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CMT Hopes Lynyrd Skynyrd Film Bolsters Documentary Ambitions

Ordering up a documentary on 1970s Southern-rock legends Lynyrd Skynyrd is no small matter to Brian Philips.

When the executive, the president of cable-network CMT, goes to see the band play, his laminated credentials aren’t the kind handed out to the people who run the lights or the sound. He has known the band since he was in his teens, when he would get into a car with a learner’s permit and drive on weekends from Miami to see them play in Jacksonville, Florida. Philips was a music writer and managed to form close ties with the group. “My pass said ‘family,’ not ‘crew,’” he recalled.

Now he is preparing to see the band, which gave rock-radio acolytes songs like “Gimme Three Steps” and “Sweet Home Alabama,” in a different way. The Viacom-owned CMT has greenlit and begun production on a new documentary about the group. “If I Leave Here Tomorrow” a film about Lynyrd Skynyrd,” is expected to debut on CMT in 2017. It is led by director Stephen Kijak and produced by Passion Pictures, which was involved in the recent music documentary “Searching for Sugar Man.” In an interview, Philips said the new project will finally get the band’s story right.

“The Skynyrd story is one that is pretty much under the microscope and under the lens for me,” said Philips, in an interview. “I’ve read the books and seen all the movies that have been made, and always had this sense that the story has never been properly or completely told.”

CMT is digging into more tales of this sort. “Tomorrow” will mark the sixth documentary the network has commissioned, and executives intend to take the concept further in months to come.  “The longer-term goal is multi-night events. We want to find our ‘Making of a Murderer’ or ‘People vs O.J. Simpson,’” said Lewis Bogach, CMT’s vice president of program development. “That’s really what we are looking at for the network.”

The network is the latest in recent years to find programming ballast in the format, which uses real stories rather than fiction as a means of hooking viewer interest. A generation that ignores history, after all, is doomed to repeat it, and so outlets ranging from HBO to FX to Netflix have found traction in presenting real-life stories cut with a healthy dose of pacing and suspense. At CMT, the prevailing thought is that documentaries can help the network develop a relationship with a growing and more sophisticated audience that may have less time for rowdy reality programs like the one-time CMT staple “Party Down South.”

“We definitely saw a lane open up where we could produce some shows that are a little bit more intelligent, a little bit more far-reaching,” said Bogach. “The audience was giving us permission to go there.” The network has grown more ambitious in other areas as well. It has picked up the country-music serial “Nashville” from ABC and has plans to launch a series, “Million Dollar Quartet,” centering on the lives and times of early rock-and-roll pioneers like Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley.

CMT started its documentary efforts in 2015 with three interesting efforts: a behind-the-scenes look at Gilley’s, the Texas bar that served as the center of an era of broader interest in country music; a Morgan Spurlock-produced road trip across America in search of the meaning of freedom; and a biography of Johnny Cash that had participation from the music legend’s family. In 2016, CMT aired “The Bandit,” (pictured, above) a warts-and-all look at the popular 1977 Burt Reynolds movie “Smokey and the Bandit.” On November 23 – the day before Thanksgiving – CMT will launch “Chicken People,” an examination at the competitive world of chicken breeding. The documentary has already appeared at the SXSW film festival and gotten distribution in theaters and on Amazon Prime, among other methods.

“Documentaries were our entrée to a world of deeper storytelling,” said Philips. When CMT executives noticed that the network’s audience had warmed to the programs, they gained confidence in trying more scripted fare as well, he said.

The Skynyrd story will include details from Gary Rossington, the guitarist who is the last founding Skynyrd band member still associated with the group, and Johnny Van Zant, who took over singing duties for the band after a 1977 plane crash claimed the lives of its lead singer and his brother, Ronnie Van Zant, as well as guitarist Steve Gaines, his sister, Cassie, and two pilots. The crash, which took place at the height of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s popularity, is considered one of the greatest tragedies in the history of rock music.

“I’m excited to work with Brian, CMT and Passion Pictures, to tell the no-hold- barred Skynyrd story, things that have never been told before and the days of when we started and all the hard work we put in to the music and the band,” said Rossington, in a statement. “Gary will finally get a chance to tell his side of the story, being there since the beginning,” said Johnny Van Zant, also in a statement.  “Ronnie was a father figure to him, as much as a friend.  I’m so happy that this is happening for him and the band.”

Songs from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s first six albums will be featured throughout the production, which will focus on the band’s front man, Ronnie Van Zant, his upbringing and relationships with the group’s other members.

CMT’s Philips said he quizzed Kijack, the director, about how he might handle the project. When he noted that he had recently led a documentary about the Rolling Stones, Philips recognized the director had what it took to handle temperamental musicians and their entourages. “It’s really important to all of us to get this story right,” said Philips. “We want to tackle one big topic at a time.”

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