- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 22, 2003

The initial screening for the Civil War epic "Gods and Generals" at the Loew's Georgetown multiplex brings out a surprise observer: Robert Edward Turner. Better known as Ted, the 64-year-old media empire-builder financed and produced the movie, the second in a projected Civil War trilogy that began with "Gettysburg" and will conclude, if all goes as planned, with "The Last Full Measure."
Within seconds of his arrival, Mr. Turner is schmoozing with members of the audience, including a trio of Canadian movie journalists, which prompts him to burst into a chorus of "Oh, Canada!" This in turn starts him reminiscing about his cameo appearance in "Gods and Generals," as a Confederate officer who joins in a rousing chorus of "The Bonnie Blue Flag" during a show staged for the troops.
Presiding at round-table interview sessions the next morning at the Ritz-Carlton hotel, Mr. Turner remarks that he was very pleased with the screening. He estimates that it was about the 50th time he saw the film, which chronicles the first two years of the war, using Maj. Gen. Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson (Stephen Lang) as its principal character. The movie runs about 230 minutes, but Mr. Turner remained from start to finish.
Much more footage remains in reserve. The additional sequences will be brought out for the DVD edition. "There's the whole battle of Antietam," the producer reflects, "and a subplot that traces the activities of John Wilkes Booth. A lot of material. Maybe another two and a half hours, if we use it all. … Scenes go in and out, and I did make some suggestions about editing, but it's Ron Maxwell's film. He wrote it and directed it. That's the way it should be."
Mr. Turner started out thinking of "Gods and Generals" as a more philanthropic project than he now can afford. "Gettysburg" was an adaptation of "The Killer Angels," a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by the late Michael Shaara. Although shown in only a handful of theaters, it gained such a following among Civil War buffs that it eventually turned a profit with the help of very strong home-video sales.
Initially, "Gods and Generals," derived from a novel of the same title by Jeffrey M. Shaara (Michael's son), was budgeted at $30 million, roughly twice the figure invested in "Gettysburg." Even when the budget grew to $60 million, the prospects were encouraging. That was well before the stock plunge of AOL Time Warner, which has considerably shrunk Ted Turner's net worth.
"At the time I financed the movie," Mr. Turner explains, "it represented about 1 percent of my liquid assets. Today it's 15 percent. So it's become very important to me financially that the movie do as well as possible. We're getting a large-scale theatrical release this time. About 1,500 theaters. … Going theatrical wasn't an afterthought, like it was with 'Gettysburg.'"
Mr. Turner says he believes the Civil War has been relatively neglected by Hollywood. "A case could be made that the Civil War was the most important conflict in American history," he says, "but if you look at film history, there are only a dozen or so Civil War pictures that made any sort of impression. They're way outnumbered by Westerns. …
"This is the first movie about the period to depict Stonewall Jackson in any detail. He's been ignored. It's hard to find even a cameo. Think about it. So we're making films about an important part of our history."
Mr. Turner also likes to think of himself as "the movie man," an identity reinforced every day by the high quality of revival programming on the Turner Classic Movies cable channel. "Remember back in the 1980s," he recalls, "when I bought MGM. I could have had one of the other studios, but MGM was the company that had 'Gone With the Wind' and 'The Wizard of Oz' and 'Dr. Zhivago.' As it turned out, the only wise business course was to keep their film library, and that was the core of the 8,000 titles on TCM now."
Despite his obvious enthusiasm for popular entertainment, Mr. Turner suspects that "Gods and Generals" might be his last shot at a major production. "If it's successful financially," he says, "I'll finance Ron's movie of Jeff Shaara's 'The Last Full Measure,' which completes the story of the Civil War.
"All we have to do is break even with 'Gods and Generals.' … 'Gettysburg' got into the black. We've already sold the new movie to HBO and TNT. … The expanded, or complete, version of 'Gods and Generals' will be on DVD, and it might justify an additional miniseries for the TV networks. Who knows? Hey, this business is not a business. Nobody knows what the hell is going on. You've gotta be willing to gamble."
Veering off on a tangent, Mr. Turner exclaims, "Who would have thought 'Dumb and Dumber' would be a hit? And hasn't that Jeff Daniels got a lot of acting ability? To go from 'Dumb and Dumber' to 'Gettysburg'?"
Ah, there was a connection after all. Mr. Daniels has returned in the role of Lt. Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of the 20th Maine Regiment, now on the receiving end of withering rifle fire while trying to storm the high ground during the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862.
Mentioning Mr. Daniels prompts Mr. Turner to praise Stephen Lang. "We already had Jeff and Robert Duvall, who had agreed to play Robert E. Lee," the producer recalls. "We needed a Stonewall Jackson, but we couldn't afford one of Hollywood's $10 million or $20 million actors. …
"We'd been talking to Russell Crowe, whose price went up to $20 million after 'Gladiator.' He said he'd do our movie for $10 million, which I guess seemed like a big sacrifice to him. I said, 'Thanks, pal, but we can't afford it.' There were 150 speaking parts in the film. You have to watch the budget. So Ron suggested Stephen, who had played George Pickett in 'Gettysburg.' We went with him, and he's remarkable."
Although a famous son of the South, Mr. Turner was born in Cincinnati and educated at Brown University. His family moved to Savannah, Ga., when he was 9. At age 25, he inherited the Atlanta advertising agency created by his father, who had committed suicide.
A prodigious decade of expansion began with his purchase of an Atlanta UHF station in 1970. Transmitting the station's signal to cable systems by satellite, Mr. Turner created a so-called "superstation." He branched out into professional sports by acquiring the Atlanta Braves and the Atlanta Hawks. In 1980, he inaugurated the Cable News Network, CNN, as a round-the-clock news service.
By 1996, Mr. Turner was able to bring a lot of assets to the merger of Time Warner with his Turner Broadcasting Systems. More or less kicked upstairs to a vice chairmanship after the AOL merger two years ago, he announced his resignation just a few days before the press junket for "Gods and Generals."
"One of the things I'm most concerned about is the state of AOL Time Warner," he reflects. "We've made so many mistakes, the AOL merger being the first in the sequence. I was there, of course. I voted for it, so I'm as responsible as anyone else.
"All my top financial advisers were for it. It was obviously gonna go through, so the peer pressure was overwhelming. You want to have unanimity when you can, if you're a team player on a board of directors. … Now I'm gonna spend serious time and effort to see if we can enhance shareholder value. I couldn't do very much inside the company except raise my hand and object to things. I think I may be more helpful on the outside."
What would it take to make his assets whole again? "Well, the media assets are pretty solid," Mr. Turner replies. "All the original Turner companies and the magazine and cable divisions. AOL is the big exception. What the Turner companies have lost is the top-flight executive team that was there when we merged. … They ran off, one great executive after another. … My heart has been broken by all that, but the show must go on."
Go on it will, if film critics will just do their part: "Wouldn't y'all like to see me again in a couple of years with the movie of 'The Last Full Measure'? Then be kind to this film."


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