You wouldn't be wrong if you thought today's tragedy is tomorrow's TV movie. Producers commonly scour newspapers, magazines and TV news shows, seeking fare for "fact-based" flicks.
Whatever happened to what you might call "fiction-based" TV movies?They exist, but viewers are more interested in the other kind, says producer Steve Tisch, who has made both:
"And selfishly, networks are more interested in true stories. It's almost a joke, but if they can say `Based on a true story,' they feel it gives them three or four (more) ratings points."
Tisch should know. He co-produced "The Burning Bed," a 1984 NBC movie based on the true story involving wife-beating. The fourth highest-rated TV movie in history, it got a 52 percent share of the audience.
Now he has "Judgment," another true-story dramatization. Premiering tonight (9 p.m., HBO), it's written and directed by Tom Topor, a former New York reporter and author of the Broadway drama "Nuts."
"Judgment" is about a Louisiana couple whose son was among a number of young boys sexually molested by their parish priest. (The real priest pleaded guilty to 11 criminal counts and was sentenced to 20 years in prison).
Played by Keith Carradine and Blythe Danner, the couple, devout Catholics, refused the Catholic Church's offer of a secret financial settlement that the other parents were willing to accept.
In the film, the couple also wants the priest sent to prison. The local district attorney balks, explaining that a conviction is unlikely. But he refers them to an old friend, a veteran trial lawyer played by Jack Warden.
They sue the church, accusing it of concealing information about the priest's past history of child molestation.
As their attorney explains things, he wins the civil case and then, "I take the transcript of the trial to the D.A. He goes to trial, he wins."
While "fact-based" films may get the ratings, they sometimes can backfire for a network, if only in terms of the network's image.
Case in point: "Good Night, Sweet Wife: A Murder in Boston," a CBS movie that aired last month. The movie dramatized a headline-making tragedy last year in which a pregnant woman, Carol Stuart, was shot dead. Her husband, Charles, later apparently committed suicide.
The dead woman's family sharply criticized CBS, saying the film set a "dangerous precedent" that could sacrifice the privacy of other grieving families for the sake of profits. Such criticism is unlikely to happen with "Judgment," for several reasons.
Tisch's previous TV films generally have drawn praise for their taste and responsibility, and, he said, the couple depicted in "Judgment" wanted their story told and "enthusiastically allowed us to make the movie." Their one restriction: Their real names weren't to be used.
Unlike the families in the CBS movie, the Louisiana couple also was paid for rights to their story, although Tisch said they had no say in how the story was told. He declined to say how much they were paid.