While Keith Olbermann has been referenced for not just burning bridges, but napalming them, it’s a little surprising to see him listed as playing a crucial role in the destruction of a project he wasn’t even involved in. That appears to be the case, though, as Mike Sullivan’s excellent Vice Sports history of the late-90s ABA mockumentary The New Jersey Turnpikes cites a review Olbermann gave as a key factor in why the film was never publicly released. From Sullivan’s piece, which includes yet another bridge reference, “It was Olbermann’s review that mattered, though, and which set fire to the tenuous bridge between the troubled project and the studio.”
It wasn’t anything Olbermann said that doomed the project, either, as his review was a positive one. Rather, it was the circumstances that led to his comments. Director Bryan Buckley (who co-created ESPN’s famed “This Is Sportscenter” commercials with Hank Perlman, who also was involved in the film as one of the two writers who adapted Terry Pluto’s famed Loose Balls for the screen) was asked to do a reshoot and reedit after the first cut tested poorly, declined, leaving Universal to do a new cut without him. Buckley wound up screening his original cut at the Tribeca Film Center in New York City for a group of friends, including Olbermann (who he had met at ESPN), and Olbermann wound up essentially giving it a positive review on MSNBC. Here’s what Variety wrote about the situation back in 1998:
Universal is looking to assess a personal foul on the hoops pic “New Jersey Turnpikes,” and it apparently was on director Bryan Buckley. The foul was not committed in the act of shooting, but rather in post-production, and the offense was an unauthorized screening at the Tribeca Film Center that led to the unfinished film being reviewed on TV.
The comedy about the waning days of the American Basketball Assn. is being edited, with the expectation that it’ll be shorter than the first cut and that a few reshoots might be done. While that’s hardly out of the ordinary for studio films, the studio expected it to be kept under wraps.
It was with some chagrin that U execs found out that Keith Olbermann of MSNBC reported seeing the film and essentially gave it a review. While his comments were positive, it came as a surprise to the studio brass and producer Hal Lieberman at Mostow/Lieberman, who were unaware that anyone outside the studio was being shown the film.
A source close to the situation confirmed the incident, chalking it up to naivete of the director, who thought he was showing it to friends and didn’t expect it to reach the media. A studio spokesman said such things sometimes happen and that it didn’t seem a big deal. Given the current turmoil at Universal, it’s comparatively small, but having a film reviewed before it even has a release date was considered a problem of some merit.
Indeed. It wasn’t the only factor, as Universal also underwent substantial turnover at this time, with the executives who initially backed the film leaving the studio. Moreover, the studio was leery of selling on the movie to someone else, thanks to Shakespeare in Love, which they didn’t want to release, but went on to win seven Academy Awards after they sold it to Miramax. Still, actor Orlando Jones tells Sullivan that Olbermann’s review essentially destroyed the film’s chances of being released.
“Olbermann wrote a review of what he thought of the film but Universal hadn’t approved the cut yet,” Jones said. “So that ended that relationship because now everybody was at war with everybody. They already weren’t particularly keen on dumping 25 to 30 million dollars in marketing on the film. You’ve got a director who tells the new regime he’s not going to take their notes and you let the press see a cut? The official response from the studio was ‘aaaand, goodbye. You won’t be working for this studio again any time soon.’ And I don’t think he did.”
The public attention was New Jersey Turnpikes’ downfall. As Jones said, “It couldn’t be sold to another studio because of the Shakespeare in Love debacle and it couldn’t be released under the new regime because it wasn’t their movie and they didn’t care about it. And from their perspective, y’know, who the fuck cares about the people in this movie? Kelsey Grammer has never been a box office movie star and at the time he was the biggest name in the film and they basically said, ‘eh, write it off.’ And that was the end of The New Jersey Turnpikes.”
So Keith Olbermann is (somewhat) responsible for burning yet another bridge. Still, if he was able to find a way to mend his differences with ESPN, perhaps he can find a way to get this film out of Universal’s purgatory. A world that wants to see noted basketball legends Frasier Crane and Marshall Eriksen involved with the ABA is counting on him…
Correction: This article initially attributed the Vice piece to David Roth instead of Mike Sullivan.