Friday, September 08, 2006

I've produced or exec produced 12 TV movies this year, including Life is not a Fairytale and Firestorm. i thought, given some of the silliness i'm seeing in the diaries at daily kos that it might be useful to some here to understand the process that gets such movies made.

so here's a primer on how it works.

there aren't very many of these made any more--the heyday of the TV movie is long since behind us. when selling to the networks only an event is going to get their interest. 9/11 was always going to be a movie on one of the networks or on cable--it was just a question of where. when cyrus was pitching the story, he had insider info as a movement conservative, so he knew how to get the line on the commission report and so on.

what follows is speculation (a dramatic recreation, if you will, with some license taken, some composite character, and some fictionalizations. hell, maybe there's even some improv.)

at ABC, you have various lines of defense. someone in the middle ranks (a VP or slightly higher up) gets a call from cyrus's agents saying: "we have a great take on 9/11 as a mini-series". a pitch would be set immediately, because cyrus is considered a solid writer (he in fact IS a solid writer, with some decent credits and a few good scripts behind him). And given the profile of the pitch, Steve MacPherson would be in that first meeting, most likely. I doubt VERY much that Cyrus pitched a political slant--more likely he just pitched a "i know people on the inside" angle. as well, everyone wanted to tell john o'neill's story (that was oliver stone's original angle as well) and cyrus had a bunch of info from that end as well.

ABC probably bought this in the room, as they say--a good writer, a great story, a true event. kind of a no-brainer. with that deal done, cyrus commenced to writing, with some input from ABC but probably very limited at that point. once he finished his draft, then the network got involved. notes are written (by both VP types and probably higher ups) and those notes are both creative and now quite possibly political in nature. the highest-ups at ABC would be well aware of this project, and were i'm sure very keen to have this movie on for the fifth anniversary, putting everyone under the gun. that this coincided with the election coming up was most likely not on people's minds-i am reconsidering my intemperate remarks on digby's blog yesterday. airdates have their own logic--this one was too obvious to need to question.

now here's where things get murky: i'm sure cyrus did what he has promised to do--delivered a piece of right wing propaganda, albeit a well-written one. or maybe he figured he'd add the sneaky stuff in when the shooting draft was done with the director (david cunningham was attached early on in the process as well, so they were collaborating from the get-go) and kept it neutral. but given that the highest ups care and cared about this (though McPherson is the president of ABC believe me he has bosses as well, and those are the guys who make decisions about, for instance, where to donate political dollars) project, they may have given their own notes.

now they have a start date, and they go out to actors. actors are actors--their are some juicy roles in this project, and ABC was not afraid to pay actors well to be in it. so the actors do what they do--read for parts and hope to get cast.

what they don't do: have strong political opinions about major material that probably didn't read so tendentiously on the page. i can assure anyone reading of that. harvey keitel or patricia heaton (NB my company distributed her last TV movie) and their political views have nothing to do with it. that doesn't mean that cyrus might not know someone like patricia via political meetings--hell, i got my first job in hollywood because i was a member of Southern Californians against the Death Penalty--just that actors do what they do, not anything more, unless they are producers or writers on a project as well.

so, the scorecard on who most likely is and is not responsible for any political and polemical content in this movie:

ABC mid-level exec: not responsible, 90% chance a lefty like me.

ABC prexy: probably not responsible

ABC highest ups: possibly responsible

Writer/producer: definitely responsible

director: definitely responsible

actors: definitely not responsible

ABC affiliates: definitely not responsible

advertisers: definitely not responsible

tom kean: a total dickhead liar and most assuredly responsible

all in all, it's doubtful to me that there was a concerted effort to attack Democrats here by ABC in general, they were hoping to be more subtle than that. i think that too much autonomy was probably given to cyrus and david c. and those guys took that autonomy as license to unleash their own biases and prejudices, ones that might well dovetail with ABC (at the VERY TOP) execs own beliefs. someone else will have to check on policial donations at the top of the company, but i would be shocked if they didn't skew right wing.

then comes marketing. marketing took one look at this movie and said--hey, rush limbaugh will love this. so will hugh hewitt. remember, ABC owns lots of radio as well, and in paticular right wing talk radio. synergy! and their audience will watch our movie if they tell them to (they don't call them dittoheads for nothing.) so marketing took the ball and ran with it (probably with cyrus's "friend of limbaugh" help). that's all about generating ratings and buzz.

well, that's what i'm guessing is the case, with limited (but some) insider scoop. it's both better than some are positing here, but bad in result, i'm afraid.


  1. Great great post. I'm a screenwriter up in Canada who deals with minor versions of this kind of controversy from time to time (I have a film banned at the moment, actually.) Normally I'd defend free speech, but this film, at this time, strikes me as needing to meet a higher standard than normal when it comes to non-partisanship. This isn't about what Ron and Nancy said in the bedroom, this is about blaming the Democrats for 9-11.

    If this piece really does spin maliciously against the Clintons,then that's playing with serious emotinal fire and someone very high up should be considered equally responsible with the filmmakers. Normally I would wait to see it before commenting, but one of the clips I've seen could've been a campaign commercial in 02 or 04- it had language about how you can't win a war with police actions was suspiciously familiar and anachronistic. Good looking, well written scene. Blatantly manipulative propaganda too.

    If marketing knew Rush and his dittoheads were going to love it, then someone higher up should've known they were heading for major trouble for brand Disney. Dittoheads aren't interested in a non-partisan, detailed dramatization of the 9-11 comission report, and that's how the flick has been marketed for the general public.

  2. sleeps in trees11:36 PM


    Encouraged you to write this on kos... member me? I still think that the facts overcome the "supposition" until otherwise proven.

    I personally think that the lobbying to secure the TM of Mickey is highly suspect for this deal (with regards to exec. collusion). Mind you I know crap and am just an armchair quaterback.

    Now, back to the interesting stuff. Where did you film Firestorm? I took a look at it and it looks similar to Manning Park?

    You have NO IDEA how close this movie has come to the reality that is here in BC. The pine beetles have eaten all the trees and it is tinder. Presently we are threatened with a fire that has just crossed the 49th and is working its way through. Watching is creepy.

    I live in Vancouver but we have a cabin close and we had to cut it short the smoke is so dense with no rain in sight.

    Anyway, I digress. Please, keep up the good work educating the masses. Keep going with the diaries.

  3. funny enough, we shot on vancouver island. and yes, we shot the fire footage during controlled burns that were being done up there anyway, in part because of the beetle/tinder situation.

    pretty crazy. but those shots look so real. it got very hot on that set.

  4. sleeps in trees12:31 AM

    Come back again Robert.

    We are in the outskirts of Vancouver.

    I'll have you and yours for dinner. Or, we could hit Gothams (although I prefer home now).

    Good people are hard to come by :-)

  5. Robert-

    a belated thank you for this post. I wish some of the major bloggers had linked to it because I detected a fair amount of hysteria about this on our side of the fence, and people needed to read something like this from someone who knows how 'the biz' works.

    In particular I was dismayed by some comments (quite a few actually) at Crooks and Liars, jumping all over Harvey Keitel. I tried defending him but mostly my posts fell on deaf ears (or blind eyes).

    I'm a producer/director/writer/editor but at a somewhat lower level than you are. Still, your post sounds about right as far as how this played out and where the blame should lie. Too many people have little to no idea how the media works, whether it's network/cable news, newspapers, television or film. That goes for both sides of the partisan aisle.

    I also enjoy your comments at The Poor Man. Please keep up the good writing. I really think you should lobby Atrios or C+L to link to you more often. Your perspective is badly needed.