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The Secret of Wolper's Success

By Kathleen Fairweather

A black-and-white photo of David Wolper.

How was David Wolper successful in creating an enormous body of documentary work spanning half a century? I asked Mel Stuart whose work with Wolper spans almost two decades for some answers. According to Stuart, "Wolper realized the need for the documentary form on television over 40 years ago, and he focused on creating quality programming. Simply put, he was the right man at the right time.

Considering the number of cable outlets on the air today, it seems hard to believe now, that in 1958, three networks were the only game in town. Other than ABC, CBS, and NBC, there were no other networks on television. Except for a few series like The Twentieth Century, or, Victory at Sea, the networks were not very interested in the documentary form. Furthermore, as a general rule, independent documentary producers could not concern themselves with "news" issues which was the province of the network news departments and commentators like Ed Morrow and David Brinkley.

Wolper found that he could interest the networks and sponsors in alternative subject matter like retrospectives of historical events, biographies of famous people, nature specials, or profiles of Hollywood stars and the movies. He knew there was a good chance he could find a time slot-if he could pick up a sponsor, and nobody was better than Dave at selling a concept to an advertiser. In addition, if the networks would not finance, or air his projects, he was able to create his own network from a group of independent stations across the nation. In a sense, the Wolper organization was the Discovery and A&E channels of the 60's and 70's.

Wolper strove to create programming of the highest quality, and, as a natural consequence, of the highest sales potential for a sponsor. He realized that although he could produce a generic program about Nazi Germany, it would be much better to use the book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer as the basis for the documentary. He knew that he could sell a program about the Presidential campaign of 1960, but that he stood a better chance of finding a sponsor using renowned author Theodore White's book, The Making of the President—1960.

This mindset followed in other directions, as well. One could present the networks with a nature series, but Dave realized, it would be far easier to walk in with The National Geographic. The world beneath the sea is an interesting place to visit, but it's much easier to sell with Jacques Cousteau. He also realized that a series concept of a distinguished nature could find a home either on the networks, o1 in syndication. Thus, for example, the original "Biography" and "Hollywood and the Stars" series were created.

At the same time, Wolper knew that if he created a corps of dedicated and imaginative documentary filmmakers, and gave them the freedom to work in an unfettered environment, he could achieve the quality of programming he desired. Thus, Wolper Productions became a mecca for an extremely talented group of director, writers, producers, editors who preferred working in this creative and unstructured environment which, as a bonus, had no sense of rivalry or one-upmanship since everyone had their own program to produce."

Over a period of 18 years, these men and women created a remarkable body of work that has become an essential part of the chronicles of our times. Many of the Wolper alumnae went on to great success in feature or television production among them was Stuart himself, Alan Landsburg, William Friedkin, James Brooks, David Seltzer, Jack Haley Jr., Walon Green, Robert Lambert and John Alonzo.

Stuart recalls once asking Wolper to share a few secrets of his success. Wolper replied, "First, never argue with a ninety year old man. Second, the most important skill in any deal is the ability and patience to wait people out."

Mel Stuart, IDA Trustee and past IDA President, produces and directs in avariety of formats. Among the dozens of documentaries he produced/directed in association with the Wolper Organization are The Making of The President 1960, 1964, and 1968, and the feature documentaries Four Days in November and Wattstax. Among Stuart's recent achievements are Man Ray-Prophet of the Avant-Garde for the PBS American Masters Series, and a feature documentary on The Badwater 135 Ultra-Marathon.