HBO dominates Emmy's made-for-TV movie category

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Mick Jackson admits he'd never heard of his film's protagonist when a script about her first landed on his desk in 2008.

"The word 'temple' meant something, but I had no idea what 'grandin' meant," says the Emmy nominated director. "I thought it was a Jewish thing, or an architect."
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Delving deeply into the back story of the autistic woman who revolutionized slaughterhouses, Jackson was struck by the unique storytelling opportunity.

"One thing that gives this film its emotional power is that you see it from (inside) Temple's head," he says, noting he used CGI to represent Grandin's unique visual memory. "You also see it from (the perspective) of those who made fun of her and through the eyes of the sympathetic people."

The telefilm, he says, would have been a hard sell to any company except HBO, which racked up 35 nominations this year for its original films -- particularly significant when its only major series contender, "True Blood," will likely be overshadowed by strong network ("The Good Wife") and basic-cable ("Mad Men") contenders.

With three of the six contenders for made-for-TV movie, HBO faces an embarrassment of riches.

In the early and mid-2000s, HBO made itself at home among the best drama nominees with "Six Feet Under" and "The Sopranos," taking home the prize twice in '04 and '07 (both for "Sopranos").

This year it is equally dominant in an arena in which most networks are not investing. It's also the first time since CBS' domination in 1994 that one network or cable entity has three original movie contenders.

HBO's 2010 trifecta shares one common theme: All are based on true events.

"You Don't Know Jack," written by Adam Mazer and directed by Barry Levinson, offers the legal back story of "Dr. Death" Jack Kevorkian. Lead actor Al Pacino and nearly all his co-stars (Brenda Vaccaro, Susan Sarandon and John Goodman) scored Emmy nominations.

"Temple Grandin," written by Christopher Monger and Merritt Johnson, follows the early years of the young woman who learned to live with autism. Claire Danes is a favorite to take home the lead actress in a miniseries or movie Emmy, and the TV movie also scored nominations for co-stars David Strathairn, Catherine O'Hara and Julia Ormond.

"The Special Relationship," written by Peter Morgan and directed by Richard Loncraine, is a biopic-meets-bromance about Bill Clinton (Dennis Quaid) and Tony Blair (Michael Sheen). Morgan, a two-time Oscar nominee, wrote "Relationship" on spec in 2008, having no clue where it would end up.

At first, he considered doing it on the big screen and toyed with making it his directing debut. But the theatrical route gave way, he says, because "While I was writing, the (market) changed. Suddenly, HBO was the only place making interesting films."

Levinson, the Oscar-nominated director of "Rain Man" and "Bugsy," also knew that.

"You take a subject like Kevorkian, it's going to have dark elements," he says. "But (at HBO), there's no sense of, 'We should tone this down.' "

Nor is there a sense of a smaller audience. "It got in front of a lot more eyes," he says. "Let's say 12 million people saw the movie (in theaters). With an (average) $8 ticket, that'd be a giant hit."
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