How PBS Landed the Rights to Sought-After J.D. Salinger Documentary
The Weinstein Co. to Distribute New Documentary About J.D. Salinger
Shane Salerno’s long-gestating documentary about influential and reclusive author JD Salinger has generated tremendous interest – both in Hollywood and New York literary circles. So when PBS’ American Masters landed the domestic television rights for a reported low seven-figure sum (a mountain of cash in the world of public broadcasting), many industry watchers wondered how PBS sealed the deal before more deep-pocketed competitors even had a chance to make an offer. Enter Susan Lacy, the creator and executive producer of American Masters, a PBS staple since 1986.
Days after news of Salerno's project first surfaced in January 2010, “Susan called me out of the clear blue," said Salerno. “I answer my own phone. She started talking when I said ‘hello’ and I don’t think she stopped for 25 minutes. And she really made an incredibly coherent and intelligent case for why this had to be on American Masters."
Salinger will air in January 2014 as American Masters’ 200th installment joining a long list of previously profiled literary giants including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Louisa May Alcott, Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Ellison and Eugene O’Neil. And in March American Masters will bow Philip Roth: Unmasked.
“I thought Salinger belonged among those artists. I felt very strongly about that. And Susan was unique in her pursuit. It was like I was Harrison Ford and she was Tommy Lee Jones,” said Salerno, referring to the cat-and-mouse feature The Fugitive. “She was so relentless and single-minded about it."
In fact, Lacy’s tenacity is legendary in industry circles. She called Jeff Rosen, Bob Dylan’s long-time manager, once a month for ten years to persuade him to help her persuade Dylan to submit to the American Masters treatment. Rosen had amassed a treasure trove of video interviews with Dylan. The resulting film, No Direction Home, was directed by Martin Scorsese and aired on American Masters in 2005.
Asked if Lacy called him once a month for two years, Salerno replied: “It was really more aggressive than that.” Once a week? “It was sometimes more aggressive than that. But never bothersome. And I learned a great deal on those phone calls."
The long-running PBS series confers an imprimatur of quality. And shortly after the American Masters deal was finalized, Simon & Schuster announced a book deal with Salerno. The Private War of J.D. Salinger, which Salerno is writing with David Shields (Black Planet, Remote), is due out in September.