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