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First the rescue, then marketing of the miners

Plucked from doom, workers were flooded by pitches in a process that says a lot about Hollywood's own rapid response teams.

November 24, 2002|James Bates | Times Staff Writer

Third-generation Pennsylvania coal miners. First-generation celebrities.

Up to their necks one minute in 50-degree water. Up to their eyeballs the next in pitches from lawyers, agents, producers, networks, studios and marketers eager to cash in. A nine-man cottage industry from the moment they were hoisted from 20 stories underground before dawn on July 28 after a 77-hour rescue ordeal that captivated worldwide television audiences.

How the nine workers trapped in the Quecreek No. 1 Mine went from anonymous swing shift workers -- guys nicknamed "Moe," "Flathead," "Harpo," "Boogie" and "Hound Dog" -- to VIP celebrities and marketing commodities says a lot about the way Hollywood's rapid response teams operate to bag stories fresh off their news cycles.

The "Pennsylvania Miners' Story" TV movie airing tonight on ABC was the cornerstone of Miners Inc.

So frenetic was the pace to lock in that deal that an agent from International Creative Management enlisted an operator to break into the middle of a miner's home telephone conversation. Inundated with 160 calls in the two days after he returned home, the man had been unreachable, frustrating agents, producers and Hollywood executives encamped in western Pennsylvania.

"These things happen quickly, and very quickly," said the agent, ICM's Robert Lazar.

With backing that reached all the way to chief executive Michael Eisner, Walt Disney Co. raced to lock up the rights, seeing it as an uplifting, Disneyesque tale that could give the company's struggling ABC network a ratings boost during the critical November sweeps. "It's one part 'Apollo 13,' one part 'The Perfect Storm,' " says Quinn Taylor, ABC's executive vice president for TV movies.

The company quickly discovered that Lazar and a colleague from ICM were a step ahead in Pennsylvania, dealing with a Pittsburgh lawyer hired by the miners to field offers. Lazar had already obtained the rights to the story of rescue worker Bob Long, dubbed "the man behind the miracle" by TV newscasters for pinpointing where the miners had likely fled the rising waters.

The lawyer, Thomas Crawford, had started the bidding at $450,000. Faced with the possibility of a competing project stemming from Long's rights, Disney made a preemptive $1.5-million strike to wrap up all the rights in one package. CBS was a distant second.

The miners in the Disney deal alone saw as much money as they would typically make in three to four years, $150,000 for each one and a 10th share for Long. Crew boss Randy Fogle, who among the nine has emerged as the point man, said he doesn't see it as a chance to get rich.

"I was hoping that it would give everybody -- including me, but the other guys mainly -- a chance to make some money and then to go into a different type of job instead of staying in the mines if they wanted out. Just to give them a choice," Fogle said. He says he plans to return to mining after Jan. 1.

ABC made the TV movie for $8.5 million. That's a near record for a two-hour broadcast TV film, which means it will take solid ratings, a good run in foreign countries and strong sales on DVD and video to recoup the investment. Disney's deal with the miners also includes a book, "Our Story," an account from the miners and their families published by the company's Hyperion unit.

For the miners, that's only the start. A Pepsi endorsement fell through in the days after the rescue. But the miners did retain Stephen Reich, a Pittsburgh marketing executive whose clients include hockey superstar Mario Lemieux, to field calls and scope out potential offers.

Reich recently cut a licensing deal for T-shirts reading "Quecreek 9 for 9," hoping to ride the coattails of the TV movie, book release and wave of fresh publicity, which included an "Oprah" appearance by all nine miners.

NASCAR hosted the miners at one of its races, where drivers greeted them as if they were the celebrities. All nine appeared on the field before a Pittsburgh Steelers football game, wearing Steelers jerseys numbered 1 through 9.

To send a message to its managers about the importance of teamwork, Microsoft had two of the miners appear at a regional meeting at a Pennsylvania resort. Wal-Mart plans to fly all nine to Houston for an appearance in February before its Sam's Club managers. The miners are getting top billing at the sold-out Pennsylvania Credit Union annual meeting in Harrisburg. Reich won't say how much they are earning. People in the speakers business estimate the miners would cost about $15,000.

Most of the miners never used a lawyer before. Now they have an intellectual property attorney, who secured trademarks on four slogans for merchandise possibilities: "Quecreek 9 for 9," "Quecreek 9," "Quecreek Survivors" and "Quecreek Miracle 9."

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