Hollywood stars its own movies in infomercials

August 14, 1994|By Laurie Halpern Benenson | Laurie Halpern Benenson,New York Times News Service

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."

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