Ted Turner's own Civil War

Unhappy with AOL / Time-Warner, he financed 'Gods and Generals' himself

Film

February 23, 2003|By Michael Sragow | By Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

WASHINGTON -- You can't spend a half-hour with Ted Turner without realizing how he got where he is. Smart and funny and frank, he turns an interview into a two-way interrogation, punctuating almost every statement with a "right?" or a "wouldn't you agree?" that is anything but rhetorical. He's as hopeful for a lively interchange as any reporter.

His restless personality fills a hotel suite at the Ritz-Carlton with a charged and sometimes antic air. The atmosphere he generates is engaging, not intimidating. During an interview promoting the Ted Turner Pictures production of the Civil War epic Gods and Generals, he declared that "Military men are not that political" because they must serve their country no matter what the stripe of the administration. When I countered with the old maxim, "War is an extension of politics by other means," and suggested that Civil War commanders like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson at least had to be aware of the South's political agenda, he said, "You make a good point. I'm not going to argue with that."

Surely he has the most eclectic resume in American business: transforming an Atlanta cable station into the "Superstation" TBS; buying sports teams like the Atlanta Braves, Hawks and Thrashers; founding CNN, the organization that revolutionized broadcast news.

But after being reduced to a figurehead in the AOL / Time Warner empire (he's still the largest single shareholder) and seeing his stock lose as much as $8 billion in value, Turner last month announced that he would resign his vice-chairmanship, effective in May. He's candid about his embitterment over AOL / Time Warner management of companies he nurtured or inaugurated. Indeed, his recent forays into TV and movies derive from what he sees as the misuse or gutting of Turner Broadcasting.

Humanitarian focus

CNN closed down its documentary unit: "They're making hundreds of millions of dollars," he says, "but it wasn't enough, so they cut their expenses." As a result, Turner decided, under the banner of Ted Turner Documen-taries, to bankroll a long-planned eight-part series on weapons of mass destruction, Avoiding Armageddon, for PBS, now headed by his former documentary chief, Pat Mitchell. Like his establishment of the billion-dollar United Nations Foundation, it reflects Turner's ever-increasing focus on global humanitarian and ecological issues.

"This series was commissioned over a year before 9 / 11, so it was way ahead of its time. I just thought we needed to know what's going on with weapons of mass destruction. Wars take unpredictable turns and grow in unpredictable ways, and with nuclear arsenals you have to be very, very careful about starting a war with anybody. Everybody thought the Civil War was going to be over in six weeks. It was almost a foregone conclusion that the South was going to lose: They just didn't have the resources to conduct a long-term war with the United States."

Financing Gods and Gener-als, a prequel to 1993's Gettys-burg, gave Turner another chance to underline that anti-war point and strike out on his own. "Gods and Generals belonged to TNT as part of Turner Broadcasting, and they had been developing it for quite a while. I was going to green-light it at the $30 million figure, but the new AOL management team decided they were going to cut everything to try to increase the profits. I was angry and I wanted to make a statement: I'll make the damn thing!"

Turner hasn't lost his sense of humor. After discussing Gods and Generals, which he ended up funding to the tune of $60 million ($90 million including prints and advertising), he asked what system The Sun uses to rank movies. I said we rate them on a scale of one to four stars. He narrowed his gaze. "You'll probably give it two stars," he ventured, then went on a jovial riff about how I should thank him for his time by giving it three. "I mean, how many guys like me would sit down with you for a half-hour? Oh, directors and actors, sure. But what other big cheese? Would Rupert Murdoch give you a half-hour?"

Turner sees himself, justifiably, as one of the last king-sized independent impresarios. Gods and Generals, I suggested, was the biggest independent film ever made except for George Lucas' Star Wars films.

"You know, the thought had never occurred to me, but what independent movie could be bigger?" he asked excitedly. "It has 159 speaking parts. I can't think of another movie that has 159 speaking parts, can you? It's one of the biggest casts of all time: there are 7,500 re-enactors that don't say a word. The original budget was $30 million. And it grew to $60 million, five and 10 million at a time."

A single, costly vision

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