August 31, 2004

NBC Meets 'Deadline' Sundance Doc has the 'Wright' Stuff

Gabriel Solache, former Illinois Death Row inmate, from 'Deadline.'

Deadline, which chronicles Illinois Governor George Ryan's decision in 2003 to give clemency to all Death Row inmates, is a breakthrough for an independent documentary.

NBC acquired broadcast rights to it after its chairman and CEO, Robert Wright, saw the film at this year's Sundance Film Festival. It will air July 30 as a two-hour Dateline NBC special, seen by an expected audience of 10 million.

But when directors Katy Chevigny and Kirsten Johnson brought their labor-of-love documentary to Sundance in January, they were on a deadline themselves. Something good had to happen soon, or else.

The film had serious financial problems. Working through New York City-based Big Mouth Productions, where Chevigny is founder and president, they had raised roughly $100,000. Chevigny says the film ultimately will cost twice that. "It was one of those situations where, if we didn't get into Sundance, we'd be in trouble in terms of figuring out what kind of life this film would have," Chevigny says. "We didn't have enough funding at the time we went there, and we took big financial risks to put it together to get it there."

But the filmmakers believed in the drama of their unusual and timely story. Ryan, working against the deadline of leaving office, had held unprecedented public hearings for all Death Row inmates after 13 had been found to be wrongfully convicted. He first declared a moratorium on executions. A Republican who once supported the capital punishment, Ryan ultimately gave clemency to 167. But he waited until the last minute to make up his mind. The filmmakers were there to document the emotional hearings and conduct interviews, as well as to show how Ryan's emerging questions and concerns fit into broader issues about the fairness of the death penalty.

At Sundance, Chevigny and Johnson got lucky. Their movie screened the first day of the festival. And after the initial screening, their producer, Dallas Brennan, was given a business card by Wright. "We looked at the card and said, 'Is this the Bob Wright?''' Chevigny recalls. "We made funny looks at each other and wondered why he'd done that.

"The next day Kirsten and I were at a directors' brunch and he approached us and said he was interested in putting it on the network," Chevigny continues. "We were very surprised. I said I didn't think NBC put independent documentaries on the network. He said he was interested in seeing if he could make it work, even though he acknowledged it was very unusual. He came back to New York, asked a number of people at NBC to watch the film, and we got called in for a meeting. So he really followed through on his initial inclination."

"He said it was the most fair and balanced portrayal of death penalty he had ever seen," Johnson adds.

"He didn't say 'fair and balanced'that's Fox's term," Chevigny interjects, laughing. "He did say 'balanced.' He said, 'You showed a range of different perspectives that could almost represent the different parts of American opinion.'"

Within a month, the filmmakers had made an unusual deal with NBC. The network acquired rights to broadcast the filmfirst for Dateline, then for possible re-broadcast on one of its cable stations, such as Bravo or MSNBC. NBC will identify the program as an independent film, show it in its intended 16-by-9 aspect ratio, and allow for the directors to arrange a limited theatrical and wider DVD release. And NBC might have them appear on one of its other shows, like Today, to promote Deadline.

The filmmakers and their editors, Kate Hirson and Carol Dysinger, had to trim their 92-minute film to 80 minutes to accommodate commercials, short introductions and a final summation by program anchors. As part of their editing, they tried to make sure commercial breaks were surrounded by important narrative developments. In exchange, they've been told to expect an audience of 10 million. Neither Big Mouth nor NBC would disclose the purchase price. (PBS had also expressed interest in the film.)

"It's their film," says David Corvo, executive producer of Dateline NBC. (Wright, now chairman and CEO of the merged NBC Universal, was not available for comment.) "Before they agreed to do the deal, they wanted to know what the structure would be. Obviously, we have to break it up for commercials. We said, 'You guys will have to trim it somenot a lot, but someto fit it into our format and maybe do a couple tinkerings here and there because it will get interrupted by long commercials.' They were up for that, and used our edit facilities at least partly to trim down the film."

A press release called the deal "groundbreaking" and even "landmark." However, Corvo tends to play that aspect down. "[Wright] saw the film and wrote a note to the president of NBC News saying he thought it was a very intriguing, compelling look at this issue and he ought to take a look at that. Neal Shapiro took it from there and screened it. I screened it and said, 'Yeah, it is a little bit of a different take, and we have a bunch of two-hour shows over the summer; maybe we can use it in one of our slots.' It was kind of a simple thing."

Big Mouth, founded in 1997, specializes in social-issue documentaries. Johnson, also a cinematographer, directed the 1999 Innocent Until Proven Guilty, about juvenile justice, for the company.

Chevigny directed 2002's Journey to the West: Chinese Medicine Today for Big Mouth as well as produced Innocent. She's also the founder of Arts Engine, Inc., which among other functions administers the MediaRights.org website.

Actually, Chevigny and Johnson had started work on a film about the death penaltywhich they opposebefore deciding to focus on Ryan's story. It was meant as an exploration of the impact of the 1972 Furman v. Georgia decision, in which the US Supreme Court decided in a 5-4 decision that the death penalty as administered was "cruel and unusual" punishment. As a result, some 600 Death Row inmates had their sentences commuted and about half ultimately were paroled. The filmmakers' interest was in seeing what happened to some of them. (In 1976, the Supreme Court allowed states to resume capital punishment.)

"We were doing a lot of research trying to raise money for a film just about Furman v. Georgia,'' Chevigny says. "One of our advisors, George Kendall, who worked at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, recommended we find some contemporary story involving the death penalty." Chevigny and Johnson began filming, in video, in Illinois in October 2002. After making his decision and leaving office, Ryan granted them an interview and cooperated in other wayshe came to Sundance.

The finished film looks at the Illinois story in the context of the 1972 Supreme Court decision. "We felt it would be great to talk about something happening today and to compare it back to 1972," Chevigny maintains.

NBC isn't bothered that the directors oppose the death penalty. "It's not their story; it's George Ryan's story," Corvo asserts. "I think they accurately reflect what happened. And in the piece, there's a very, very powerful sequence from victims' families."

 

Steven Rosen is a Los Angeles-based freelance arts and entertainment writer, whose stories have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Denver Post and on IndieWire.com. He can be reached at srosenone@aol.com.

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