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CBS doc stays true to Sept. 11

Feb 11, 2002  •  Post A Comment

CBS’s decision to run a two-hour documentary chronicling the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center was not about profits.
In fact, there was no bidding war for the incredible footage shot by brothers Jules and Gedeon Naudet. Millions of dollars have not exchanged hands. And the goal is just to cover production and living costs and to make a significant contribution to the Uniformed Firefighters Association Scholarship Fund.
“There is really very little about this that is normal creatively and financially,” said CBS President Les Moonves of the documentary, which will air Sunday, March 10.
The Naudet brothers, who had been following and filming the firefighters of Engine 7, Ladder 1 for three months for a documentary, easily could have made millions off their never-before-seen footage. Instead, the pair forged a deal that would enable them to “be in charge of their film” with the help of friends at Vanity Fair and the William Morris Agency, which is contributing its fees to the fund.
CBS paid what has been described as a “minimal” amount for the right to broadcast the program twice. (There is a plan to also show the film in longer form in U.S. theaters and overseas.) And CBS President Les Moonves said the plan is to limit commercial interruptions, although no sponsors have been signed yet. “We have spoken to a lot of [potential] sponsors,” he said. “I don’t think it will [be] commercial-free.”
“48 Hours” executive producer Susan Zirinsky is overseeing the editing of the piece. She doesn’t know how the still-untitled project will be structured but said it is likely to be “augmented” with limited interviews with the Naudet brothers and with James Hanlon, the firefighter whose long friendship with the filmmakers led to their being at the firehouse on Sept. 11.
The Naudet brothers ended up at CBS in a roundabout way.
David Friend, the editor of creative development at Vanity Fair and a friend of the Naudets for a decade, called the filmmakers before the dust settled at Ground Zero, looking for material for a story. The brothers wanted help making the film in a way that befitted its subjects and that would raise money for the fund.
Vanity Fair Editor Graydon Carter, who knew the Naudets’ father, called William Morris Agency President Jim Wiatt in October, and they contacted Mr. Moonves.
CBS News kicked in labor-nearly a dozen producers and editors are working marathon hours under the supervision of Ms. Zirinsky and Senior VP Betsy West, the executive in charge-and the facilities.
The lack of a bidding war helped keep the project wrapped in secrecy, which ended with the announcement by CBS just two days before Mr. Friend’s story and stills from the Naudets’ footage appeared on newsstands in Vanity Fair’s March issue.
“This could have been everywhere, and we could have whored it around,” said Ben Silverman, head of international development for William Morris, who represented the Naudets and Mr. Hanlon.
The inevitable and touchy question of whether people will say the project exploits the tragedy provokes a chorus of assurances that everyone is striving to be respectful of the people represented in the video. As for whether the public at large is ready to watch such footage yet, “I guess that’ll be up to viewers,” Mr. Wiatt said.