Hooray for Hollywood

Sydney H. Schanberg

March 15, 1993|By Sydney H. Schanberg

WHEN a disaster happens anywhere in America, it's a sure thing that a disaster television movie can't be far behind. The same is true of all major sick events, such as serial killings, patricide, child molestation and cannibalism. Sick-event movies have become almost as big as sneaker commercials.

The World Trade Center explosion happened on Feb. 26, around noon. By that evening, a production company that makes disaster and other films was on the case, moving to bring under contract a number of people who had been shown on television news as heroes of the crisis -- firefighters, police officers, teachers guiding their kindergartners to safety.

By March 9, only 11 days after the blast that killed five people and injured hundreds of others, the company, Wilshire Court Productions, announced that it had completed the purchase of the heroes' film rights and that the movie -- for which the first sentence of the script had not yet been written -- would be shot and edited in less than two months and would air on NBC, probably in May. They've got speed, these made-for-TV people.

There's no point in knocking them. Their products are the culture. Anyone not fully convinced of this can dispel all doubts simply by planting oneself in front of the box for an evening and surfing across the channels at random with a remote-control clicker.

Anyway, the Trade Center hero-disaster movie is pushing ahead, lickety split. Vicious rumor has it that Ernest Borgnine, Leslie Nielsen and Jessica Hahn have already been signed, and that a small part is being written in for Shelley Winters. Please do not mistake my bad jokes for elitist sneering.

It's true that these tend to be very shlocky movies, but I do appreciate that lots of people turn off their minds and escape through them. Nothing wrong with that, as long as you don't fall into catatonic stupor.

I also appreciate that almost all Americans -- right down to your neighborhood ax murderer -- would sell their children for a chance to be portrayed in a television movie. Therefore, the producers of the Trade Center film-to-be had no trouble getting people to sign over the rights to their stories. No one is saying how much each cop or firefighter or teacher was paid to surrender control over the material and promise never to sue, no matter how removed from reality the final product might be. But you can be sure we're not talking about big money here; maybe a combined total of $125,000 or $150,000 for all the personal contracts. Nevertheless, people want to see themselves portrayed on television. They want it so bad that they trust these disaster movie people with their stories.

On the other hand, it's only fair to mention that the producers of this new disaster film got pretty good reviews for their USA Network movie on the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, "After The Shock." It was praised for its attention to detail and for being "palpably real."

For the reality of the Trade Center blast, the producers will need, among other things, a bevy of child actors, because one of the most touching stories to emerge was that of the 31 kindergartners from P.S. 95 in Brooklyn who were trapped by the explosion -- 17 of them in an elevator and 14 on the observation deck 107 floors up.

Their teachers, Anna Marie Tesoriero and Rosemarie Russo, without question behaved bravely, leading the children in prayers and song.

Ms. Russo also had to lead her 5- and 6-year-olds down the 107 flights of smoke-filled stairwell. Their pictures were all over the television news that night and in the days that followed.

That's why Wilshire Court Productions sought out the teachers for their instant NBC movie. But since they are using only about eight "high-profile" people as the film's central figures, they decided it wasn't necessary to sign contracts with the individual schoolchildren. So the 31 youngsters who went through the trauma and are heroes, too, will not get individual payments. The producers decided instead to make a gift to P.S. 95, to benefit all its 730 kids in grades pre-kindergarten through 5.

As with the other payments, no one will say what this amount is. That's too bad, because some people might get the impression that the children are being ripped off. John McMahon, president of the Wilshire production company, did say, however, that the gift to the school was roughly the same amount as that paid to each of the individuals, such as the teachers.

I guess it can be said that whatever happens with this movie, it won't be another Amy Fisher exploitation telethon, with three separate networks each doing its own torrid version. And each getting a fairly big audience. Everybody loves a soap opera.

And everybody wants to be a soap star. James Filatro, the principal of P.S. 95, sounded rather left out when he discussed his kindergartners and the Trade Center film. First, he praised the producers' gift to the school and said no one was upset that the kids didn't get individual payments. But then he recalled that one of the producers' representatives had contacted him early on about the film, "but she never came back."

His voice turned just a bit wistful. "I guess I wasn't important enough."

Sydney H. Schanberg is a columnist for Newsday.

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