Multiple Thai Cave Rescue Films Have Yet to Secure Life Rights
"The first rule of producing is control the rights," says 'Captain Phillips' producer Dana Brunetti, adding: "Now it’s just a race."
Hollywood can't get enough of real-life rescue movies. In the days leading up to the July 10 extrication of a Thai soccer team from a cave, at least three films — including one from Ivanhoe Pictures (with Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu attached) and another via faith-based distributor Pure Flix — staked their claim.
Also in the works is a film from Bangkok-born director-producer Tom Waller, who is developing a screenplay with co-writers Katrina Grose and Don Linder (the pair wrote Waller's 2014 film The Last Executioner). Waller is planning a Rashomon effect style, exploring the story from different angles and showing multiple perspectives.
"Not just the events leading up to the rescue since everyone has already seen that in the news and YouTube," he tells The Hollywood Reporter. "The script will be mainly in Thai language and focus on some of the unsung heroes who played significant roles behind the scenes."
Those three projects will come on the heels of a quickie Discovery Channel hour-long documentary, Operation Thai Cave Rescue, which aired in the U.S. on July 13.
Despite the fervor, cable news coverage doesn't necessarily translate into box-office gold. Paul Greengrass' Captain Phillips, about the 2009 Maersk Alabama hijacking, is the rare film that raked in money — $219 million worldwide off a $55 million budget — and landed an Oscar best picture nomination to boot (ditto for Danny Boyle's 127 Hours, which cost $18 million and earned $61 million worldwide). Clint Eastwood's Sully missed out on a best picture nomination but was highly profitable nonetheless ($241 million versus a $60 million budget).
On the flip side, there's the Antonio Banderas starrer The 33 — about the dramatic 2010 rescue of the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped underground for 69 days. That film scored a middling 47 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and took home just $25 million worldwide.
Last year's Only the Brave — about the Granite Mountain firefighters who battled the Yarnell Hill Fire in June 2013 — earned the same amount despite a $38 million budget. And Peter Berg's Deepwater Horizon cost so much money in its efforts to re-create the titular 2010 explosion that its $122 million worldwide haul did little to offset a $110 million budget.
One of the biggest hurdles in ripped-from-the-headlines rescue stories is the quick securing of rights. Captain Phillips producer Dana Brunetti says he started calling real-life protagonist Richard Phillips' home immediately after he was safe and back on U.S. soil.
"The first rule of producing is control the rights," says Brunetti. "With the Thai cave story, no one controls the rights yet. It’s just turned into this clusterfuck of everyone announcing that they’re doing a movie and it’s like well, what’s the movie? Now it’s just a race.”
As of press time, neither the Ivanhoe nor the Pure Flix project on the Thai cave rescue had secured any life rights of the participants involved in the saga, though they are both trying. Waller says he is not actively pursuing any life rights for his version.
A version of this story first appeared in the July 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.