Not so many months ago, I had the pleasure of watching, in a Senate hearing room, as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) took eight quavering studio chiefs to the woodshed over their companies' not-very-defensible practices in selling violent films to kids. I can remember thinking at the time that McCain, then chairman of the Commerce Committee, was, at least briefly, the most powerful man in Hollywood. Overnight, the entertainment industry came up with a tough new marketing and ratings policy. And the studios made a perceptible shift in their production choices, backing away from teen-oriented gore-fests like "I Know What You Did Last Summer" and "Scream," and moving toward the less egregious fare on this summer's schedule: "Scooby-Doo," "Pumpkin," "Mr. Deeds" and so on.
But power in Hollywood is a slippery thing--and this year, apparently, the equation has changed. McCain has become what the industry calls "a seller." He's peddling film rights to his 3-year-old autobiography, "Faith of My Fathers," which was optioned to two independent producers best known for their remake of the war drama "The Thin Red Line" and for a series of financial mishaps that, as reported recently in the New York Times, landed the men or their companies in Bankruptcy Court four times. The ultimate "buyers," however--the people with the power to "green light" the film--are those same eight studio chiefs and their brethren. At least one of them will have to put cash and muscle behind McCain's life story, if it's ever to become a major motion picture or a television event.
McCain's flyboy adventures and years of torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam may or may not be the stuff of great entertainment. But they certainly give some wily media conglomerate a dirt-cheap way to buy leverage over a politician who caused the industry significant grief in the recent past.
In examining McCain's film deal, the news media have made much of the senator's having naively stumbled into business with Robert Geisler and the recently deceased John Roberdeau. In court, the two drew no fewer than three contempt citations, and, during the filming of Fox's "The Thin Red Line," they were banned from the set by the director and excoriated in a widely reported news release on production company letterhead as "impostors and confidence men."
More remarkable, though, is McCain's willingness to make himself a supplicant to the very moguls he so recently called on the carpet--and at the same time handing Hollywood enormous potential power over his political future, notwithstanding his permanent crusade against the power of money in politics.
The senator would surely argue that he doesn't stand to profit from any deal his producers ultimately make with a studio or network. His $80,000 in option money has already been pledged to charity, and it's reasonable to expect that he'd be just as careful with the larger payments due on production. Yet the hundreds of thousands of dollars a company might pay for rights to McCain's book (which was co-written with Mark Salter) are nothing compared with the potential myth-building value of a heavily marketed feature film or miniseries that could put this war hero's story on the screen just as he begins mustering his next presidential run. Who needs campaign dollars when you've got AOL Time Warner or News Corp. or Disney touting your finest moments on billboards or television inserts across the nation?
Indeed, publicity of that sort will be all the more precious as the McCain-sponsored strictures on soft-money contributions take effect. Corporations and wealthy individuals may not be able to buy favor with wheelbarrows of cash to the political parties any more.
But they can certainly pick up an option on a willing politician's book and dangle the carrot of a big-screen production for years on end while playing the development game. Stay off the industry's back, and your project may just bubble to the top of the stack. Get uppity in the hearing chamber and, well, the script just didn't work for us.
So even as his first-wave of campaign finance restrictions was being signed into law, McCain was mimicking that most depressing Hollywood cliche, the entertainment reporter who's hawking the studios a screenplay on the side.
He ought to know better, having been burned so badly in the past from accepting the largess of failed savings and loan executive Charles H. Keating Jr., a scandal that supposedly taught him how desperately we need campaign reform.
Let's hope he pulls "Faith of My Fathers" from the movie market before some studio embarrasses him by saying yes, and he starts drafting a new raft of federal laws to regulate script sales.