Hollywood's Hillary War: Why Clinton Fallout Could Be Worse Than GOP Wrath

Hillary Clinton Conservation International - H 2013
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Hillary Clinton Conservation International - H 2013

NBC and CNN push forward with projects amid pressure from both sides as insiders wonder whether producers could "be in for a world of hurt."

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

With NBC planning to create a Hillary Clinton miniseries and CNN poised to weigh in with a documentary, Hollywood might have brought about that rarest of phenomena: bipartisan agreement.

Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus, fearful that the projects could favor the prospective 2016 presidential candidate, warned both networks Aug. 5 that they could be excluded from hosting presidential debates if the programs aren't scrapped by Aug. 14. Meanwhile, some Clinton associates are just as wary and also would be happy if both projects fell by the wayside. They might get half their wish: One industry insider with strong Democratic ties but no links to either project says that while the CNN documentary seems likely to happen, the NBC drama seems much less certain. "My bet is it'll get too partisan too fast, and these guys won't know how to sort their way through it," he says.

NBC might have laid the groundwork for that with an Aug. 5 statement to The Hollywood Reporter noting that the miniseries "has not been written nor has it been ordered to production," adding, "It would be premature to draw any conclusions or make any assumptions about it at this time."

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Longtime Clinton friend and producer Harry Thomason (Designing Women), cautioning that he never has discussed the matter with Bill or Hillary Clinton, says he believes the couple never would publicly oppose the projects but will decline to cooperate with either. He thinks the documentary is cause for greater concern to Clinton allies. "With the miniseries, it's an easy position to take: It's a made-up drama," he says. "On the documentary, they will have material that makes it seem factual." (Thomason produced 1992's The Man From Hope, a centerpiece of that year's Democratic convention.)

CNN's project is to be directed by Charles Ferguson, whose 2010 film about the financial meltdown, Inside Job, won a documentary feature Oscar. The Jeff Zucker-run network has asked the RNC "to reserve judgment" on the Clinton film, set to have a theatrical run in 2014 before airing on TV. NBC's miniseries was a surprise reveal at the Television Critics Association on July 27. NBC chief Bob Greenblatt said Diane Lane will star, though the script hasn't been written and the Clintons were not notified in advance of the announcement.

According to Thomason, the Clintons would not expose themselves to an accusation of attempting to influence either film. But he says they and their allies are certain to be vigilant about both projects. And those who incur the couple's displeasure typically feel it, not through the Clintons themselves but through surrogates. "It's the potential to bring lightning down on yourself," he says.

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WME represents the writer-director of the NBC project, Courtney Hunt, as well as Lane. Ari Emanuel, the agency's co-CEO, is an outspoken Democrat whose brother Rahm worked in the White House during Bill Clinton's administration.

Thomason says he's unaware of any previous drama based on a prospective presidential candidate. "These things have always been done after the fact, and there's a reason," he says. But even that doesn't insulate filmmakers from controversy. In 2011, the History network dumped a $30 million miniseries on the Kennedys amid pressure from Maria Shriver and Caroline Kennedy. It aired on Reelz, whose CEO Stan Hubbard tells THR he "wouldn't be surprised if the same thing happened from the Clintons." And in 2003, CBS, under pressure from conservatives, shifted its miniseries on the Reagans to Showtime (then run by NBC's Greenblatt). Jeff Wald, who managed Reagans lead actor James Brolin at the time, says the Clinton miniseries could "be in for a world of hurt." Pressure could be put on Time Warner or NBCUniversal executives similar to how execs at History's parent companies were lobbied personally by the Kennedys.

But Democratic consultant Donna Bojarsky says the fact that Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy were long out of office when those miniseries aired only raised the stakes because the fight became about legacy. She argues that most people have made up their minds about Hillary. The bigger question to her is whether it's possible to "do something interesting enough to warrant going back over well-known territory."

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Veteran Democratic consultant Bill Carrick agrees. "Presuming that Clinton runs, the campaign will be judged on its totality, not on some documentary two years before the election," he says. And he dismisses the GOP complaint in particular. “There's nothing the Republicans like more than to whine about Hollywood and whine about the news media,” he says. “They would rather do that than breathe. I'm just so sick of it -- it’s boring and trite. And I've got news for them: Hillary Clinton is extremely popular. Live with it.”

And Reelz's Hubbard quips that if the Hillary miniseries is as good as The Kennedys, he's ready to pounce: "When NBC drops it, we'll be here to pick it up."

Matthew Belloni and Tina Daunt contributed to this report.

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