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This story first appeared in the March 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
For years, A.K. Waters (not his real name) used his expertise in military intelligence and special operations to consult on Hollywood movies, including Zero Dark Thirty. When he was on leave from active duty (he can’t say from what), his therapy became visiting sets or reading scripts. Now, he and a cadre of confidants — including Kellen Kent, a former Navy SEAL, Dale Comstock, formerly with Delta Force, and Mike Smith (not his real name), formerly with the U.S. government — are launching a production company that will offer film and TV studios and book publishers access to projects culled from people who have worked or are working in the field.
Dubbed Zulu 7 — a military expression indicating that a mission has been successfully completed — the company already is in talks to option a high-profile Esquire story about the SEAL who killed Osama bin Laden as well as the shooter’s life rights. (The Center for Investigative Reporting, where Esquire author Phil Bronstein works, denies such a deal is in the works.) The start-up hopes to partner with, rather than simply consult on, the next generation of military- and intelligence-infused films and television shows. Its tiny ranks also include former Starz head of programming Stephan Shelanski, who serves as managing partner and CEO; film and television veteran Paul Bernard; and former Starz vp Robert Markovich. Their motto: “militainment.”
“We’re the funnel for operational and intelligence people,” says Waters. “We’re providing a clearinghouse.” Kent, for instance, is helping former CIA operative F.W. Rustmann pitch his new book, The Case Officer, which he hopes will become a movie. “The timing is right when you consider the success of shows like Homeland and The Americans or Argo and Zero Dark Thirty,” adds Shelanski. “These types of projects are the zeitgeist today, so the concept is to take these ideas and control them ourselves.”
If successful, the move could represent a new step in the relationship between Hollywood and the military. The government has long aided movies and TV shows by loaning weaponry or helping with research in the hope of portraying the American military in a positive light (and encouraging recruitment). The Naval Special Warfare Command, home of the Navy SEALs, even allowed active-duty SEALs to star in Relativity Media’s Act of Valor, a 2012 film that began as a recruitment tool and grossed $70 million in the U.S.
But the challenge for Zulu 7, say insiders, will be coming up with distinct projects that provide added value to studios and production companies in an age when information about the military is freely available.
“What exactly is top secret today? The Navy SEALs are supposed to be confidential, yet books are being written by former SEALs,” notes Nicolas Chartier, who produced The Hurt Locker and Geronimo, a rival project to Zero Dark Thirty.
Waters, who has taken meetings at nearly every film and TV studio, says Zulu 7 will distinguish itself by understanding both sides of the equation. “A lot of guys can’t assimilate and put stories into entertainment,” says Waters. “It’s sometimes the little things you do that make a huge difference. We add a certain flair, a certain uniqueness.”
His Hollywood odyssey began via a friendship with Bernard, younger brother of Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard. The younger Bernard was a director and producer, and Waters would tag along on various sets and find himself doling out advice. (Bernard was an assistant director on Mission: Impossible, Three Kings and The Kingdom.) Markovich, a talent manager before he worked at Starz, also was a conduit for Waters.
Waters dodges direct questions about what productions he’s been involved in, claiming “operational security,” but he calculates that he’s been on 20 movie sets. He acknowledges that the over-the-top secrecy might sound like simply a marketing pitch for himself, but he insists it’s necessary (and it’s likely the government doesn’t want the world to know what Hollywood projects it endorses). He boasts he’s probably had something to do with every movie or television show in the past several years dealing with anything Russian, likely including new FX show The Americans (his mother was Russian). The series was created by Joe Weisberg, a former CIA officer-turned-screenwriter. And, as Weisberg does with the CIA, Waters says he’ll informally vet projects with the halls of power.
Waters already has begun creating storylines for militainment fiction, including the novel Khost, about a remote area in Afghanistan where a Russian chemical attack in the 1980s created a race of monsters that are discovered years later by U.S. Special Ops. Waters hires authors to do the writing, with his eBooks boasting more than 300,000 downloads.
He’s got another agenda as well. Waters says SEAL applications spiked following Act of Valor. He believes Zulu 7 can serve the same purpose across the military intelligence and Special Ops landscape. Comstock, who starred in NBC’s reality show Stars Earns Stripes, hopes in particular to promote Delta Force, the Army’s elite Special Ops unit, considering all the attention that’s been paid to the SEALs in the wake of bin Laden’s death. “They aren’t looking for glory, but these guys are out there every day, at war,” says Comstock, who has by far the most public profile of the group (he appears in the upcoming untitled Discovery show that was struck by tragedy in early February when a helicopter crashed during filming, killing three people including an Army Special Forces veteran).
“We are trying to shed a positive light on the military and the not-so-mentioned missions and show people the range of military abilities,” says Kent.
Zulu 7, which officially launched in January, hasn’t yet set up any projects but is working with writers. And Waters attended the Feb. 24 Oscar ceremony on behalf of an undisclosed film. “I will say that when Argo won, I had to turn my phone off because everybody started calling,” he says.
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