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DEATH IN SAN DIEGO COUNTY

Hollywood Cautious of TV Movie on Incident

March 28, 1997|BRIAN LOWRY and GREG BRAXTON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Although the apparent mass suicide discovered Wednesday in Rancho Santa Fe sounds like prime material for a TV movie, networks and producers are proceeding cautiously in seeking to exploit the story.

Several producers and network representatives contacted Thursday said they were not actively pursuing broadcast rights, although most stopped short of ruling out the possibility.

An executive at a major movie studio dismissed the prospects of a feature film version of the story, saying that, if anything, it was better suited to television.

Officials at Hearst Entertainment, whose TV movies include those based on Ed McBain's "87th Precinct" novels for NBC, said they are exploring a TV movie based on the incident but declined to provide details.

A development executive at another major production company said: "There's not much of a story or dramatic basis right now. There's no David Koresh. There doesn't seem to be any outside influence. But our feeling could change in the future."

The industry consensus is that programmers are more reluctant to engage in the frenzied competition witnessed in the past, when networks raced to be first with movies based on high-profile stories. Instead, most suggested that there will be opportunities to consider the subject once media coverage has cooled.

"I think everybody in our business thinks there's an unseemly quality to chasing [rights]," said Ken Kaufman, who produced an NBC movie on the Waco tragedy, "In the Line of Duty: Ambush at Waco."

"I detect a real sense of 'We don't want to do this any more,' " he said. "We've all been burned too many times by stories that seem like old news by the time you get there."

There has been a reduction in the number of sensational fact-based TV movies, which have included quickly assembled projects about the O.J. Simpson case, the Menendez brothers and the Branch Davidian standoff. The trend reached its nadir in 1993, with three movies on Amy Fisher and the so-called Long Island Lolita case.

Still, such fare continues to be produced. In February, NBC drew criticism for airing a movie about a killing allegedly involving two military cadets, "Love's Deadly Triangle: The Texas Cadet Murder," while the trial was pending.

Steve White, who produced that movie, said in regard to the mass suicide story: "No way. Not me. I've had it with these movies and I don't want to do another. Also, it's such a tragic story, and I don't even know what it is yet."

In more pragmatic terms, such movies have yielded diminishing returns in terms of ratings. Harry Winer, producer of Showtime's upcoming "Riot," about the Los Angeles riots of 1992, said: "The last couple of 'ripped from the headlines movies,' like the Texas cadet movie and the one on Ruby Ridge, did not fare well.

"The press plays the hell out of these stories, and people get their fill. By the time the movie comes on, they've already been there and done that. The curiosity level has diminished."

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