ehrenzweig) were traveling and unavailable for comment, but a spokesman confirmed that HBO had canceled the project.

According to the New York Observer, HBO pulled the plug as a result of several factors, not least of which was the dawning realization that the film wouldn't be as sexually provocative as the company had hoped. As Friedman readily acknowledged when we spoke in June, "People watch cable for things they can't get on network." But the two men -- whose track record includes Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt, a family-friendly AIDS documentary financed by HBO -- also made it clear to me that they weren't interested in sensationalism. If they had been, they'd have chosen a house full of promiscuous twentysomethings rather than guys in their 30s (among them a monogamous couple).

Friedman told me their film would center on what "young gay men are thinking these days and the issues they're dealing with. They're trying to maintain relationships in a sexually overwrought environment. I find that interesting, how those minefields are navigated. A lot of the talk is about their jobs, what they're trying to accomplish in their lives. We're really just interested in seeing how relationships develop between them and with other people in their lives." Coincidentally, Epstein and Friedman are scheduled to show The Celluloid Closet this Friday, Aug. 9, as part of HBO's "Frame by Frame" series at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Don't expect the diplomatic duo to say anything that might affect their long-term relationship with an important funder.

The Learning Tree I'd love to hear Geoff Alexander's erudite response to nincompoops who still think of documentaries as "educational films." After all, he's a passionate champion of real educational films -- yep, the movies we watched in high school and beyond -- as an unjustly overlooked genre. Several years ago Alexander created ciné16 to screen vintage 16mm historical, ethnographic, and literary movies on a weekly basis in downtown San Jose. More recently, he formed the Academic Film Archive of North America ( to encompass his research, documentation, and preservation efforts.

Alexander e-mailed the news that he's awaiting cinematic donations from three major U.S. institutions, but was loath to name names. "As these things can go haywire at any time before the films arrive, I avoid publicizing them," he wrote. "Somebody always wants to offer a substantial purchase price [in advance of the donation], and then the films end up on eBay." He did confide that the bequests are coming from Minnesota, Colorado, and Texas and that they include a number of exceptional biology titles produced by Ralph Buchsbaum at Encyclopædia Britannica.

Alexander has his bases covered when it comes to the most accomplished educational filmmakers. Come November, the Association of Moving Image Archivists' newsletter will run his meticulous bio of John Barnes, and he'll also present a Bert Van Bork retrospective at the AMIA conference in Boston. Though it's not his top priority, Alexander's giving San Jose a bit of cinematic street cred.

Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round Former S.F. International Film Festival programmer Marie-Pierre Macia, popular managing director of the Director's Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival for the past four years, was abruptly canned late last month. Although the side event got high marks from critics this year, Macia apparently erred by focusing on good films instead of nouveaux auteurs. ... At the recent summer TV critics' tour, S.F.-based ITVS and PBS announced the relaunch next February of Independent Lens as a 29-week series highlighting current events and historical documentaries. The program will air in the same time slot -- 10 p.m. Tuesday -- as the 14-week summer series P.O.V., meaning that independent docs finally have a consistent public TV venue.

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Michael Fox


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