Hopes for a Hillary Clinton Movie Are Not Dead Yet
Two highly scrutinized projects that would have put Hillary Clinton's life on the screen met their grave this week, but others are pressing on. The New York Times reported that "Rodham," a feature film about a Watergate-era Hillary Clinton is moving forward, as is a yet-to-named documentary by the conservative political group Citizens United.
Monday, CNN Films and NBC both announced they had canceled plans to produce their respective Hillary Clinton features. The former planned a documentary that would hit theaters before making it to the news network; the latter was looking into a four-part miniseries with Diane Lane attached to the starring role
"The problem that NBC and CNN have is that they're not just in the business of making movies," says Joe Pichirallo, a former studio executive at HBO, Fox Searchlight Pictures and Focus Features who is now the chair of Undergraduate Film & Television at the New York University Tisch School's Kanbar Institute.
"They have bigger responsibilities and agenda," he says, and that includes news divisions that were experiencing pushback from both the left and the right soon after the projects were announced.
The Republican National Committee voted to boycott NBC and CNN as broadcasting partnerships for the 2016 presidential debates. NBC's own reporters publicly questioned whether the miniseries – which was being handled by NBC Entertainment – would compromise viewers' perception of the NBC News division's objectivity,
"Their news divisions are important money makers for them," Pichirallo says. "They have to sit down and have to prioritize what is more important to our business?"
The film projects don't necessarily have to juggle so many competing interests, particularly if they can find independent financing.
"One of the things that's important when you look at a documentary is to look at who's paying for it," says Mitchell Block, a filmmaker and a professor at University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts.
The Citizens United project is being produced independently by the lobbying group (whose 2008 film, also about Clinton, led to the infamous Supreme Court case that is now synonymous with its name).
"We have complete independence and are available to make the film about Hillary that we want to make at the time we want to make it," Citizens United president and chairman David Bossie says. He says his documentary is in the research and pre-production stage, and the group is currently searching for a director and writers.
According to the New York Times, "Rodham" doesn't have any financing yet and the script is being rewritten to tone down some of its more controversial details (perhaps in an attempt to make it more attractive to funders). The project has created buzz in the movie community since the script by Young Il Kim appeared on the top of the 2012 Hollywood Blacklist – an annual list of promising scripts not yet picked up for production. Director James Ponsoldt, who made this summer's critically acclaimed "The Spectacular Now" is now being attached to the film and the project has attracted the attention of some big stars – all factors that suggest it could at least get the funding necessary for a smaller independent feature.
News of the CNN and NBC projects' cancelation was prompted by a Huffington Post op-ed written by Charles Ferguson, the director hired by CNN, who said he was quitting the documentary because he was being stone-walled by the Clintons and their circle. He said that he worried he couldn't get a single source close to the Clintons to participate in the film.
"His reason for dropping the project made a lot of sense because if you can't get people to get interviewed on camera it's really hard to make a powerful, moving documentary," Block says.
There are ways to work around that problem. Bossie says he is not worried about finding sources for his documentary. "Certainly if we reach out to certain people who want to be in the Clinton orbit, we might be rejected," he says. His film will rely on the participation of those on "the other side," Bossie says. "We're not worried about trying to find Hillary's friends"
A film can also avoid the documentary genre entirely. "Rodham" will be a fictionalized take on Hillary Clinton's early romance with Bill and her work on the House Judiciary Committee. According to the New York Times, it will follow the "The Social Network" model of relying on publicly known information.
Even if they can clear the obstacles that have killed rival projects, the success of "Rodham" and other Hillary Clinton films is by no means guaranteed.
"Those kinds of movies are not considered sure bet commercial successes", Pichirallo says. "Audiences don't tend to go see movies about politics."