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Networks in a Rush to Film Smart Story

Producers feel pressure to be the first to do a TV movie about the teen who was missing for nine months.

March 15, 2003|Brian Lowry | Times Staff Writer

The story of kidnapped teenager Elizabeth Smart is producing a frenzy to create television movies -- with at least one network exploring the possibility of racing to complete a film in time for the May ratings sweeps.

NBC, CBS and ABC are said to be interested in a Smart project, along with the USA and Lifetime cable networks.

Several producers and talent agencies have dispatched representatives to Utah seeking to obtain story rights from the Smart family as well as from investigators and journalists.

"It's one of those brush-fire situations," said one TV agent, who asked not to be identified.

At this point, it's not clear whether the Smarts will agree to a deal, and some networks are reluctant to proceed without their cooperation. The family's spokesman, Chris Thomas, didn't return a phone call seeking comment.

Sources say Vivendi Universal's USA, which has enjoyed success with true-crime movies, is committed to going forward, but Jeff Wachtel, the channel's executive vice president, would say only that "inasmuch as it has been brought to us by a variety of producers, we are actively considering it."

A wild card in the negotiations could be John Walsh, host of "America's Most Wanted," who became close to Elizabeth's father, Ed Smart, during the nine months the 15-year-old was missing. Her recovery was attributed in part to a tip generated by the long-running Fox program, and sources say Walsh could serve as producer on a movie involving the Smarts.

Networks were reluctant to discuss the matter. A CBS spokesman said it was common to get a rush of pitches in response to such cases but declined to comment on the Viacom Inc.-owned network's interest.

NBC, a unit of General Electric Co., is said to be weighing whether a movie could be done before the upcoming ratings sweeps conclude 10 weeks from now. Networks try to boost ratings during sweeps because TV stations rely on those results to negotiate ad rates.

Finishing a conventional movie in that span would be extremely difficult. Normally, made-for-TV films require a few weeks of preparation and three weeks of shooting, which doesn't include post-production time.

Moreover, no script exists, prompting one source to call a pre-summer timetable "virtually impossible."

One recent TV movie based on an actual event, "The Pennsylvania Miners' Story," aired during the November sweeps less than four months after the rights were secured.

The nine rescued miners each received $150,000 for their story, and Walt Disney Co.'s ABC network drew solid if unspectacular ratings.

Industry sources say the aggregate fee of $1.35 million probably is well beyond what the Smarts could get, though some said $400,000 to $500,000 didn't sound unreasonable, given the story's high profile and happy ending.

If the Smarts don't participate, a film could be based on the public record, as NBC is doing with an unauthorized biography of lifestyle guru Martha Stewart starring Cybill Shepherd, which is scheduled to air in May.

Similarly, Lifetime is developing a film about Andrew Luster, the great-grandson of cosmetics magnate Max Factor who recently was convicted of rape after fleeing during his trial.

The prevalence of news coverage blanketing such stories has increased pressure to rush "ripped from the headlines" dramatizations into production if they are going to be made at all. One network source said that for all the current heat surrounding Smart, the story easily could have "gone cold" by September.

It also remains unclear what direction a movie would take. Options include the Smart family's ordeal, the hunt to find Elizabeth and the thornier -- but potentially more compelling -- account of what happened while she was missing.

For news programs, meanwhile, the ultimate "get" would be an interview with Elizabeth. But her uncle Tom Smart told the Salt Lake Tribune that "I wouldn't hold my breath" awaiting a public appearance by his niece.

Her father already has done a handful of TV interviews, including Walsh's syndicated program. He is scheduled to participate in panels at the Radio and Television News Directors Assn. convention in Las Vegas next month, including one titled "How the Media Treated Me." The session is billed as featuring "ordinary citizens who have found themselves at the center of a news story," inviting news executives to "hear their perspective on what it's like to be thrust into the media spotlight."

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