Hollywood stars its own movies in infomercials

THE BALTIMORE SUN

This summer, television viewers have had the opportunity to go behind the scenes for the making of the films "Wyatt Earp" (CBS), "The Lion King" (ABC), "Baby's Day Out" and "True Lies" (both on Fox) and, on HBO, specials on the making of "Wolf," "Maverick," "Speed," "Forrest Gump" and "Airheads."

They have seen footage from the films, artfully interwoven with sound bites from the actors, directors, producers, writers and, if the movie warrants, the stunt coordinators.

They have seen verite-style shots of the directors talking to their actors, looking through the cameras or conferring with the cinematographers.

These are generally amusing, even informative, half-hours. They tell you how Elton John and Tim Rice came up with "A Circle of Life," the theme song for "The Lion King" (sitting around Mr. John's baby grand) or how the bus jumped the 75-foot gap in an overpass in "Speed" (actual bus, real jump, but closer to the ground and with great camera angles) or how Tom Hanks was made to look like the world's greatest Ping-Pong player in "Forrest Gump" (answer: the animated ball was added later).

What they don't tell you is that these "making of" specials are paid for, produced by and closely supervised by the studios releasing the movies. Nor do they mention that the networks showing the specials are paying substantially less for them than for a normal half hour of programming (if they pay anything at all). In other words, the specials are, in effect, half-hour infomercials. Call them documercials.

Yes, but so what? "The fact of the matter is, if we talk about a movie in a toned-down way that isn't hype-oriented, it's about two millimeters off from how 'Entertainment Tonight' or 'Showtime' or 'CNN' or anybody else talks about the movie," says Mark Gill, a senior vice president at Columbia Pictures. "It's not like you pull something on the populace. You just can't do it. People are too wise and cynical these days."

Craig Buck, with his wife, Karina Friend Buck, and their associate, Sandy Murray, have done half-hour "The Making of . . . " specials for films like "A River Runs Through It," "Groundhog Day" and "Remains of the Day." "I'm often surprised," he says, "at how little the studios force us to do marketing kinds of stuff. People know when they're being manipulated."

Ms. Buck says, "We hate what I call 'love fests,' where you ask somebody, 'What's it like working with Alan Parker?' and they say, 'Oh, he's the most fabulous person I've ever worked with.' It's totally boring."

Nonetheless, orgies of mutual flattery do sometimes get by. HBO's special for "Speed" showed the director, Jan De Bont, and the lead actors, Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, cooing over one another. Mr. Gill of Columbia (which did not release "Speed") says, "I've seen some of them that have been much too promotional, and they do the film a disservice."

But usually the specials are not so painfully obvious. They manage to please everyone: The studios get unobtrusive marketing, the television stations earn high ratings, and viewers seem to like watching the movie-star-filled shows.

How did such a happy union of marketing and entertainment come to be? According to Chuck Workman, an Academy Award-winning filmmaker, the earliest antecedents for the making-of specials were 10-minute featurettes made in the 1960s to pad out television movies-of-the-week to two hours.

Mr. Workman says the featurette he began on the making of the 1977 film "The Deep" was the first to be expanded into a one-hour prime-time network special.

"There was a lot of interesting material on how an underwater film was made," he recalls. "The Deep" was released in June, he says, and the special was not broadcast on television until August, so there was no particular promotional objective in doing the documentary.

Today's behind-the-scenes specials also descend from the "electronic press kits" that studios began producing 12 years ago. They may include the trailer, and some sound bites with actors, the director and so on. The videotapes are sent out to hundreds of television stations, where they are cut up and used for entertainment-news segments.

Such taped press material is now produced for virtually every studio movie, and for many independent films as well.

However, studios are more selective about which movies rate a half-hour special, and often focus on films with big stars or television connections.

"We do about 10 or 12 a year," says Mr. Gill, "largely for HBO, because that's where our output deal is."

The half-hours are inexpensive to produce, especially when compared with the film's overall budget. The studios usually confine the specials to a half-hour, which avoids residuals for actors and filmmakers.

"Anything over 30 minutes long triggers a whole different set of approvals and payments," says Mr. Gill. "That would be a lot more expensive. You could easily spend $400,000 to $500,000 on an hour."

Instead, he says, "We're spending $80,000 to $130,000."

Meanwhile, the specials are a bargain for the networks, too; HBO, currently the most committed to the form, with its slot called "First Look," pays no license fee.

According to Kimball Howell, HBO's vice president for on-air promotions, the channel will have presented 19 "First Look" segments through the end of this year. The specials are shown six or seven times in conjunction with the theatrical release of the movie, then have a second life when the films are shown on HBO.

The arrangements between the studios and the television networks vary. "Sometimes the half-hour films are provided by the studios, and sometimes we pay for them," says Dan McDermott, executive vice president for current series and specials at the Fox network.

Fox television showed specials about "True Lies" and "Baby's Day Out," both of which were from 20th Century Fox, but Mr. McDermott says there is no agreement between the network and the film studio on the specials.

"We've always boosted our ratings on these," says Mr. McDermott, though there are exceptions. Even though "True Lies" had a huge opening at the box office three weeks ago, the television special about making it got dismal ratings.

Notwithstanding the occasional flop, there seems to be widespread enthusiasm on the part of television executives about the specials. Ms. Howell of HBO says: "If they have a promotional value, that's a side benefit. But that's never the intent. They're not just straightforward pitches for a film, but are their own little programs on their own."

Eric Bersch won five Emmys for editing news documentaries before he went on to make electronic press kits and half-hour making-of specials with his partner, Barry Simich. "Believe me, I have no qualms about selling a movie," Mr. Bersch says. "It's what we do; it's what we're paid to do." But, he adds, "in the strictest sense the half hours are long infomercials; you say, 'I've got to sell this movie,' in the crassest terms."

Might he make a different film if the studios were not paying? "I would know as a documentarian that I wasn't selling the movies, and I would probably focus on other things," he says. "I might find out the set designer completely stumbled onto how he was going to put the set together. That's something the studio would never want you to say in a bought special."

On the other hand, he says, a documentary filmmaker "would never have this kind of access" to uncover behind-the-scenes stories if the studios didn't have control.

"We've worked on some spectacular movies. We've worked on some dreadful movies," Mr. Bersch says. "But it doesn't make any difference in what we do, because the making of the movie is always fascinating."

HBO just aired a special on the making of Columbia Picture's "Blankman," with a character spun off from the television series "In Living Color."

Someday, says Neil Postman, chairman of the department of communications and culture at New York University, "We can expect to see a half-hour show about the making of the making of the making of. . . . Infinite regression carried to the cultural realm. It could suggest that people are running out of ideas."

Apparently that doesn't concern the people at Random House, which will publish Marlon Brando's autobiography this fall. Carol Schneider, the publisher's head of publicity, says that since Mr. Brando doesn't want to do interviews, Random House is considering making a documentary on his life. To be offered to the television networks. To be broadcast at the time of publication.

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