Bush: Live from New York

March 12, 2009

It's no picnic making a TV broadcast that lives up to a live event. Just ask the helmer of
the Oscars.

Or ask Marty Callner, the director of the live HBO broadcast of Will Ferrell's
Broadway outing "You're Welcome America. A Final Night With George W Bush,"
skedded for March 14.

He'll have about 10 cameras in the house or in the wings, trying to capture the show for
TV auds without proving too much of a distraction to theatergoers in the Cort Theater.
And after several weeks of preparation, he'll be editing on the fly.

"If you make a cut too early to be safe, you're anticipating, but if it's too late, you've
missed a joke," Callner says.

The director has a long history with televised live events, starting with early HBO
specials from Robert Klein, George Carlin and Robin Williams, among others. He also
directed the broadcast of the Justin Timberlake concert HBO aired last year, as well as
music videos from Twisted Sister, Whitesnake and ZZ Top.

Legit telecasts can be a pricey endeavor, especially on Broadway, with its long-standing
legit work rules. Callner estimates such programs can range between $500,000 and $2
million, with the Ferrell special falling on the higher end of that spectrum.
Since the theatrical lights are designed for only the live audience in the house, a new
lighting plot must be determined for the special, accommodating camera angles without
changing the theatrical feel of the event.

On the other hand, with a live broadcast post-production costs are essentially nil
(although Callner will be able to go back and tweak his editing for future airings, if he
really fouls something up in the moment).

Broadway fare he translated to TV includes the 1981 revival of "Camelot" and John
Leguizamo's 2002 show "Sexaholix: A Love Story."

"My goal for that one was to give each character its own camera angle," Callner says.
For a few moments in "You're Welcome America," he'll occasionally break the fourth
wall for closeups of Ferrell-as-Bush facial expressions, giving viewers at home the
chance to see Ferrell's face from a straight-on angle instead of the profile seen by theater
auds.

"Two eyes are funnier than one," Callner says.

Even with all the talk about the undisclosed megabudget of the tuner "Spider-Man, Turn
Off the Dark" -- said to be north of $35 million -- there's at least one participant with
nothing to lose.

That's Marvel Entertainment. In the annual earnings report announced by the company
last week, chief financial officer Kenneth West reiterated that Marvel, the company
whose line of comicbooks launched Spidey in the 1960s, doesn't have a penny in the
show.

What it has instead is gross participation in the tuner, set to open in February 2010. Not
to mention a stake in merchandise revenues -- "which some of these shows do significant
business in," West noted in his comments on the report.

Can a comicbook adaptation be far behind?