HBO’s Roman Polanski Problem

A crucial scene of a celebrated documentary turns out to be wrong.

Roman Polanski

Rewind: Tonight, HBO airs Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, a documentary that, according to the HBO press materials, raises “lasting questions about … the U.S. legal system.” Without being exactly sympathetic to Polanski, the message of the film is clear: The courts did to him what he did to a 13-year-old girl in 1977.

Marina Zenovich’s documentary was well-received at Sundance and at Cannes. But the film to be broadcast tonight differs in one key respect from the version that those audiences saw. The ending has been changed—apparently because it was wrong.

The final shot of the film that was seen at the festivals and reviewed by critics asserts that Polanski, who fled the United States in 1978, considered returning in 1998 but declined because the court seemed poised to screw him again. That shot was altered after the Los Angeles Superior Court took the step of contacting HBO’s lawyers.

No one seems to take issue with the film’s premise that the judge who originally presided over Polanski’s case, Laurence Rittenband, was obsessed with the media and far less obsessed with honoring his word. Both prosecutor Roger Gunson and defense attorney Douglas Dalton say on the record that Rittenband reneged on agreements that could have resolved the case. Rittenband died in 1994, so he’s certainly in no position to take issue with that portrayal.

But Zenovich concludes her film on an ironic note: In 1997, those two attorneys appeared before a sitting Los Angeles Superior Court judge—not named in the film—and reached an agreement that if Polanski returned to the United States, he would not be taken into custody. At the very end, the film states in white letters dramatically typed on a black background, the judge imposed one condition: The proceedings would have to be televised. The obvious implication: Here we go again, another Los Angeles judge poised to turn Polanski into media chum. Polanski, the film reports, turned the deal down.

But it doesn’t seem to have happened that way.

There was a 1998 meeting with the judge, who was Larry Paul Fidler. He presided over the recent Phil Spector murder trial, and in that case, he allowed the cameras to roll. Spector’s case was the first criminal trial televised in its entirety in a Los Angeles Superior Court since the O.J. Simpson case in 1995. That may be why Fidler was sensitive to the film’s implication that he was another media-obsessed jurist.

But Los Angeles Superior Court spokesman Allan Parachini says Judge Fidler unequivocally denies that he imposed any such condition. “Judge Fidler made it very clear to counsel that any ultimate resolution of the Polanski matter could only occur in open court, on the record. There was no discussion about television coverage,” Parachini says.

Parachini’s office got in touch with HBO (as did we), and on Friday, HBO said that it was altering the documentary to reflect “new information” provided by the court. That must have been quite a scramble for something that airs tonight, especially since the allegation in question is kind of the film’s punch line. HBO—which also will have to fix prints that are headed to theaters in July—did not say exactly how the revised ending will go. But presumably Fidler can relax.

Except that, inevitably, the film’s premise is already well-established, since many outlets have already reported on it. A New York Times review from critic Manohla Dargis calls the film “sharply argued” before concluding: “Mr. Polanski survived the Holocaust and the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, in 1969 by followers of Charles Manson. It was the American legal system that almost did him in.”

In its coverage, the British Telegraph said “the legal shenanigans surrounding the case have continued in California,” citing the supposed requirement that the trial be televised. And the paper argued that Polanski, meanwhile, has “lived a blameless, hard-working life in exile in France.” Meanwhile, Polanki has expressed the view that he is innocent, that Americans are “prudish,” and that he has “suffered enough.” (link)

May 28, 2008

Ben Silverman

Cafeteria contretemps: They may have hugged it out, bitch, but that doesn’t mean that Ben Silverman and Ari Emanuel * have made peace.

Silverman has a reputation for being a flamboyant guy who likes a good party. Those invited to his late-night upfront soiree earlier this month at the Empire Hotel were greeted by bikini-clad models. (That might not quite compare to the tiger at his Emmy party a few months back, but still.) In January, he was living it up at the Super Bowl in the box of the Giants’ owners—effusively praising fellow guest Michael Bloomberg and suggesting that the mayor would make an awesome subject for a reality show.

But it hasn’t all been good times. In recent months, Silverman has clashed with high-profile agent Ari Emanuel, famous not only for his own outrageous persona but for being the inspiration for Ari Gold of Entourage.

A few weeks back, Silverman missed a meeting with David Maisel, chairman of Marvel Studios (which just brought you a little movie called Iron Man). Maisel apparently was arriving at the NBC offices when he was told that Silverman would not be there for an 11 a.m. meeting. The agent seething on the scene was Emanuel, who represents Marvel in the television arena and who, as it turns out, was already irked with Silverman.

In fact, Emanuel had already blown up at Silverman for a slight involving another client, Peter Berg (executive producer of Friday Night Lights). We’re told it was a missed meeting, though Berg tells us that there was no missed meeting, adding for the record that he’s very grateful to Silverman for coming up with a way to keep his ratings-challenged show on NBC’s air.

While still simmering about the Berg incident, Emanuel arrived at the executive dining room at Universal, where he was to have lunch with film studio chairman Marc Shmuger. As fate would have it, Shmuger’s boss—Universal Studios chief Ron Meyer—was meeting Silverman there that day. In fact, the two couples were in adjoining booths. When Emanuel spied Silverman, he delivered a tongue-lashing, touching on Silverman’s lifestyle and its impact on NBC-Universal’s business. He didn’t whisper.

We’re told that Emanuel expressed similar negative thoughts to Silverman’s boss, Jeff Zucker, which naturally did not endear Emanuel to Silverman. (Silverman declined to comment, as did Emanuel.)

At the lunch, the almost-always-affable Ron Meyer tried to keep out of the line of fire. But we’re told that afterward he advised Silverman to mend fences with Emanuel. Eventually, the two met and at least nominally made up.

A source says that later the very same day, however, Silverman attended a party where he was overheard expressing some negative opinions about Emanuel. And another guest promptly relayed that information to Emanuel. (link)

Ben Silverman

In front or upfront?: This evening, NBC’s “experience” will be taking the place of the usual upfront presentation. Recall that the network said it would forgo all of that this year, opting for the “in-front” session several weeks ago. So instead of filling Radio City Music Hall with advertisers and the press, as usual, the network will instead have reporters walk through some sort of display that will expose us to the many facets of NBC—including its mighty cable properties and the Internet stuff that CEO Jeff Zucker bored us with in upfronts past.

This is a weird year for the upfronts. The writers’ strike converged with ongoing digital-revolution-related problems plaguing the industry to throw everything out of kilter. The networks have said they wanted to cut back on the hoopla, anyway, though some think that’s not such a great idea. If you’re going to brag about being the greatest aggregator of eyeballs, this thinking goes, you gotta keep the show in show business. But it’s not going to happen so much this year. Only Fox is going for the full-on upfront presentation. The others are austere—no Tavern on the Green party for CBS, no rousing Dancing With the Stars turn at Lincoln Center from ABC entertainment president Steve McPherson. (That was two years ago now, but that was a show. We’ve never looked at McPherson quite the same way.)

Shari Anne Brill, who analyzes programming for advertisers, says she’s concerned that this year’s upfront won’t provide her with the usual dose of clips from upcoming shows. That’s partly due to the strike, though in some cases NBC is boasting of going straight to greenlighting shows without a pilot. Brill thinks that idea is rubbish, by the way. “If you don’t have a pilot, that’s going to hurt your success rate,” she warns. “Pilots allow you to make adjustments.”

Brill seems piqued with NBC generally. She wanted to take a look at Kath and Kim, an upcoming remake of an Australian sitcom. (Like so much of NBC programming—The Office, the planned Office spinoff, American Gladiator, The BiggestLoser—the show comes from Reveille, NBC Entertainment co-chairman Ben Silverman’s former company. Happily for him, the fact that he gets paid for getting his own shows on his network doesn’t bother parent company GE.)

Brill, concerned that she won’t get to see clips from NBC’s version of Kath and Kim, got hold of an episode of the Australian original. “That thing makes Married With Children look like The Brady Bunch,” she says. (To be clear, that is not a good thing in her mind, though Married With Children had quite a run and it may be a great thing in Silverman’s mind.) All in all, Brill seems unimpressed with Silverman’s progress to date. “Everything that he’s done has been an acquisition,” she says. And she says talk of an Office spinoff has gone on for so long that she’s beginning to doubt that the project will jell. “He doesn’t have an Office spinoff,” she says tartly. “He has spin.”

Well, we’ll see, won’t we?

NBC is also poised to announce today that Jimmy Fallon will replace Conan O’Brien when the latter takes over Jay Leno on TheTonight Show next year. In time, that ought to set off an interesting round of musical chairs. Leno won’t be able to make a new deal for six months, per his NBC contract, but he isn’t likely to take a break longer than he has to. He will be coveted by both ABC and Fox. New York Times reporter Bill Carter, who wrote The Late Shift (the book about the last changing of the late-night guard in the early ‘90s, when Johnny Carson retired), thinks Leno will go for ABC, which would give him an 11:30 p.m. time slot (Fox’s news lead-in ends at 11 p.m.). That would allow Leno to go head-to-head with O’Brien and David Letterman and prove that he’s the real king of late night.

Carter doesn’t think ABC would hesitate to kill off Nightline to make room for Leno. In that scenario, Jimmy Kimmel’s show would be pushed back 30 minutes, which might not sit well with him. So maybe Fox could chase him to fill its late-night void. With all that Leno’s seemingly premature forced retirement sets in motion, the drama around late night might be more compelling than anything on the networks’ fall schedule. (link)

Correction, May 29, 2008: This piece originally misspelled Ari Emanuel’s last name. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)