Nonfiction series, specials have H’wood aura

Road to the Emmys: Reality, Non-Fiction & Competition

At first glance, many of this year’s Emmy nominees in the nonfiction categories are Hollywood through and through.

Among the finalists for nonfiction series are “Biography,” the long-running Bio Channel skein that often profiles celebs; “Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood,” TCM’s seven-episode look at the early days of Hollywood; and “Pioneers of Television,” a four-part PBS series that features interviews with TV legends.

“His Way,” the HBO doc about veteran manager and producer Jerry Weintraub; and “Jaws: The Inside Story,” Bio’s feature on the thriller considered to be the first real summer movie blockbuster, are among the shows up for nonfiction special.

So, are these entertainment-centric shows really just awards bait, designed to garner the TV Acad’s attention during Emmy season?

“Certain ones probably do appeal to voters or Hollywood insiders a little more than other people,” says Kevin Bachar, an exec producer for both “Jaws” and the “Biography” episode on the late comedian John Belushi that was submitted for Emmy consideration. “Hey, listen, we all get our Variety and Entertainment Weekly, and we like to read about ourselves and find out who’s doing what.”

But dismissing them only as opportunities for writers, directors and producers to garner inside-the-biz attention, according to the nominees, misses some key points: They’re all well-done programs that resonate with viewers living well outside the 90210 ZIP code.

Despite the second part of its title, “Moguls & Movie Stars” is a series not even remotely driven by film clips featuring A-listers, says writer and producer Jon Wilkman. Instead, it’s a history of the U.S. film industry, from the late 1800s to the 1960s, as seen through the eyes of the men and women who built it.

“The Birth of Hollywood,” the skein’s second episode and the one that Turner Classic Movies submitted for Emmy consideration, covers 1907-20 and shows how the movie business was established in Southern California.

“The series is a history of Hollywood power, how it functioned and how it evolved over time — from being this insignificant fad in the 1880s and ’90s to being one of the major industries in the world,” says Wilkman, who also is nominated in the nonfiction writing category. “We wanted to get beneath the surface, beneath the glitter to get a sense of what the reality of the business is, and the art of movies. That’s what we were trying to do.”

Another history project, “Pioneers of Television,” examines four popular TV genres — crime dramas, science fiction, westerns and children’s TV — and features interviews with thesps who played iconic characters, among them Bill Cosby, Angie Dickinson, James Garner, Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner.

The show’s two Milwaukee-based independent producers, Steve Boettcher and Mike Trinklein, also sat down for what turned out to be final interviews with Stephen Cannell, Robert Culp, Peter Graves and Fess Parker.

“These pioneers are really at the headwaters of television,” Boettcher says. “They started this trickle, this little stream, and everyone today who joins this raging river of content really kind of joins this river midstream. To me, it all goes to these early pioneers who started the current.”

One living legend, Weintraub, who added much to the current particularly in music and movies, tells his own story in “His Way,” the HBO doc nominated for nonfiction special. The theme, Weintraub says, is about how ambition and determination helped him make a name for himself.

And, yes, the guy who arranged concert tours for Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, and also produced the “Ocean’s” movie trilogy, really did sell clothes on the side while stationed in Alaska during World War II.

“I never took no for an answer, and I always believed in what I did,” he says, adding that his story has been repeated by countless others. It’s just that his version includes some well-recognized players.

“To me, the meat of this movie is not about Hollywood,” Weintraub says. “There are a lot of life lessons in it, and stories that resonate. There were a lot of extraordinary things that happened to a guy on the way up. I could have been working at General Motors. It’s just who I am.”

In “Jaws: The Inside Story,” Steven Spielberg recalls the challenges he faced as a fledgling movie director in 1975 and determined to shoot on the ocean instead of the predictably safe confines of a studio backlot. And perhaps most famously, the production used a mechanical shark that failed to work as intended.

“Sure, it’s about the movie, but it’s also about perseverance and not giving up,” Bachar says about the doc, which was Bio’s most-watched original special when it first aired July 2010. “Steven also talks about the anxiety and the struggle and how he thought he was going to lose his job. That’s stuff anybody can relate to. He couldn’t sleep, he couldn’t eat. We all know what that feeling is like.”

Nonfiction series, specials have H’wood aura
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