Making Masterpieces

Spring 2004

Kary Antholis '84
Kary Antholis '84 drove his car across the country to Hollywood in 1990, and in the ensuing two-score years has gone from delivering pistachio nuts to the clients of a production company to producing edgy, top-notch drama.

At this year's Golden Globe Awards, Kary Antholis '84 sipped champagne at a table with Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, and the rest of the cast from "Angels in America," the epic HBO movie about politics and morality in the turbulent 1980s.

Antholis, vice-president of HBO Films, says it was a relaxed evening despite the star power at his table, spiced with chit-chat about movies, acting, and kids. Then came the sweep by "Angels" of top awards in five categories, including best picture, and there were toasts all around.

"Part of HBO's business model is to impress upon people that we are doing the best work out there, so people have to subscribe if they want to be part of the cultural dialogue," says Antholis, 41, over lunch one afternoon at HBO's Manhattan offices. "When you win awards like that, and combine that with big stars and critical attention, then you've done your job."

For Antholis, who was the executive in charge of "Angels," that January night at the Golden Globes marked the latest in a string of triumphs for films he has worked on. Since coming to HBO in 1992, several films he has shepherded through production and marketed to the world have won Emmys, Oscars, and Golden Globes.

Emma Thompson in
Emma Thompson as Vivian Bearing in the HBO movie "Wit." Photo: Clive Coote/HBO

It all started with an Academy Award for "Educating Peter" in his first year at HBO, when at age 30, he was an executive working on documentary programming. In 2000, he oversaw "The Corner," a gritty, Emmy Award-winning miniseries that examined the terrible specter of drug addiction in Baltimore.

In 2001, Antholis worked with director Mike Nichols on adaptation of the play, "Wit," which detailed the cruel indignities experienced by a college professor dying of ovarian cancer. It won the Emmy for the top made-for-television movie.

Antholis won an Oscar in 1996 for the only movie he directed and produced. He captured the best short documentary award for "One Survivor Remembers," a memoir of Gerda Weissmann Klein's years in Nazi forced labor camps, which ended with a grueling three-month march through Eastern Europe at the end of WWII.

The movie brought Antholis face-to-face with his family's tragic experience with 20th century oppression. His mother, Evanthia, grew up in Nazi-occupied Greece during World War II; her father, Vassilios, was killed by Nazi collaborators.

HBO special, "One Survivor Remembers," in March 1996. The documentary is the remarkable first-person account of Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissmann Klein, who is pictured with Antholis. Photo: Long Photography/copyright A.M.P.A.S

"Exploring Gerda's story offered me an extraordinarily vivid connection to my mother's experiences during the war," says Antholis, who is fluent in Greek. "The experience renewed my appreciation for the blessings of family, health, and, as Gerda would say, 'a boring evening at home.'"

Though Antholis's first - and only - film won an Oscar, he decided not to become a documentary filmmaker after seeing just how all-consuming it would be to devote his life to that pursuit. Instead, he eventually returned to HBO's front office to work on projects with some of the industry's top directors, producers and actors.

“The experience renewed my appreciation for the blessings of family, health, and, as Gerda would say, ‘a boring evening at home.’”"

His most recent project, "Strip Search," shown on HBO in April, dealt with the conflict between security and civil liberties in the post-9/11 world.

"I'm not up there accepting the awards anymore," says Antholis, who will lead a panel discussion at his 20th Bowdoin reunion in June. "But I feel a huge amount of creative satisfaction by making movies that hit at the heart of the national dialogue on the issues of the day."

While a movie director can be on location for months at a time, Antholis's job allows him more control of his schedule. Granted, Antholis is decidedly bi-coastal, shuttling frequently between New York and Los Angeles. But HBO's office in Los Angeles is just a 10-minute drive from the Beverly Wood neighborhood where he lives with his wife Karen, and children, Evanthia, 5, and Jack, 3.

"In this business, if you are lucky, you'll have a job that is creatively fulfilling, or you have a job that allows you to spend some serious time with your family," he says. "Often the two are mutually exclusive. The good thing about being at HBO is that I get to have both."

Associate professor Tricia Welsch, who chairs Bowdoin's Department of Film Studies, says HBO resembles the great Hollywood studios of the 1940s, which both produced the films and owned the movie houses. That structure gave the studios a considerable edge because they had guaranteed venues to exhibit the movies.

Mary Louise Parker and Jeffrey Wright in
Mary Louise Parker as Harper Pitt and Jeffrey Wright as Belize and in the HBO movie "Angels in America." Photo: Stephen Goldblatt/HBO

With 39 million subscribers, HBO has its own production outfit as well as exhibition space on cable around the world. That means HBO doesn't have to pander to television advertisers or appeal to mass movie audiences to recoup production expenses with big box-office openings.

That frees HBO to take chances with provocative film projects that reach a smaller audience while building the channel's reputation for producing edgy, top-notch drama.

"With television and subscribers, and no real estate to maintain, HBO is really taking advantage of its position," Welsch says. "Kary's on the creative team at this small private studio that's putting out consistently high-quality films."

Antholis usually has a handful of projects in motion. This winter, one project, "Walkout," examines the 1968 Latino high school boycott in East Los Angeles.

Meryl Streep in
Meryl Streep as Ethel Goldberg in the HBO movie "Angels in America." Photo: Stephen Goldblatt/HBO

Another movie in preparation will tell of the story of the clash between casino titans Donald Trump and Steve Wynn over a garbage dump in Atlantic City. In February, Antholis has one major issue to resolve.

"Who do you cast for Donald Trump?" he muses.

As executive in charge of these projects, he serves as the liaison between HBO, which funds and provides air time for the picture, and the film's writer, producer and director. It's a job that varies, depending how the project came to HBO, the studio's relationship with the filmmakers as well as the filmmaker's experience.

Antholis is what's known in the industry as a "suit." And dressed in a blue pin-striped suit, dark blue shirt and red tie, he certainly looked the part at The Bowdoin Club of New York's event this winter in Manhattan, which featured Antholis and "Angels" playwright Tony Kushner on stage, talking about their work.

Kushner says having Antholis as HBO's point man on "Angels" was essential to its success.

“I feel a huge amount of creative satisfaction by making movies that hit at the heart of the national dialogue on the issues of the day.”

"I'd often call him for a reality check," says Kushner. "With such an enormous project, it was crucial to have such a literate, passionate, and incredibly competent person who got done what needed to get done."

On "Angels," Antholis collaborated with Kushner and Director Mike Nichols to create the award-winning film. With an accomplished filmmaker like Nichols, Antholis says he had to first understand the director's vision for the film, then offer support - and suggestions - consistent with that vision.

"You are trying to see what's driving the artists, and you are trying to be on the same page with the tools they can use," he says.

Over the past year, he has worked with writer and producer Tom Fontana on two HBO films - "Strip Search," and "Thought Crimes," set to air in September. Fontana calls Antholis "the great mediator," an executive with the interest of the filmmaker and HBO at heart.

Sean Nelson and Khandi Alexander in
Sean Nealson and Khandi Alexander in the HBO miniseries "The Corner." Photo: Mary Ellen Mark/HBO

"Kary has his own artistic vision and he isn't afraid to share it," says Fontana. "He has an incredible loyalty to HBO, and he is remarkably nurturing to writers, director and actors without making you feel like you are getting network notes."

Antholis's work extends beyond the production team as he decides how best to show and market the films. In the past, HBO movies were aired on cable and then sold or
rented in the video marketplace. But since 2002, HBO has released a few films in movie theatres.

In February, Antholis was grappling with whether "Everyday People" would be released to theatres or reserved for HBO subscribers. The film presents an intimate look at how a Brooklyn neighborhood deals with issues of race, gender and generational differences.

"We are seeing what the right life for it is," says Antholis. "For some smaller films, we can get more marketing leverage out of the theatrical release and have a chance to give it a higher profile."

Then there's marketing the movie, both to the critics and to the public. With HBO's ambitious six-hour presentation of "Angels in America," Antholis helped create the marketing package that started the media buzz over the film.

"You have to understand the subtlety of putting something out there without making it feel like it is hyped," he says. "We wanted the critics to discover this movie, but we had to put it out there in a way that if they wanted to discover it, they could."

Working on films with Al Pacino, Mike Nichols and Tom Fontana brings Antholis full circle to an adolescence steeped in pop culture in Florham Park, a north-central New Jersey suburb. Like many of his generation, his favorite television shows were "The Brady Bunch" and "The Partridge Family."

Sean Nealson, Khandi Alexander and T.K. Carter (behind) in the HBO miniseries "The Corner." Photo: Will Hart/HBO

But he also found himself engrossed in television dramas and movies. He was drawn to "St. Elsewhere" and "Homicide: Life on the Street," both written by Fontana.

His father took him to see Pacino in "Serpico," as well as Nichols's films, "The Graduate" and "Catch-22." Antholis recalls seeing "The Godfather" at a suburban drive-in one night in 1973. His father made him duck behind the front seat to miss the scene with the severed horse head.

At Bowdoin, Antholis built his intellectual foundation by majoring in history, with a minor in Romance languages. He also dabbled in the arts. He had a radio show on WBOR where he spun plenty of rock, including the music of fellow Jerseyite Bruce Springsteen. He took acting classes in Paris during his junior year abroad.

Back in Brunswick for his senior year, Antholis and his roommate, Innes Weir '84, mounted a production of Eugene O'Neill's little-known "The Abortion," which they auditioned for that year's evening of one-act plays.

"Kary had this grand scheme to submit the play," says Weir, a Manhattan lawyer who spent several years in the movie industry. "We rewrote the ending, and it was chosen."

After graduating, Antholis spent a year at Stanford University, earning a master's degree in history, focusing on the imperial ambitions of European nations in Africa. Not yet willing to abandon the entertainment world, he took a course in filmmaking.

"I still didn't know what it was all adding up to," he says.

Atholis recalls seeing “The Godfather” at a suburban drive-in one night in 1973. His father made him duck behind the front seat to miss the scene with the severed horse head.

Perhaps studying law would help, he thought. At Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., he found he didn't want to spend all night pouring over dry legal texts. So he squeezed in time for acting classes at a community studio.

After his second year of law school, he'd had enough of contracts and torts. He took a year off, supporting himself with construction jobs to have the time to act at night at a community theater.

He returned to law school the next fall, intent on earning his degree, but now he focused on the legal and business aspects of the entertainment industry.

He graduated from law school in 1989, then practiced in his father's law firm for a year while honing his stage skills. After work, he'd head for Manhattan to act in student films directed by Weir, his Bowdoin roommate, who was then studying at Columbia University's film school.

Still, that wasn't enough. So, in 1990, Antholis packed up his Toyota Corolla, and like so many young Americans with celluloid dreams, drove cross-country to make it big in Hollywood.

On his first job, Antholis was paid $250 a week to deliver bags of pistachio nuts to ZM Productions' clients as Christmas holiday gifts.

"It's how I got to know my way around L.A.," he says.

That didn't last long. At ZM, he soon began assisting on promotional films for movies and then ended up working on ZM's "Hearts of Darkness," a documentary about the making of Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now."

Making that movie, says Antholis, was like film school to him. He learned about the complexities of movie finances and studied the behind-the-scenes footage of Coppola directing his Vietnam classic.

"It was incredible food for thought, seeing what it takes to make a movie with ambitions beyond the box office," he says.

That movie aired on Showtime, HBO's premium cable competitor. Before long, he received a call from Sheila Nevins, HBO's head of documentaries. She wanted a meeting.

“(Antholis) has an incredible loyalty to HBO, and he is remarkably nurturing to writers, director, and actors without making you feel like you are getting network notes.”

"Sheila and I hit it off," he says, recalling the 1992 meeting at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Los Angeles. "I pitched her a couple of ideas because I was beginning to think of myself as a producer. Then a position opened up, and she asked me to come back East to work with her as an executive."

Two years later, he and Nevins were discussing doing a film to commemorate the 50th anniversary of WWII's armistice. They had both visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. and had been moved by Gerda Weissman's filmed testimony about her experiences.

They decided to do a "small" movie, based on Weissman's story. After one director turned down HBO, Antholis left his job as director of HBO's documentary programming to do the film for the channel. It's narrated by Weissman, in tight close-up, with images of the places she is talking about illustrating her story.

Antholis traveled with his cinematographer to Poland and Czechoslovakia with Weissman's testimony on a Walkman.

"I was listening to her experience and trying to place myself in her point of view," says Antholis. "So as she was telling the story, the images that were the most effective felt like they were coming right out of her brain."

Emma Thompson
Emma Thompson as the Angel in Mike Nichols's "Angels in America." Photo: Stephen Goldblatt/HBO

He returned to ZM Productions in 1995 and made a syndicated TV series called "The Cape." Just as that show wasn't renewed, HBO called again. In 1997, he came back as a consultant on the Emmy-award winning miniseries, "From the Earth to the Moon." In 1998, he was hired as Vice President, Original Programming, and a year later, was named Vice President, HBO Films.

By 2004, Antholis has truly hit his stride. At the Bowdoin Club event with Tony Kushner, Antholis recalled an afternoon outside of Rome when the crew was filming "Angels" at Hadrian's Villa, where Roman Emperor Hadrian once lived. Antholis had come upon "The Ecstasy of St. Teresa," a stunning 17th-century sculpture by Gianlorenzo Bernini. He thought about the Borghese family, which financed Bernini's work. Then he contemplated his role at HBO.

"As I returned to the villa one night, I was moved by the idea that HBO was doing today what the Borgheses did for Bernini," he said. "There we were, allowing Mike Nichols to create this masterpiece. And like Bernini, his work linked the personal to the universal in such a profoundly satisfying way."

David McKay Wilson, a New York-based journalist, writes for alumni magazines around the country.