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Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal, and Greed producers Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone say they “never intended to set out and create a hit piece” about the art instructor and TV host with their new Netflix doc, which chronicles the life, work and unexpectedly dark legal legacy of the Joy of Painting star. But Bob Ross Inc. says that although the film “accurately captured” the famed TV painter, it’s an “inaccurate and heavily slanted portrayal of our company.”
The film follows Ross’ career, centering heavily on his relationship with Bob Ross Inc. co-founders Walt and Annette Kowalski, who helped the painter find professional success. It also chronicles his death and the eventual legal battles that ensued between Ross’ son, Steve, who serves as a central character, and the Kowalskis, whose input is largely lacking from the film. The doc ultimately suggests that Ross’ longtime business partners strong-armed his heir, his late third wife and his half-brother out of profits and parts of his estate that controlled how his legacy was to be used. It also suggests an affair between Annette and Bob.
On the day of the doc’s release, McCarthy and Falcone told NPR that in terms of how Ross comes across in the film, they came into production as fans and that there were things that surprised even them during the filmmaking process.
“We’ve never intended to set out and create a hit piece,” Falcone said. “We like Bob Ross and we still do. We were surprised to uncover some of the things we uncovered. And I think the filmmakers, [director] Josh [Rofé] and [producer] Steven [Berger], really did a nice job of making a … complicated, balanced movie out of a character that is complicated. We found out things about him that we didn’t expect. Nobody’s perfect.”
Speaking to their process for uncovering that complicated story around The Joy of Painting host, the duo said the film’s team faced challenges, especially when it came to getting people to speak on the record. It was something, according to McCarthy and Falcone, that Rofé and Berger hadn’t experienced to this degree very often. “That was when we sort of figured out, oh, boy, this might be a little different than what we thought it was going to be,” Falcone told NPR.
“When someone is an artist, no matter what their medium is, … there’s a business behind it,” McCarthy added. “And I would venture to guess that business is always much more complicated than the personality that they lead with.”
Falcone elaborated further, speculating that people’s hesitancy to participate was potentially due to fears of BRI pursuing legal action against them. “Everyone’s afraid of getting sued,” Falcone said. “Even as we’re having this discussion with you now, we’ve been kind of warned to keep to the basics, try not to get too into it because we will get sued.”
But in a public statement posted to the company’s website Wednesday, Bob Ross Inc. claims that although the doc’s portrayal of the painter and TV icon’s “inspiring positive outlook” was accurate, the filmmakers’ failed to offer them a proper chance to respond to allegations made in the documentary. Included among those are that the Kowalskis have improperly commercialized and profited from Ross’ image after seizing control of his name and likeness over time from his son, Steve Ross. While speaking to NPR, McCarthy supported Steve’s argument that his father wanted his business to go to him.
“Bob certainly wanted it to go to — most of the business — to his son,” she said. “He left it to his son and his brother. And very quickly, that was kind of taken through litigation. And because at the time Steve was so young, Bob thought, you know, let’s have an adult still guiding him with where he’s going to take this company. … But he didn’t get to take hold of it at all.”
But according to BRI — the company solely owned by Ross’ longtime business partners following his death and currently run by their daughter Joan — it has been misrepresented. “Bob Ross Inc. takes strong issue with the inaccurate and heavily slanted portrayal of our company in the Netflix film, Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed,” the statement begins.
In addition to noting that BRI had reached a settlement with Steve “through a standard court-ordered mediation process” after a lawsuit filed by him was dismissed in 2017, the company’s statement also denies that it’s abusing Ross’ likeness, and points to Steve Ross’ statement in the film that he has “been wanting to get this story out for years” as inaccurately portraying they had prevented Steve from doing so. (The documentary features several sources, fellow artists and friends of Steve’s who support his assertions about the Kowalskis, with an additional dozen other interviewees who declined to participate due to concerns about litigation with the Kowalskis, according to the film).
It also offers a timeline of communication between the company and the documentary’s filmmakers, noting that “while the producers of the Netflix film did contact Bob Ross Inc. twice, in late August and October 2020, each request arrived replete with a confounding lack of transparency. At no time did they pose specific questions to Bob Ross Inc. or ask for any form of rebuttal to specific assertions they had decided to include in the film. Nor was it stated that they had a distribution deal with Netflix,” the statement reads. “Had the filmmakers communicated with openness in their correspondence, Bob Ross Inc. could have provided valuable information and context in an attempt to achieve a more balanced and informed film. However, as the director and producers carried on with the production without the perspective of Bob Ross Inc., the final narrative lacks considerable nuance and accuracy and carries a clear bias in favor of those who were interviewed.”
BRI also claims that in May 2021, following media reports of the film’s planned summer release, the company made an effort to offer comment to the filmmakers. However, “They did not return calls or emails and finally responded through their attorney,” and when Bob Ross Inc. provided a comprehensive statement, it says, the filmmakers “chose not to use it.”
In on-screen text at the end of the movie, the Happy Accidents filmmakers acknowledge this correspondence took place, but only after the movie had been completed. It notes that the Kowalskis “deny that their relationship with Bob Ross was ever fractured at any point” and also deny that an affair took place between Annette and Bob.
The Netflix doc has sparked heavy online criticism of the Kowalskis after detailing how Bob Ross Inc., which was once equally owned by Walt, Annette, Ross and his wife, Jane, eventually ended up entirely in the hands of the Kowalski family, along with other things like Ross’ intellectual property. Since screening the film, which debuted on Netflix on Aug. 25, Twitter users have begun calls to boycott both the company and the Kowalskis.
The Hollywood Reporter has reached out to reps for McCarthy, Falcone and Josh Rofé.
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