Documentary filmmaker Jennifer Fox may have found the perfect, if not the most expected, home for her audacious, vividly personal, and compulsively-discussed feature debut, The Tale. Starring Laura Dern, the film chronicles the sexual abuse Fox suffered at the hands of her running coach when she was 13. It sparked an intense conversation online—and in the theaters in snowy Park City, UT–when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday.
On Friday, in a high seven-figure global deal, prestige cable channel HBO acquired the movie, promising Fox that it would release the conversation starter on its service and support it with an aggressive series of town halls and community outreach events orchestrated to provide a forum for discussion.
“I can’t imagine a more timely and relevant film for HBO to have bought at Sundance,” said Len Amato, president of HBO Films, in a release. The studio has yet to set a release date for the movie.
The deal gives Fox, 58, a revered platform to showcase her work, an arena to continue the conversation about the sexual abuse of minors, and the freedom for audiences to see the film on their own terms: most likely in their homes, surrounded by close friends and family.
“The film triggers many different things in people,” said Laura Rister, head of production at Untitled Entertainment and a producer on The Tale, in an interview with V.F. “The exact thing that gives this film its power is the same thing that had theatrical distributors afraid about making sure they do the film justice and get it into theaters properly.”
Told as a memoir, The Tale follows Jennifer, a documentary filmmaker (Dern) whose life starts to unravel when her mother (Ellen Burstyn) finds a story Jennifer wrote at age 13 that chronicles the “special” relationship she had with her two adult coaches—a male running coach (Jason Ritter), and the female riding coach (Elizabeth Debicki) who introduced the two and participated in the abuse. The film toggles between the past and the present, using the mechanism of memory to tell a story that both chronicles the abuse and the stories Jennifer told herself to allow her to survive.
Jessica Lacy, the head of ICM’s indie film division, who was also involved in the sale, added that while many traditional theatrical distributors were passionate about The Tale, they were troubled about their ability to get the film out to as wide an audience as Fox hoped for.
“Jennifer, being a documentary filmmaker, has seen the power HBO can provide a film,” she said. “HBO may not be doing a traditional theatrical release, a la Fox Searchlight, but they will be able to keep the conversation going. Jennifer still very much wants the film to be screened with audiences, so people have the opportunity to experience it with others. She also wants there to be panel discussions, Q&As, and community outreach. HBO plans to do all of that.”
HBO also intends to support the film with an awards campaign—a scenario that’s likely to land Dern additional accolades.
Get Vanity Fair’s HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Nicole SperlingNicole Sperling is a Hollywood Correspondent for Vanity Fair.