Net­works and stu­dios look­ing to mark sig­nif­i­cant an­niver­saries of­ten find them­selves com­pet­ing, writes John Jur­gensen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television -

Ex­ec­u­tives for at least five Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion net­works all had the same idea: let’s make a doc­u­men­tary mark­ing the 25th an­niver­sary of the Los An­ge­les ri­ots on April 29, 1992. Be­gin­ning next week, this crop of movies be­gins air­ing about the city’s erup­tion of rage and vi­o­lence. De­mand for meaty doc­u­men­taries that will stand out in a over­crowded TV land­scape has pro­duc­ers scour­ing his­tory for mo­ments that spark our col­lec­tive mem­ory — or at least of­fer an easy mar­ket­ing hook. An­niver­saries that end in five or zero are a ma­jor in­cen­tive to re­visit mile­stone crimes, tragedies and con­tro­ver­sies in hopes of find­ing new rel­e­vance.

The ret­ro­spec­tive rush was trig­gered by the sur­prise suc­cess of two multi-part TV se­ries about OJ Simpson that ap­peared last year around the 20th an­niver­sary of his mur­der trial. A doc­u­men­tary ( OJ: Made in Amer­ica) and a scripted drama ( The Peo­ple v OJ Simpson) brought fresh con­text to a saga that many had dis­missed as a dated tabloid fever dream, and won an Os­car and nine Emmy awards, re­spec­tively.

Now pro­duc­ers are raid­ing the rest of the 1990s for sub­ject mat­ter. The death of Princess Diana 20 years ago this Au­gust is the fo­cus of mul­ti­ple projects, in­clud­ing a four-hour doc­u­men­tary. Ex­ec­u­tives say mul­ti­ple pro­duc­ers are rac­ing to dis­sect the scan­dal in­volv­ing Bill Clin­ton and Mon­ica Lewin­sky, whose name hit the news 20 years ago next Jan­uary. An­other hot topic in the in­dus­try: the fed­eral siege on a re­li­gious cult near Waco, Texas, 25 years ago next Fe­bru­ary.

The re-anal­y­sis trend has also spilled into scripted shows. On April 28 Net­flix re­leases Rod­ney King, a “spo­ken-word por­trait” by Roger Guen­veur Smith and di­rected by Spike Lee. Pro­duc­tion be­gins this month on a six-part drama about Waco, star­ring John Leguizamo, Michael Shan­non and Tay­lor Kitsch, with the We­in­stein Com­pany promis­ing a story “sur­pris­ing in its stark con­trast to the me­dia nar­ra­tive at the time and what is re­mem­bered of Waco al­most 25 years later”. Colin Far­rell is on deck to play Oliver North in a minis­eries be­ing de­vel­oped for Ama­zon about the Iran-Con­tra af­fair, which cli­maxed 30 years ago. The team be­hind The Peo­ple v OJ Simpson, who cast Cuba Good­ing Jr in the ti­tle role, is hunt­ing for stars to play Diana and Prince Charles in the next edi­tion of the FX drama Feud.

Vin­nie Mal­ho­tra, who over­sees doc­u­men­taries and un­scripted pro­gram­ming at the Amer­i­can ca­ble network Show­time, says he has fielded four dif­fer­ent Mon­ica Lewin­sky pitches, plus a pro­posal for a scripted drama about the scan­dal. He passed on all — the ap­proach was “too straight­for­ward” — and says he’s pur­su­ing a dif­fer­ent an­gle but de­clines to elab­o­rate.

The LA ri­ots have the right in­gre­di­ents for re­assess­ment: tons of footage from blan­ket news cov­er­age; timely themes, in­clud­ing ten­sions over race and polic­ing; and the in­ter­est of top film­mak­ers who came of age in the 90s. Show­time’s doc­u­men­tary — a two-hour film ti­tled Burn Motherf..ker, Burn! — will be re­leased in the US on April 21. Di­rec­tor Sacha Jenkins, whose ex­pe­ri­ence is rooted in mu­sic films, went for his­tor­i­cal con­text. The movie delves into the for­ma­tion of the LA Po­lice Depart­ment and lo­cal street gangs, along with the Watts ri­ots of 1965, be­fore get­ting to King.

The Smith­so­nian Chan­nel is us­ing an­niver­saries to pro­mote com­ing doc­u­men­taries about se­rial killer David Berkowitz (ar­rested 40 years ago), con­tro­ver­sial TV minis­eries Je­sus of Nazareth (re­leased 40 years ago) and Poc­a­hon­tas (de­ceased 400 years ago). Weigh­ing in on the LA ri­ots in a se­ries called Lost Tapes is a way for the Smith­so­nian to get no­ticed, de­spite the glut of sim­i­lar doc­u­men­taries. “We’re a smaller chan­nel and we want to be part of that con­ver­sa­tion and the same com­pet­i­tive set,” says David Royle, Smith­so­nian Chan­nel’s ex­ec­u­tive vice-pres­i­dent of pro­duc­tion and pro­gram­ming.

Across the entertainment world, an­niver­saries are a time-hon­oured tool for squeez­ing new rev­enue out of old re­leases. U2 is us­ing the 30th an­niver­sary of the band’s Joshua Tree al­bum as a rea­son to launch a con­cert tour in May. The 50th birthday of Sgt Pep­per’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in June brings a deluxe reis­sue of the al­bum, a yet an­other jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for Bea­tles fans to part with their money, and a com­mem­o­ra­tive se­ries of events in Liverpool fea­tur­ing Aus­tralian cabaret artist Meow Meow and other per­form­ers.

But the TV in­dus­try’s nostal­gia quest is “big­ger than it was even 10 years ago,” says Rob Sharenow, ex­ec­u­tive vice-pres­i­dent and gen­eral man­ager of A&E and Life­time. “We live in a frac­tured cul­ture where there are very few mo­ments of unity and fo­cus. These an­niver­saries give us a way to com­pare shared ex­pe­ri­ence and re­mem­ber.”

The ca­ble network A&E is us­ing an­niver­saries to re­launch its bi­og­ra­phy se­ries that fea­ture not one but two cel­e­brated rap­pers: No­to­ri­ous BIG (killed 20 years ago last month) gets a twohour life story and Tu­pac Shakur (killed two decades ago last year) gets a six-part mur­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Other in­stal­ments will re­volve around El­iz­a­beth Smart (ab­ducted 15 years ago) and David Koresh, leader of the Branch Da­vid­ian sect near Waco. Both are sched­uled to ap­pear on Fox­tel later this year. A&E’s two-hour LA Burn­ing: The Ri­ots 25 Years Later was ex­ec­u­tive pro­duced by John Sin­gle­ton, whose di­rec­to­rial de­but, Boyz in the Hood, came out in 1991. A sep­a­rate doc­u­men­tary from the His­tory Chan­nel in the US, The LA Ri­ots: 25 Years Later, will screen in Aus­tralia on Fox­tel on May 4.

Com­pet­ing riot films are open­ing in movie Clock­wise from above left, Roger Guen­veur Smith’s solo show out­lines events af­ter the Rod­ney King beat­ing; Prince Charles and Princess Diana af­ter their wed­ding; Mon­ica Lewin­sky with then pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton; the Branch Da­vid­ian com­pound near Waco, Texas, goes up in flames; and Ster­ling K. Brown, left, and Cuba Good­ing Jr, cen­tre, in The Peo­ple v OJ Simpson the­atres first. LA 92 pre­mieres at this month’s Tribeca Film Fes­ti­val be­fore a re­lease on Amer­i­can network Na­tional Geo­graphic. Let It Fall: Los An­ge­les 1982-1992 is be­ing re­leased in the­atres a week be­fore its ABC broad­cast in the US.

Pro­duc­ers who spe­cialise in crimes from the past, a busy cat­e­gory at the mo­ment, are es­pe­cially de­pen­dent on the time-ma­chine strat­egy. “It’s al­most a for­mula: take the in­ter­est in the true-crime genre, add the feel­ing in the coun­try for nostal­gia, and out come these an­niver­saries,” says Henry Sch­leiff, group pres­i­dent of ca­ble chan­nel In­ves­ti­ga­tion Dis­cov­ery, which con­sid­ered sev­eral Son of Sam pitches be­fore set­tling on a three-part spe­cial that will air in Aus­tralia on Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel later this year.

The an­niver­sary an­gle used to be the do­main of TV news di­vi­sions that com­piled footage from network ar­chives to churn out spe­cials. But cut­backs in these de­part­ments helped open the door to out­side pro­duc­ers with a big­ger-pic­ture doc­u­men­tary style, says Tom For­man, who runs a pro­duc­tion com­pany called Crit­i­cal Con­tent. Its six-hour CBS minis­eries The Case of: JonBenet Ram­sey, stream­ing in Aus­tralia on Stan, added to a re­cent wave of doc­u­men­taries ar­riv­ing 20 years af­ter the girl’s death, among them Cast­ing JonBenet, which airs in Aus­tralia on Net­flix from April 28.

“Don’t think there’s not a calendar in my of­fice marked with every un­solved na­tional homi­cide of the 90s and 2000s,” For­man says.

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