September 30, 2013

CNN Documentary Is Off; Filmmaker Blames Pressure From Clintons


After criticism from both sides of the political aisle, a documentary filmmaker has decided to abandon a project about the life of Hillary Rodham Clinton that he had planned to make for CNN.

In a commentary posted on Monday on The Huffington Post, the filmmaker, Charles H. Ferguson, said that pressure from Clinton advisers who did not want the film made ultimately became too intense. "I decided that I couldn't make a film of which I would be proud," he wrote. And so I'm canceling."

The documentary had planned to explore Mrs. Clinton's life and career from her days working at the Rose law firm in Little Rock, Ark., to her time as first lady and years as a New York senator. The CNN film was the second major project on Mrs. Clinton announced this summer, following a mini-series that NBC said it was developing, with Diane Lane set to star as Ms. Clinton.

Both projects quickly became lightning rods. Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, called the planned film a "thinly veiled attempt at putting a thumb on the scales of the 2016 presidential election" and threatened to refuse to partner with CNN or NBC on any presidential primary debates if the networks moved forward with the projects.

But according to Mr. Ferguson, it was not pressure from the G.O.P. that ultimately ended the CNN documentary. He said Mrs. Clinton's aides had over the last three months exerted pressure on prospective sources and had made it nearly impossible to gain access. Mr. Ferguson said nearly everyone he reached out to declined to participate in the film. "I don't think I would've even been able to get talking heads," he said.

In his essay, he declared his failure to win the access he needed "a victory for the Clintons, and for the money machines that both political parties have now become." Mr. Ferguson contributed more than $30,000 to the Obama Victory Fund in 2008, which supported Barack Obama's presidential campaign. He previously directed and produced the documentary "No End In Sight: The American Occupation of Iraq" and "Inside Job," about Wall Street's role in the 2008 financial crisis, which won an Oscar for best documentary.

Of the Clinton aides, he said in a phone interview: "They knew this wasn't a whitewash. And my very strong impression was that anything other than a whitewash is something they don't want to support."

He specifically pointed to Philippe Reines, who has worked for Mrs. Clinton since her years in the Senate. Mr. Ferguson said Mr. Reines had "contacted various people at CNN, interrogated them, and expressed concern about alleged conflicts of interest generated because my film was a for-profit endeavor."

Mr. Reines declined to comment, but a person close to the Clintons confirmed that aides had been in touch with Vinnie Malhotra, senior vice president for development and acquisitions at CNN Worldwide, to express "confusion" about how a news organization could cover Mrs. Clinton while also producing a for-profit movie about her. (This person said Clinton aides had not heard of Mr. Ferguson until he reached out about the CNN documentary.)

Mr. Ferguson said he also believed Clinton aides had influenced an open letter from David Brock, a Clinton ally and president of the liberal media watchdog group Media Matters for America, to publish an open letter protesting the CNN movie.

Mr. Brock said Clinton aides had not encouraged him to write the letter to CNN and that the letter was not intended to discourage sources from cooperating with Mr. Ferguson, though he was pleased if that was the unintended consequence.

"He seems to be blaming the Clintons and their supporters for his own failure to find a story," Mr. Brock said.

"My concern was that there would be potentially an anti-Clinton animus to this film and what he wrote in The Huffington Post today shows that I was right," he added."

A CNN spokeswoman, Allison Gollust, said the network would not move ahead with the film, which would have required CNN either to seek a different filmmaker, or to produce the project on its own. "Charles Ferguson has informed us he is not moving forward with his documentary about Hillary Clinton," CNN said in a statement, adding: "We understand and respect his decision."