Close-up on Hollywood: Audiences in all corners of the globe share an interest in La-La Land. RealScreen explores what it takes for producers to deliver the Big Name, and what it takes for distributors to sell it

Hollywood looms over the entertainment business like a 50-foot monster in a sci-fi movie. The fascination with the Dream Factory has manifested in profitable cottage industries which prime the publicity pump for stars and their movies, from the fanzines of the...
January 1, 1998

Hollywood looms over the entertainment business like a 50-foot monster in a sci-fi movie. The fascination with the Dream Factory has manifested in profitable cottage industries which prime the publicity pump for stars and their movies, from the fanzines of the 40s and 50s, to the advent of Entertainment Tonight and E! Entertainment Network, and the proliferation of celebrity lifestyle series.


In a perfect world, every production company, from the well-heeled networks to little guys maxing out their credit cards, would have equal access to subjects. As it is, networks like E! and American Movie Classics, and producers of established shows like A&E’s Biography have greater success procuring interviews.

‘People are reluctant to do any type of interview, especially for a small company, because they don’t know where or what you are going to do with it,’ says Hadley Wood, director of international sales and licensing at Passport International Productions.

Representatives of stars have become more demanding in terms of wanting to know details such as where the program will be distributed, the budget and who else will be included. But often, notes Wood, the production company doesn’t have the information because the project is being done on spec.

Programs with familiar tone and content have the added benefit of offering a comfort level, thus studios and stars are more willing to make themselves available. ‘Most people know that we’re not tabloidy and that we represent everything that’s good about the movies. That helps us tremendously,’ says Nancy McKenna, executive in charge of production for amc.

For smaller producers, gaining a foothold is a Catch-22; it can, however, be done. ‘You have to make sure that you let them know why you want to interview them and what your expectation of them is,’ says Sally Miles, general manager of U.K.-based September Films.

For The Directors series, Tampa, Florida-based Media Entertainment formed an alliance with the American Film Institute which opened the door to over 150 celebrity interviews, including Tom Hanks, Harrison Ford and Meryl Streep, for the 26-episode series.

The Biography Syndrome

U.S. tv networks have attempted to recreate the success of A&E’s Biography through their own profile-driven documentaries such as Legends (The Learning Channel) and Private Screenings (Turner Classic Movies), as well as profiles which air on syndicated and primetime network newsmagazines.

A spin in line with the demographic differentiates the shows: Intimate Portraits (Lifetime) focuses on long one-on-one interviews with female subjects; Celebrity Profile (E!) has moved away from chronicling career highlights to a stronger narrative focusing on how the actor became a success; The E! True Hollywood Story incorporates dramatic reenactments.

Distributors say biographical documentaries are easier to sell than thematic docs because of built-in marquee value. However, according to Morgan Neville, producer for Peter Jones Productions, a supplier of Hollywood-based biographies for A&E, ‘There’s too much Hollywood history going on right now. We’re all asking the same people for interviews.’

Undoubtedly, this has sparked the trend of publicists demanding script approval for clients, and even final-cut approval in some cases. And, most worrisome for producers: some prodcos are willing to grant this.

‘We’re not giving anyone creative control, although we have no objections to letting them see the piece because we’re sure that it’s fair and balanced, and not moving into an area that will make them feel uncomfortable,’ says Rosemary Sykes, director of original programming, Lifetime.

‘What’s changing is that there are more people making documentaries who aren’t documentarians,’ Neville says. ‘They are tv producers, and to them, they could be doing America’s Funniest Home Videos or a documentary on Cary Grant. A documentary isn’t supposed to be a fluff piece, which, unfortunately, a lot of these programs are.’

To clip or not to clip

Another sore spot for producers is the exorbitant cost of acquiring clips. With the average 30- to 60-second clip costing between US$3,000 and $10,000, and the budget for these types of shows ranging from US$50,000 to $150,000, the licence fee for clips and the rights that go along with them can blow budgets sky high.

‘I wouldn’t recommend doing anything involving Hollywood without first getting educated on the clip problem,’ cautions Bob Emery, president and ceo of Media Entertainment. His clip-heavy series, The Directors, would have been ‘otherwise impossible’ without the afi’s assistance in getting around the clip cost.

Other companies haven’t been so lucky. amc has refrained from selling its Hollywood documentaries overseas because the licensing costs for worldwide distribution wouldn’t cover the clearance of the clips. These costs are another reason networks prefer docs on big-names; they don’t want to risk producing an expensive program that may not have a guaranteed draw.

Most studios make the licensing of clips pricey because they want to maintain the integrity of their library. ‘Getting clips is a process made more difficult by a certain amount of abuse in the past. Studios haven’t been immune to having material used in an unauthorized fashion,’ says Louise Rosen, managing director for u.k.-based distributor Louise Rosen Limited.

Some studios may not want to bother with the paperwork. ‘I’ve come across some gatekeepers for studios or networks who don’t want to have to deal with negotiating, so they will quote you a price basically to make you go away,’ says Neville.

Passport has gotten around problems by acquiring over 16,000 classic movie trailers. Not originally copyrighted by studios, they contain many of the memorable scenes from classic films, serving as the source of Passport programs such as the internationally distributed biography series, Hollywood Remembers, and upcoming special, The Bond Girls. Not paying for clips dramatically lowers the per-episode budget to between US$20,000 and $50,000, allowing Passport to sell at a lower price.

Still, Passport finds itself in the same quandary as studios because it licenses stock footage to companies which produce similar programs. The company makes a good deal of income off these deals, but may restrict licensing its trailers to protect the value of its library and avoid giving material to its competition.

The International Market

Most Hollywood-content documentary producers make their international deals after the product is finished. ‘If you don’t have a U.S. deal, it’s tough to pre-sell because they don’t want to take the risk unless it’s a really well-known filmmaker,’ according to Gina Kwon, vp of Myriad Pictures in Los Angeles.

When shopping for Hollywood-content programming, international buyers are looking for shows which complement their existing movie lineups, story-driven star profiles, and news and information programming that can be localized – a frequent request as stations step up branding. In the past, producers refrained from allowing their shows to be localized for fear of losing control of their product. That attitude has changed.

‘We believe that a Fashion TV in Brazil or in Finland could be more meaningful to a local audience if it used our spine, format and name, but inserted a local piece or two to make it that much more relevant to that market,’ says Stephen Tapp, vp and general manager of Toronto, Canada-based ChumCity International, which offers shows such as Fashion Television and Movie Television in a variety of formats.

E! does robust business selling its newsfeed to international clients. ‘We approach each market independently,’ says Jon Helmrich, vp, international development. ‘The French want to know what’s coming out of the Paris scene, but they may not care what’s happening in Berlin. The common link is what’s going on in L.A.’

U.K.-based Mentorn Group produces several daily entertainment shows – including The Ticket and vip for Europe, as well as Star News and Star Secrets, weekly series for international distribution – which are completely versionable.

Mark Rowland, controller of group development, says his company prefers to do original interviews, rather than recutting ones sold by U.S. suppliers, because there is a difference in editorial focus between the U.S. and the international market: ‘Nobody [in Europe] is going to buy a reverential program about movie stars in which they tell you about their loves, lives and horoscope. It has to have a sharp, interesting and clever story angle to it.’

‘Internationally, we see people wanting the story and the facts,’ Helmrich notes. ‘They don’t want a spin beyond what actually happened.’

The expansion of premium movie services has created a growing need for one-offs and series about movies, as they serve as good marketing tie-ins to support movie programming. ‘Anything that can be easily marketed in conjunction with a feature film is hot right now,’ Wood says. Making-of shows, like E!’s Behind the Scenes, sell well because they have indefinite shelf-life and can rerun anytime the movie plays on the station.

So long as people watch movies, there will be an audience wanting to know about the stars involved and the behind-the-scenes action. But as the economic realities of making Hollywood-content documentaries set in, producers, distributors and buyers are being cornered into playing on a narrower field populated by the same big-name celebrities, presenting a one-dimensional vision of La-la Land.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.