Making Movies About Movies
By Jason Lyon
Sure, you grew up watching every flick you could get your hands on, had an after-school job selling Goobers at the Bijou and worked your way through college as the trivia geek at the Videorama. You were the one in film school who could quote whole scenes from Double Indemnity, and not just the famous exchange about Mrs. Dietrichson’s ankle bracelet. Or maybe you were the pop culture vulture who could recite the full names of all six of Charlie’s Angels.
Then again, who couldn’t?
Across the ever-widening universe of cable television, there are hundreds of hours of nonfiction programming produced each year devoted exclusively to the entertainment industry. Cable television in the US alone now boasts an estimated 80 million subscription households and the avenues for Hollywood coverage are as varied as the subscribers themselves.
International Documentary set out to study the many venues airing and producing original work about Hollywood. We selected three of the most intriguing and prolific to profile here—E! Entertainment Television, Turner Classic Movies and American Movie Classics—to get a sense of their individual programming interests and how they go about developing and producing material.
E! Entertainment Television
Story philosophy: “Fame: Ain’t it a bitch?”
Word to the wise: Know your pop culture
The fare: E! produces three series of original nonfiction programming about the entertainment industry. The E! True Hollywood Story premieres a new episode weekly, in both one- and two-hour formats. Mysteries & Scandals debuts approximately one new show a month, focusing on intriguing cases, primarily from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Celebrity Profile is a weekly half-hour offering in-depth interviews with current stars of the big and small screens.
According to Betsy Rott, Vice President of Original Programming, THS is the “lynchpin” of E!’s lineup. As with many recent television documentaries, the series was the logical offspring of successful coverage of the O.J. Simpson murder trial. The network decided to expand the true-crime genre with Dark Obsession: The Stalking & Murder of Rebecca Schaeffer. The two-hour documentary, co-produced by Jeff Shore, recounted the shooting of a young actress best known for her role in the short-lived sitcom My Sister Sam. The program proved to be a ratings bonanza, and the network ordered more documentaries immediately after its premiere in 1996. THS was born.
“Prior to that, our programming had been geared toward the lighter feature,” recalls Rott. “It was a surprise to us that our audience definitely had an appetite for dramatic stories.”
THS has since expanded from its true-crime origins to include studies of interesting and controversial personalities, as well as juicy behind-the-scenes looks at favorite television series of yore. The show celebrates its 200th episode this month with a two-hour look at Hollywood’s famous Comedy Store.
Following the success of THS, E! expanded its nonfiction programming line-up with Celebrity Profile in 1997. Mysteries & Scandals debuted a year later.
There is something of a template for production of the three series. Shot on Beta-SP, each show usually includes first- and second-hand accounts of the relevant events, limited use of archival footage and photos (often re-used in a single episode), and the occasional use of generic “mood music.”
In the case of THS, a variety of potential topics are in development at any given time. Once a story gets the go-ahead, it is assigned to a four-member production team (the show has 14 teams in all). Its first stop is the network’s archive of previous material, indexed for easy reference. “We've been covering this stuff for 12 years now,” notes Rott. “We're very fortunate that we have this great library of material.”
Typical of the series was a recent profile of the 1980s television hit The Dukes of Hazzard. Jeff Shore served as executive producer of the program, the team members of which included Michael Lynn (producer), Tom Bellos (segment producer), Alana Kerbein (associate producer) and Wendy Quinn (production assistant). THS chronicled the series’ development, with particular emphasis on the hidden and not-so-hidden conflicts that marred production. The show included interviews with surviving cast members, brief clips from Dukes, and several archival photos repeated throughout the program. Absent was a clip of the show’s famous theme song by Waylon Jennings. “We don't have unlimited budgets for these shows,” comments Rott. “So you have to be judicious about what you select and what you go after. You make decisions based on what you need and what you can afford. It forces you to be a lot more creative.”
Still, she insists, the sheer volume and variety of the work more than makes up for the challenges. “Of course there are obstacles,” she allows. “There's never enough money, there's never enough time. But it is fun. All the people who work on these shows really loves what they do. I can't imagine not loving it.”
Turner Classic Movies
Story philosophy: Film school for film buffs
Word to the wise: Know the Turner library
The fare: TCM co-produces three to four original documentaries per year, generally on Hollywood history or biographies of classic movie stars. Also produced in-house is Private Screenings, a series of one-hour interviews with a featured Star of the Month. In addition, the network schedules countless hours of interstitial programming, or what Vice President of Program Production Tom Brown calls “short-form documentaries” that highlight upcoming programs. Finally, TCM maintains the ongoing Archive Project, a series of interviews shot on 16mm film, with movie crews both before and behind the camera, chronicling their experience working on classic movies. Clips from the 200-plus hours of interviews are used in interstitial and documentary programming.
TCM airs more than 350 films per month, according to Charlie Tabesh, Vice President of Programming. Approximately 75% of these are culled from the more than 4,500 titles in the Turner-owned MGM, RKO and pre-1948 Warner Brothers libraries. There are another 1,000-2,000 films under license to the network at any given time. “Part of what makes Turner Classic Movies special is that we appeal to the hardcore film fan,” Tabesh offers. “So we try every month to come up with a good balance of more popular films and the more eclectic.”
Tabesh explains that a primary consideration in acquiring, producing or scheduling any new original documentary is its ability to complement the Turner library. “When we premiere an original documentary, we always show some films associated with it. We have a Lana Turner documentary coming up. We've got about 40 of her films that we're playing along with it.”
Likewise, while always open to filmmaker pitches of new material, production chief Brown subjects every proposal to a series of additional questions: “Is it something that could run on any network, or is TCM the only home that this could run on? How interesting is the idea? How do-able is it? How well does it play into our library? Can we support it?”
The goal with nonfiction programming is be informative and entertaining, he notes, “We're always trying to grow new viewers and get other people interested in classic films, so I always strive to identify clips, to identify people. I never want a viewer to have to ask himself, ‘What movie is that from? What are they talking about?’ You want to include the viewer who's trying to learn.”
Filmmakers are often eager to work with the network. In many cases, gaining access to the Turner library is the only way some can successfully complete their vision. “I see so many documentaries using movie trailers,” comments Mr. Brown. “If you're doing a documentary on someone, and you can't show their best work, then you really shouldn't do the documentary.”
American Movie Classics
Story philosophy: Hidden Hollywood
Word to the wise: Pitch material with a socially conscious angle
The fare: AMC produces about 200 hours of original programming a year, including dramatic and nonfiction series. Documentaries are scheduled under two loose series frameworks. Backstory is a half-hour weekly detailing the making of a particular movie from concept to release. Occasionally, feature-length films are also shown under the Backstory banner. Hollywood Lives & Legends features original documentaries in one- and two-hour formats examining the personalities that made Hollywood great. AMC’s programming slate for 2001 offers seven long-form documentaries, produced in as few as three months and as many as 18.
AMC Senior Vice President of Original Programming Marc Juris actively encourages filmmakers to approach the network with story pitches, noting that the secret to success is the ability to tell a great story from an interesting perspective. “Unless we unearth a really good story that is worth telling, no production value can be added to it that's going to make it a great documentary. We look for subject matter that is rich, that has not been told a hundred times. There are still hundreds of stories that haven't really been told the way they need to be told.”
Filmmakers interested in the hot-button topics of Hollywood history need not shy away, says Juris, though they often think they should. “What we really want are insightful, sometimes provocative, even controversial, subjects that could benefit from a good documentary filmmaker's point of view, and a thorough explanation of the subject,” he explains. “We want to challenge ourselves and challenge the storytelling process.”
Hollywood Lives & Legends, in particular, tends toward progressive fare. Last year, the network co-produced a documentary under that rubric with Barbra Streisand called Reel Models: The First Women of Film, a powerful study of women's “largely forgotten or ignored” contributions to early filmmaking. Reel Models was produced, directed and written by Susan Koch and Christopher Koch. This year’s lineup offers a biography of Gone with the Wind’s Hattie McDaniel. The film, executive produced by Whoopi Goldberg and produced by Davis Lacy, focuses as much on the actress’ commitment to racial equality and social justice as on her considerable career, which spanned two decades and more than 80 films.
Also premiering this year is Wisecracker: The Life and Times of William Haines, Hollywood’s First Openly Gay Star, produced and directed by Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey. Based on the book of the same title, the film is the story of a now-forgotten silent matinee idol. “Here's a man with an unheard-of level of courage,” Juris muses, “a guy who has such a secure, committed relationship, he will give up fame for the love of his partner, and incidentally, stay with that person the rest of his life. That's a pretty amazing story, and one not normally associated with Hollywood.”
Juris is so pleased with Wisecracker that he is discussing the possibility of a broader festival or even theatrical release before it appears on AMC. This is something the network would like to consider more frequently with future productions.
Because he personally approves every project that AMC develops, Juris takes an active role in production. “Every documentary is an opportunity to tell a story that hasn't been told,” he says. “I’ve become very personally invested. I'll tell you, the filmmaker always comes back to us, and says, ‘Thanks for really staying on top of us because we've done our best work ever.’”
Jason Lyon is a documentary producer and freelance film publicist. His film Five Wives, Three Secretaries and Me was named an Outstanding Documentary of 1999 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Documentary Screening Committee.