TV Movie Producer Kenneth Kaufman - In The Line Of Duty
Movie producer Kenneth Kaufman grew up in a suburb of New York City. He attended public schools. He went to college at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania where he received an undergraduate degree in Economics. Then he took an academic approach to film and television in graduate school at the Annenberg School of Communications at Penn.
"I made a film in my second year," Kaufman told me by phone 2/25/02, "and it was looked at by producer/director Otto Preminger. Mr. Preminger hired me to be his assistant [after completing his Masters degree in 1973]. It was a terrible film, a typical student film without much money spent. Looking back at it years later, it was about the worst thing I've ever seen in my life.
"Preminger was working on his second to last film at the time, Rosebud. I stayed with him for three-and-a-half years. It was a remarkable experience. I traveled all over the world with him. His memory was starting to fail. He had the beginnings of Alzheimer's Disease. I became a bit of his memory. Otto tended to be larger than life. The kind of things that a young person could learn from him were not necessarily the technical things but more the idea that everybody was equal in his eyes. For example, whether it be the driver who drove him to the set or the head of the studio, they were all equal to him. They were all idiots to him. And they were all subject to his wrath. I was never scared by anybody after that, or overly impressed by anybody because he managed to cut them all down to size."
Luke: "What is it with the rageaholics in this business? I mean, the type of behavior that you couldn't get away with in any other type of business seems normal in Hollywood."
Ken: "Power does that. I've never found that the best way to the finish line. Otto was a guy who was used to getting his way. He had a huge power of personality. There wasn't a day on a movie or a play when everybody else didn't talk about him at dinner. Everybody talked about what he did that day and how he acted that day. That shows his power of personality. It had nothing to do with his talent."
Luke: "How would you rate him as a director?"
Ken: "If you look at his films now, he was an old fashioned director. He came out of the theater. In today's world of fastcutting and moving cameras, he would not have fit in. He would set up a scene and photograph it. It was more of the actors moving than the cameras moving. He was however a remarkable producer. He produced almost all the films he directed in the latter half of his career. He went after controversial material. He understood that breaking barriers got publicity. He had a tremendous knack for publicity and promotion. He had excellent artistic taste. He had a good sense of casting and was able to attract the biggest stars. "
Luke: "At what point in your life did you decide to dedicate yourself to movies?"
Ken: "When I was a senior in college. I was fortunate enough to go to college at a time, the '60s and early '70s, when you could decide what you wanted to do and go ahead and do it. Until that time, people who were fortunate enough to go to college, often did what they thought they should do - attorney, businessman - or what their parents told them to do. I fell in love with movies and decided to give it a try.
"I wanted to make documentaries that changed the world. Preminger would say, 'Why would you want to make documentaries? In a fiction film, you can do anything you want. You can write it, hire the actors, and set them up the way you want. You don't have to go photograph what is actually happening.' It's ironic that I've become known for making docu-dramas."
After Preminger, Kaufman moved on to a series of jobs in New York including one year as story editor at Casablanca Filmworks and one year at Warner Brothers where he realized he didn't like working for a large corporation. In 1982, Ken was asked to become a partner in the company Telecom Entertainment, which was owned by an ad agency.
"Michael Lepiner ran the company and wanted a partner to move it forward. My first film appeared around Christmas 1983 on CBS - The Gift of Love: A Christmas Story starring Angela Lansbury, Lee Remick and Polly Holliday. We made ten TV movies over the next six years and received many Emmy nominations. The Attic: The Hiding of Anne Frank (1987) was nominated for six Emmys.
"It was possible to make that kind of material in those days. As time wore on, it became more difficult to make material we were proud of."
Luke: "It became more disease-of-the-week and women in peril fads."
Ken: "Which we avoided... Over the years, I made a dozen films in the NBC cop series In the Line of Duty. They were one of the few groups of films that appealed to men.
"We made the first one [in 1988]. It was called The FBI Murders and was about an infamous day in FBI history when a number of FBI agents were shot in Miami. Two were killed. The head of movies at NBC movies at the time, Tony Mesucci thought we should add a handle to the title. 'How about: In the Line of Duty: The FBI Murders.' We said, 'Ok, fine.'
"It turned out to be a great idea he had. We were able to make another ten or so in the series. Luck plays a huge part in producing films. We had a good story. We took it to ABC and ABC passed on it. Then I called NBC about the story and they said, 'Don't even bother to bring it here. We're really not buying anything that is male oriented.' I said, 'I hear you. But it's really a great story. Let me come in to talk to you about it.' And the executive said, OK, but it's going to be a waste of time.'
"We made an appointment for three weeks hence. And on the day of the appointment, he called me to say, 'Good thing you're coming in today. You're going to sell this to us. We just had a meeting and we need to buy some male oriented stuff.' So I walked in and they weren't even listening. They were ready to go. So we wrote a script and made it and its ratings were high.
"Then they called and said, 'Let's make some more.' And we did, including one that was their highest rated film in four years - about Waco."
Luke: "How were you able to turn out so much quality material while at Telecom?"
Ken: "We were a subsidiary of the ad agency and part of the job was to help service the client. If the client wanted to make a movie, they let us do it. General Foods at the time was in the business of making one or two movies a year under the General Foods Golden Showcase umbrella. Proctor & Gamble, also a client, made a bunch of movies."
Luke: "When you have one sponsor behind a program, it tends to have a higher quality."
Ken: "Yes. They will want to make something where their brands will feel comfortable residing."
Luke: "We had more of this in 1950s television."
Ken: "That's when the advertising agencies really controlled it until things went another way. We might circle back to that because of the difficulties networks are having financially."
Luke: "If we returned to that model, I bet we wouldn't have as much crap on television."
Ken laughs. "It depends on who the advertiser is. An advertiser tends to spend more because they know they're going to be identified by the movie and they want it to be excellent. Some of the best movies of all time were made by advertisers."
In 1988, financier Michael Lepiner died and his production company Telecom Entertainment went out of business. In December, 1988, Ken Kaufman and his friend Tom Patchett formed Patchett-Kaufman Entertainment. Tom was the co-creator and executive producer of the popular NBC series Alf. He'd also written and produced The Bob Newhart Show (CBS) and Buffalo Bill (NBC).
Ken: "When I was Telecom in the mid '80s, I developed a couple of comedy shows including Best Legs in the 8th Grade, a one-hour comedy showcase for HBO. Tom Patchett was a successful writer-producer-director in comedy and we had him direct our show. Then I developed a political satire series for Showtime called Washingtoon, based on a political comic strip. And Tom directed the pilot and we became friends.
"Tom decided to retire from the television business at age 51 in 1991 and devote himself to collecting, and writing about art. He's created an arts complex called Bergamot Station in Santa Monica. His gallery is called Track 16. He's active on museum boards. But he's still writing and now we're in the midst of casting a feature film he wrote."
In 1989, CBS ran nine episodes of Tom's TV comedy Baghdad Cafe starring Whoopi Goldberg and Jean Stapleton.
Luke: "Was working with Whoopi Goldberg the trauma that sent Tom fleeing into retirement?"
Ken: "No comment."
Luke: "Tell me about your 1989 NBC movie Howard Beach: Making the Case for Murder."
Ken: "That was a fabulous thing to do. I felt strongly about the themes of that story. I'm a huge fan of Joe Hines, the special prosecutor brought in to the case, who is now the Brooklyn DA, but at that time was an ex-fire commissioner attorney for New York City, who was brought in to prove that this was not an accident but really a murder motivated by race. He did such a brilliant job that he became the main character of the movie. It was a complex and cerebral case and not easy to make a movie out of. We couldn't afford to shoot in New York so we recreated Brooklyn in Chicago."
In December, 1986, three black men ran into car trouble in Howard Beach, a middle-class neighborhood in New York City. Unable to start their car, they sought refuge in a nearby restaurant. They were driven out into the street and one man was run over and killed by a car.
Ken: "I have always been a news junkie. The late '80s was a time before the explosion of news magazine like Dateline, 48 Hours, etc. We had an opportunity in television movies to get behind the headlines and tell the human side of the story. And the movies had the built-in promotion of nationally known stories."
In 1992, CBS televised Kaufman's A Woman Scored: The Betty Broderick Story .
Ken: "Betty was a wealthy San Diego housewife. Her husband was a successful attorney. They had a rocky marriage and a bunch of kids. They got divorced. He ended up marrying his assistant after having an affair with her. Betty could not cope with it. She got up in the middle of the night, drove 20 minutes to his house, with keys stolen from one of their daughters, let herself in, went upstairs and shot both her husband and his new wife while they slept. She killed them.
"It became a huge event in San Diego. Oddly, much sympathy was on the side of Betty because he married his secretary. Even though this woman premeditated a murder, there were all these women's groups lining up behind her. We were fortunate enough to obtain an LA Times magazine piece by a brilliant journalist named Amy Wallace. And we had the aid of a Pulitzer Prize winning researcher working with us, Sonny Rawls.
"We got Meredith Baxter to play the part. Meredith was at the age where she could relate to the issue of younger women in mens' lives. We made a film that was not only widely watched, but it became a tremendous talking piece. So we made a sequel about her trial: Her Final Fury: Betty Broderick, the Last Chapter . Her first trial was a mistrial, and then ultimately she was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
"It was a perfect example of a news story that was fascinating and an ability to get behind it and explore what it was like for a woman in her early 40s, with kids who were teenagers, whose husband falls for a younger woman. Betty was a bit loony. There was every reason in the world for her husband to turn away from her. Amy Wallace exchanged correspondence with Betty. We always try to tell both sides."
From Entertainment Weekly 10/30/92: "The cast and crew, however, have always taken sides. On the first production, they split along gender lines, with most male crew members and Baxter's costar, Stephen Collins, who played Broderick' s ex (he's not in the sequel), backing doomed Dan. An outraged Collins would angrily debate Baxter and anyone else who called Betty a victim. "She got $16,000 a month," Collins said then, "and she called herself abused. Please. She's insane." Today Baxter, who was divorced from actor David Birney in 1989 after 15 years of marriage, says sheepishly, "Maybe Stephen was more right than I was willing to admit."
"When approached about the sequel, she says, she "started reading transcripts of the second trial, and I saw a totally different picture. I still think Dan had to be more of a bastard than we ever portrayed. But I saw the disparity in what Betty said and what actually happened. Honestly, now I think she has a personality disorder." Judith Ivey (Designing Women), who plays the prosecutor who nails Broderick, says she too was captivated by Betty at first. "I saw her on Oprah, and she was so compelling, fascinating. I thought, 'Why would I want to play the woman who prosecutes her?' And the director (Dick Lowry) told me, simply, 'Because this is the truth.' The way I see it now, this woman snowballed America.""
"You may read about a 31-year old FBI guy who's shot by a bank robber. Yes, and then you move on. But these people are usually interesting people and the bad guys are often more interesting than the good guys. With 'In the Line of Duty,' we try to make it equal. We try to tell both sides of the story. We get to know the cops who passed away and we get to know the bad guys."
Luke: "How much creative license do you give yourself to fictionalize for dramatic effect?"
Ken: "We try as best we can [due to the limitations of the medium] to stick to the facts. You always have to do some reordering and compressing. You have to composite characters. If there were three investigators, we made them into one character. I had a couple of rules I always followed. One - never fictionalize the dead cops. Two - do not buy one side's rights so we were not forced into taking a position. Rather, we worked from public records, books, and articles that were evenhanded."
Luke: "Is there a common denominator in the movies you've made that haven't worked?"
Ken: "You work as hard on the bad ones as the good ones. You think they're going to be fine and sometimes it just doesn't turn out that way. Often the ones that attract the biggest audiences are not the ones I like the best. They may be the most simplistic or the easiest to promote.
"The common denominator in bad movies is cast. You just made the wrong choice. Often times, those choices are made by committee. The network has a point of view and you give in because you want to get the film made.
"In 1991, we made In the Line of Duty: Manhunt in the Dakotas starring Rod Steiger. It was supposed to star Robert Mitchum but a week before it started, he backed out. And Rod Steiger was brilliant.
"Our most controversial film was 1993's In the Line of Duty: Ambush in Waco. February 28, 1993 was the day when the ATF and the FBI attacked David Koresh's compound. That began the siege which lasted until April 19, when the FBI went in there was a conflagration.
"On February 28, NBC called and asked if we wanted to make the movie. And the siege had just begun. I said, 'I'm not really comfortable. Why don't we wait a year?' Then NBC said, 'We're not waiting. We want to make this right away. Either you're going to do it or someone else is going to do it.' I asked for 24 hours to think about it. I called a bunch of people, we had a team making these movies, and asked them if we could pull it off. NBC wanted it on the air in May. I called Sonny Rawls and asked him to come on board. He said yes.
"We began the project on March 1. We knew we had to start shooting within five weeks. We didn't have a script. We didn't know what the story was. We didn't know where to shoot it. And the siege was still going on. So the ATF and FBI wouldn't give us any information. They wouldn't let us talk to anybody. Luckily, Sonny Rawls had the ability and the sources to get inside law enforcement. We got information that nobody else got because they knew we wouldn't be out until May. We got floor plans. We got interviews with the wounded law enforcement people. We decided that we weren't going to take any sides. If people had information, we were going to pay $500.
"Everybody was trying to sell us rights but we wouldn't buy any rights. We got a lot of information and we structured a script. The writer left blank the law enforcement scenes because we didn't know the exact facts of what went on.
"We decided to shoot in Tulsa, Oklahoma because it has the same topography as Waco, Texas. I was friendly with actor Tim Daly, who was on Wings at the time. I described the David Koresh role to Tim and he took a flier [committed to the project], even though we didn't have a script. He was enormously instrumental in crafting his role. He studied Koresh and the Bible and the type of [Biblical] quotes that Koresh used. And he ended up looking remarkably like Koresh.
"At the last minute, we were able to get a couple of key interviews with people involved in Waco. That enabled us to answer such key questions as, 'Why did the FBI go in when they did? And how did they know where Koresh was?
"We were 14 days into shooting [on April 19th] when the FBI moved into [Koresh's compound] and there was the tragedy of all the people killed. We had to stop shooting that day because our actors were so freaked that the people they were playing were just killed. It was the most surreal experience.
"I was in somebody's trailer working on the script when the production manager ran over and turned on the TV. And here was this structure [going up in flames] that looked exactly like our structure 50 yards away. Our [movie] story ended February 28 [the day of the initial assault on the compound] so this was never going to be in the movie.
"The press descended on us. They went directly from Waco to Tulsa. And at the same time, there were hearing in Washington about violence on television. And our trailer for Ambush in Waco got to the Congress subcommittee. Warren Littlefield, head of NBC at the time, told us we had to take some specific shots out of the picture. It was the highest rated movie of the year for NBC."
Shado writes on Imdb.com: "Watch the outstanding documentary, Waco: The Rules of Engagement, and then watch this insulting inane dreck. If you are like me, you will want to slap the perpetrators of this ignorant, hateful, pro law enforcement propaganda. People who deny the Holocaust will love Ambush in Waco."
Marvin Kitman writes in Newsday 5/23/93: "In the rush to get the story on the air, NBC has missed a rather important part of the story - the end. What happened to producers Kenneth Kaufman and Tom Patchett in the line of duty is a headline-chaser's wildest nightmare come true. In their haste to throw a movie on the screen, to show their devotion to the great god Mammon, and be first with the worst, they missed the socko-smash finish, the apocalypse of TV movies, a climax that dramatists would sell their souls to be able to get away with. (Forgive the seeming insensitivity, but this is fiction I am talking about here.) What "Ambush at Waco" does in context of the overall, very well-known story is like doing a movie about Jonestown that focuses on how Jim Jones brushes his teeth. The movie tells the story of the first phase, the rise of Vernon Howell and the ATF's first attempt to serve a search warrant. Daly ("Wings") is convincing as the musician-turned-nutcase and his mission to convert the inconvertibles. It goes into some depth - this is sweeps month - on his theories and reasons for being able "to plant his seed" in anybody who his God tells him to. There is also much about his building an arsenal that made him the fourth largest power in North America, and the ATF's concern about its public relations campaign.
"Ultimately it even points the finger at who is responsible for alerting the Davidians that the ATF was coming. The media. A cameraman at a local TV station (who had been shooting everything as if it were another episode of "Cops") is shown telling a mailman who tells Koresh. The only trouble with all of this is that it is a docudrama. It's not a documentary, or a news report. It's fiction, done in great haste by the fiction people at NBC. They make up all the conversations. Facts may or may not be true. You need a license to go fishing but not to write a story that the whole country will be watching. There is no requirement that a docudrama tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God. They tell the truth as it fits into their story. Doing a documentary with the ink on the headlines still wet goes beyond the evils of normal docudramas, which are bad enough. This plays like a re-creation, a faked car test on a news magazine. It is so close to the news reports, just ending. Viewers, who have a hard enough time knowing the difference between what is real and what's not, will be totally lost on where the line is on this one. It's hard to argue with "In the Line of Duty." It all sounds so vaguely true, it's easy to take "Ambush at Waco" for the gospel truth. What I especially hate about this two hours of pure faction is that as hard as it tries to be as objective as a news story, a lot of people are going to be cheering for David Koresh to win tonight."
From Entertainment Weekly 5/7/93: "Filmed outside Tulsa last month and airing 34 days after the inferno at the cult's Texas ranch incinerated its 86 inhabitants, the two-hour TV movie sets a chilling new speed record for turning true-life tragedy into the stuff high ratings are made of. It's a video-age transformation so dizzyingly-and disturbingly- instantaneous it could raise even Amy Fisher's eyebrows. "Sure, some people might accuse us of exploitation or bad taste, " allows Ambush's Emmy-winning executive producer, Kenneth Kaufman (In the Line of Duty: Siege at Marion and A Woman Scorned: The Betty Broderick Story). "But this isn't one of those quick, piece-of-crap movies that someone just slips on the air to capitalize on the headlines. This is a very complex, very rich, very interesting film.""
Ken: "We dodged a bullet. I was on the hook financially. If I knew now what I didn't know then, I would never have made the project. We were playing with fire. We were making a movie without having enough information, not having the script done. It could've bankrupted our company. And we could've made a really terrible movie. I think the movie holds. It's interesting and factually, it's about 98% correct. A couple of things we got wrong that nobody could've known until five years later.
"Our movie ended February 28 when the FBI agents were killed in Waco. Our movie was about how did Koresh get all this power and how did the FBI track him. What was the FBI doing that day.
'While we built our replica structure, we had to plant our explosions. That came before the words on the page. I was asked to do a bunch more quickie crime stories afterwards and I said no.
"I took a lot of heat for the violence issue. Congress was very excited. Every few years they get into the violence on television issue. We're the pornographers of our era. And they used as an example the 'In the Line of Duty' series because it was about violent issues. In fact, in our films, you always see the consequences of violence. That's the point of them. I'm against gratuitous violence.
"Our first [in the series] FBI Murders movie [in 1988] did set precedents for explicit violence. But compared to what is on TV now, it is not even close.
"The other movie we did, which I would not have done if I knew then what I know now, was In the Line of Duty: Smoke Jumpers . It was about the guys who jump into forest fires to put them out. And a bunch of these terrific guys were killed horribly in Colorado.
"We had to recreate forest fires and I had no idea how difficult it was going to be. We had the cooperation of the fire protection people in Northern California. We found an area near Placerville where they were going to do a controlled burn anyway. We shot in the first week of the film all the fire we had to shoot.
"And I didn't realize the danger until two weeks before we started shooting. I didn't realize that if it rained, we couldn't shoot. I didn't realize that if the humidity was too low, we couldn't have shot. And unlike feature films, where you can wait and shoot three months later, a TV movie has a small margin of financial success. You're only going to get X amount of dollars.
"We spent as much money on safety as we did on actors for that film. It was lucky that we got away without any problem. We ultimately had to do some of our aerial photography in Southern California and we ended up losing money on the movie. It could've been a true disaster financially and safety-wise.
"We shot on the week after Thanksgiving. They'd just had a heatwave and they didn't have any rain and they didn't have low humidity, and they were able to burn down a forest. We had prisoners working for us. We had the California Department of Forestry working for us. We were lucky."
Luke: "You made a feature film in 1999, Borderline Normal."
Ken: "We shot a little film in Canada. It did not receive a theatrical release. It will premiere on the USA Network. Total Stranger is another small feature we did that did not get a theatrical release. But they were structured financially so that we can still make out.
"The television movie has changed dramatically. Four years ago, a producer would make a film and retain all ancillary rights. Now the networks demand domestic rights and there becomes little reason for me as an entrepreneur to make those pictures. I need to keep my [film] library fresh. If I don't get domestic rights, then I have to make other kinds of movies.
"Foreign rights, which used to finance the pictures, have dropped in value dramatically. And the pictures are more expensive to make. So the independent producer has been in a position of tight margins...
"Lifetime movies are owned by Lifetime. So as a producer for Lifetime, you're making films for a fee. The company that I built was built on making films and owning rights."
Luke: "You've moved away from docu-dramas."
Ken: "They're not getting made anymore. The networks aren't interested. The television movie form may be a dinosaur. The only films that seem to be working are entertainment oriented films like showbiz biographies."
Luke: "How are you adjusting to the changing times?"
Ken: "I'm developing small feature films about subjects that I care about.
"Independent producing is getting tougher every year. I'm glad that I got into this business 20 years ago and not today, because independent producing of TV movies is barely alive."
Luke: "I don't understand why foreign rights to independent movies has declined so dramatically?"
Ken: "Number one - there was a tremendous oversupply. Number two - there's been a move outside the United States for independent national productions. They're not as reliant on American product. And number three, there's a worldwide recession. Advertising revenues are way down and people aren't spending as much money. When you have a fragmented marketplace, like you have here, there's not enough money generated by any one channel to pay for new television movies. Foreign rights were driven before by German rights, and the German rights market has gone down dramatically."
Luke: "Yes, the market is far more fragmented, but aren't there more places to sell your projects to?"
Ken: "Yes there are more channels but fewer owners. About six entities own almost everything. And they have their production arms and they can afford to hire their own people to produce for them. And it is not in any of the big six's interest to keep that outside producer alive. In fact, the outsiders are competitors who are easily squashed.
"I've seen the writing on the wall for many years. I had a project that ultimately got made by somebody else. It was a book called Strange Justice about Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas. I acquired the book to be made at TNT. We had a fantastic script and it was waiting to go and there were political reasons within the Turner organization that related to politics and court decisions..."
Luke: "Clarence Thomas being able to cast a vote on deregulation which affected the fortunes of TNT's parent company."
Ken: "Ahh, you're into it. You understand. TNT waited and waited to make the movie and ultimately they didn't make the movie. I don't know why but it appeared to be political reasons. I couldn't take the project to HBO because it was owned by the same people. Two years before, when TNT and HBO wasn't both owned by Time-Warner, HBO was very interested in the book. Now they weren't interested at all. TBS (Turner Broadcasting Service), I couldn't go there. There were all these places I couldn't go any more with this project because they were all owned by the same people. That's the problem for the independent producer. If one [powerful] guy doesn't like it, that's going to close off a lot of outlets. Or if somebody does like it, they will say, 'We'd love for you to make it, but we're going to own it.' What do you mean? 'If you want to play it on our air, we have to own it.'"
Luke: "From your economics background, you know that big business tends towards monopoly."
Ken: "You don't have to go to graduate school to know that."
Luke: "Adam Smith said that businessmen seldom gather to eat and drink without making deals that will defraud the public."
Ken: "We're certainly seeing it in today's headlines."
Luke: "Where do you think you and your peers will be in five years?"
Ken: "Television movies thrived when the networks played two or three TV movies a week. During the 1970s and '80s, despite the wide-ranging subject matters, the audience knew that if they turned into the NBC Sunday night movie, they'd get a certain quality of cast, etc... Then they became a series in another sense. The Monday Night Movie became 'movies that mothers and daughters could watch together.' And that worked in a fragmented market. The TV movies became another kind of series. I think the next phase is that movies are going to be special events. And as special events, I think they will continue to thrive. But special events don't create enough volume for a business. They are one-time events. I don't think the independent producer of TV movies will exist five years from now unless there's a dramatic change - government regulations, a breakup [of the leading oligopolies]."
Luke: "And on the feature level, I've heard that it is virtually impossible to make money unless you get a theatrical release."
Ken: "True. Unless you're in a niche situation with a cable release.
"I've made about 40 movies for television. Now I'm exploring new business models. With Tom, I'm helping bring back the character Alf. He's been doing commercials for MCI. We're preparing a new Alf show and we're involved with new merchandising."