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12/20/1998 10:08:48 AM

What happened when the makers of an acclaimed wrestling documentary got slammed in a high-stakes cable grudge match?

To the Mat

By Etan Vlessing

What happened when the makers of an acclaimed wrestling documentary got slammed in a high-stakes cable grudge match?

Dressed in pink tights, his bearish frame bathed in oil, Bret "The Hitman" hart became TV wrestling's biggest draw during the 1990s by playing a tough guy who vanquished villainous characters is the ring.

Dubbed "the excellence of execution" for his grab-bag of complex wrestling moves, Hart is arguably the best-known Canadian entertainer in the world, whose antics are seen by millions of viewers every week on cable television. Last year, for instance, he declared a "war with America," attacking World Wrestling Federation fans in the United States for cheering the bad guys, for arrogance and street violence and other alleged sins against purer "Canadian" values.

Hart – so popular he recently signed a three-year, $9 million deal with billionaire Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling TV show – eventually attracted the notice of a Canadian documentary filmmaker named Paul Jay, who first spotted the wrestler in 1996.

"I had seen hart in a WWF interview from Germany and saw a thoughtful Canadian guy," Jay recalled.

Jay and his team at High Road Prods. soon decided they had the stuff of a promising one-hour documentary about the six-foot, 235-pound Hart and the rough-and-tumble, extremely profitable world of professional wrestling.

But what Jay did not expect – could not have foreseen – is that he and his documentary would get caught up in a nasty corporate battle between the WWF, controlled by colourful wrestling kingpin Vince McMahon, and WCW, a rival outfit belonging to Turner's media empire.

The documentary, "Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows" – set to air Sunday on A&E; – was earlier this week called "truly a knockout film" by the Wall Street Journal. But the struggle to get the movie to this point mirrors the struggles of many little-known independent filmmakers around the world, labouring to capture their personal visions against all odds.

Locked in competition for viewers and advertisers, the WWF and WCW have turned professional wrestling, once the stuff of hokey local promotions, into TV's fastest-growing spectator sport. Intensely physical and acrobatic in the ring, pro wrestling is all farce and intrigue outside the ring.

Bulked-up characters straight out of comic books carefully rehearse their lines backstage before emerging on-camera to bark out challenges to would-be opponents and toss verbal red meat to screaming audiences ringside.

The WWF, in particular, has also done more than anyone else to rewrite the traditional good guy vs. bad guy story lines. The Killer Kowalskis and Haystack Calhouns of yesterday wouldn't recognize pro wrestling today.

Sensing moral ambivalence in wider society, McMahon has sidelined the good guys and thrust the anti-hero to the fore. Drawing heavily on the pyrotechnics of heavy metal concerts, and pay-per-view "extreme fighting events" for content, TV wrestling features characters that range from bad to worse.

As the WWF and WCW battle like titans for TV ratings, audiences are getting what they want as never before. Stylized violence, foul language and sexual overtones have become the norm, as oversized men bash each other over the head with metal chairs and buxom blondes challenge each other to cat fights.

Those unacquainted with pro wrestling might not understand the fuss. More theatre than sport, pro wrestling may be heavily scripted and seldom afraid to be corny. But viewers love it.

A battle between the USA Network's "WWF Raw Is War" and TNT's "WCW Monday Nitro" has produced gonzo ratings and hundreds of millions of dollars in merchandising and licensing revenues.

Keith Monarch of The Sports Network (TSN), which airs both TV wrestling shows in Canada, said a Nov. 16 "WWF Raw Is War" telecast, in which Texas good guy Steve "Stone Cold" Austin challenged "The Rock" for the WWF's gaudy championship belt, drew a record audience of 511,000 Canadians.

"That's the audience we get for a professional hockey or baseball playoff game," Monarch marvels.

The TSN executive says WCW broadcasts draw weekly entertainment audiences of between 150,000 and 200,000 viewers.

Monarch adds that fiercely loyal fans favour one TV wresting show over the other, treating "WWF Raw Is War" or "WCW Monday Nitro" like daytime soap operas, revelling in their favourite characters and story lines.

But that's nothing. In the United States, WCW and WWF telecasts routinely grab six or seven of the weekly top 10 spots on basic cable. During the ‘97-‘98 season, each of TNT's three hours of WCW wrestling drew the highest average audience of any original cable series, ranging from 4.7 million to 4.9 million.

Then there's lucrative pay-per-view revenues. The WWF's Wrestlemania XIV pay-per-view in march 1997, starring Mike Tyson as a "special enforcer," proved to be the highest-grossing non-boxing pay-per-view event ever, pulling in 700,000 households at $34.95 each.

It was into this brutal, big-business world of TV wrestling that High Road's documentarians found themselves body-slammed.

And their battle isn't over yet. Jay and others say the documentary has already lost millions in potential pay-per-view and video deals.

The fight has spilled into the courts. Turner's Atlanta-based WCW earlier this months filed a $3 million lawsuit in a Stamford, Conn., court, alleging restraint of trade against Vince McMahon's Titan Sports Inc.

Acting on High Road's behalf, the WCW alleges that the WWF went out of its way to stop High Road from producing its feature-length documentary about Hart.

Jay, an award-winning Canadian documentarian, insists he wasn't looking to cash in on TV's latest "sports-entertainment" craze; his goals for the documentary were more modest.

"Hitman Hart" follows Hart's real-life journey from the WWF to Ted Turner's WCW TV show, and from a career as a "baby-face" good guy to a "heel," or a rule-breaking bad guy.

Hart, 40, grew up in a family surrounded by professional wrestling. His father, Stu, was a wrestling legend in western Canada, while his mother was a university-educated New Yorker who hated wrestling as much as her husband loved it.

Interestingly, all eight of the Hart sons, including Bret, became professional wrestlers, and the Harts' four daughters married wrestlers.

When contacted by the filmmakers, Hart said he welcomed the chance to tell his side of the story behind his departure from the WWF, a story he says is filled with back-room deals and back-stabbing reaching right up to the top of McMahon's Stamford, Conn.-based Titan Sports Inc., which owns and operates the WWF.

In one key scene from the film, the wrestler is seen storming from McMahon's office after a Montreal pay-per-view match on Nov. 9, 1997, at which Hart lost his championship belt.

This was after McMahon allegedly promised Hart he would retain the belt and lose it a week later in New York City. In Montreal, McMahon was caught on film ringside, ordering the referee to do a quick-count and change the outcome of the match by forcing Hart to lose.

According to Jay, McMahon knew that Hart was set to move to Ted Turner's wrestling empire and feared his top wrestler might be introduced on the WCW show with a WWF belt around his waist.

In another scene, a shaken McMahon emerges from his office and staggers down the hallway after an enraged Hart had punched him in the face. Hart accuses McMahon of a "double-cross" that violated their original agreement.

"My skin prickles when I see those pictures. I still don't know why McMahon did those things to me," Hart said by phone from Los Angeles, where he appeared in an episode of "MAD TV".

Meanwhile, the documentarians were having problems with McMahon as well. Jay had secured in summer 1996 a contractual agreement with the WWF stipulating that the federation would supply High Road with stock footage of hart's early career, as well as key public performance and privacy release forms – standard requirements for documentaries.

In return, the WWF was to receive $30,000 plus a percentage of the net profits from the documentary, in the form of a royalty.

Jay and his crew began following Hart around the WWF wrestling venues in June 1997. When his contract came up for renewal, Turner's WCW offered the famed wrestler $3 million a year to jump ship.

The filmmakers captured Hart deciding to re-sign with McMahon in a deal that promised $1.5 million annually for 20 years. But eight months into the new deal, McMahon evidently decided that, amid his war of attrition with Turner's WCW, he could no longer afford hart's new contract.

Hart then decided to sign with Turner's WCW for an unprecedented $9 million over three years. The defection to McMahon's archrival led to the Montreal pay-per-view broadcast in which Hart confronted his former boss over the prospect of an ignoble departure from the WWF.

With their dramatic footage in hand, David Ostriker, a High Road executive vp, helped Jay in late November 1997 pitch "Hitman Hart" at the International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam, where they shopped the project to international broadcasters.

The documentary makers returned home with broadcast licenses from several European broadcasters, including the BBC and La Sept ARTE, while fielding strong U.S. interest from A&E;, HBO and Cinemax.

Amy Briamonte, New York-based director of documentaries for A&E; Television Networks, said that "Hitman Hart" told a "great Canadian story, and a great North American story" against the backdrop of pro wrestling.

Turner Sports, sister to TNT, where WCW matches are broadcast, naturally emerged as another potential suitor last December, offering to buy all U.S. rights, first on pay-per-view, then on TV. And Warner Home Video, a Turner affiliate, was offering to distribute "Hitman Hart" at the retail level, with 500,000 units to be sold in the United States and another 50,000 in Canada.

Apparently sensing that their sworn enemy was about to profit off a big Hart deal, WWF officials demanded that High Road hand over its Montreal footage, according to Ostriker. Ostriker refused the request, citing the contractual agreement and the lack of consent from Hart.

After that, Jay said, the filmmaker's relationship with McMahon grew "chilly."

Written requests were made to the federation for the promised stock footage of Hart, public performance and privacy release forms, but the correspondence went unanswered for months, Jay said.

Finally, in a conference call, Ed Kaufman, WWF's chief legal counsel, and Linda McMahon, co-CEO of WWF and McMahon's wife, conceded they were contractually obligated to hand over the materials.

Still, the filmmakers said, nothing happened.

Asked later about the negotiations, the WWF's Kaufman said little beyond gingerly insisting "we had difficult issues to work through," but added that his dealings with High Road were always conducted in a "professional manner."

McMahon did not respond to repeated interview requests, while Carl De Marco, the Toronto-based head of WWF's Canadian operation, referred questions to WWF headquarters.

Ostriker speculates that the WWF got wind of a potential pay-per-view deal involving "Hitman Hart." He estimates that High Road stood to net as much as $1.3 million from the WCW pay-per-view, and double that amount from the potential distribution deal with Warner Home Video.

Those figures presumed Turner would put its marketing weight behind the film on its varied networks, not to mention during the WCW's TV show.

"Putting that muscle behind us would have pushed sales of the home video through the roof," Jay said.

But the High Road documentary could never air without the elusive privacy and public release forms – a fact that McMahon and company evidently knew and took advantage of.

A court fight loomed.

Ostriker rattled the federation's cage with letters threatening legal action if the release forms were not surrendered. Without them, High Road could not get errors and emissions insurance (ENO), which virtually all broadcasters require before airing documentaries.

In late June 1998, which High Road set as a deadline for handing over the release forms, McMahon finally declared his hand: His federation would supply the material and not collect any royalty on the finished film, but only on one condition – the WCW could not profit in any way from the "Hitman Hart" project.

"They didn't want the competition to profit from the film," Ostriker recalled. "They were not trying to bury the film, as I had feared."

High Road officials, sensing their backs were against the wall, reluctantly agreed to the WWF's terms. They were afraid that a prolonged court battle would end up sinking the documentary.

Ostriker concedes that High Road may come off as "naive" for not following legal advice to take the WWF to court, which may have led to millions in compensation if the suit was victorious.

But he said Jay and his crew were dedicated documentary makers who, more than anything, aimed to bring their film to a wide audience.

"We had made a great film, and to be able to maintain integrity in the filmmaking community, in the face of spoken and unspoken pressures, we needed to deliver the documentary to our broadcasters," Ostriker recalled.

Ironically, the folks at WWF appear content with the finished documentary, despite their earlier stated fears that the film would be used to trash McMahon.

"I saw the film and had some concerns, which were conveyed to High Road. But otherwise it was fair," said the WWF's Kaufman.

Indeed, the filmmakers struggled early on to convince the WWF they would be fair to McMahon, and that their primary aim was to provide a balanced and nuanced look at professional wrestling.

Yet their concerns eased after McMahon late last year began a series of flamboyant on-screen performances as a corporate bad guy.

"We knew that anything we might say to criticize McMahon in the documentary would pale in comparison to the bad-guy image he was adopting as part of WWF story lines on TV," Ostriker said.

In the end, High Road retains ownership of "Hitman Hart." The Canadian producer is handling the home video distribution in Canada, at CAN $24.95 ($16.40) a pop, and is still looking to line up a U.S. distributor.

Ostriker estimates his company could have made $2 million from home video sales on the project, but will likely emerge with just $650,000.

Even so, he remains philosophical about the documentary, which he believe will ultimately prove profitable.

"When you're standing on one side of a canyon, and decide to cross it because you see something at the other side, it's a risky experience in the middle of the canyon, hanging onto the rope," he said. "That's a choice High Road has been forced to make."

Then he adds, with considerable understatement, "But [it] is also an exciting choice."

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