Competing documentaries about pimps made movie news this week


A fierce battle has erupted between directors Allen and Albert Hughes and HBO filmmaker Brent Owens over competing documentaries about pimps. The Hugheses claim they pitched a project to HBO in 1994 and that Owens (location manager on the brothers’ Dead Presidents) and HBO ripped off their idea. (Owens’ Pimps Up, Ho’s Down bows June 6 on the cable channel, while the Hugheses’ American Pimp is expected to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January.) HBO and Owens call the brothers’ claim ridiculous. ”I’ve been in the business 20 years, and I’ve never been accused of stealing anyone’s idea,” says Sheila Nevins, HBO’s senior VP original programming. HBO confirms that when the brothers’ lawyers contacted the channel in spring 1997, an exec told them that it was not moving forward on a pimp documentary. HBO says it decided otherwise in October ’97, after Owens showed footage he shot ”on his own initiative.”

Meanwhile, a behind-the-scenes tactic is causing controversy among veteran documentarians: HBO paid pimps between $500 and $700 per day for their participation, while $4,000 went to three pimps for permission to film The Players’ Ball, an underground annual awards show. (This is not the first time HBO has paid to document unlawful behavior: Prostitutes received fees for appearing in Owens’ Hookers at the Point and its sequel Hookers at the Point: Going Out Again.) Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter), currently working on a documentary about poverty for HBO, says paying subjects is like ”bringing a form of prostitution” to the work. ”You’d have to wonder [if] it affected the information the subjects gave you,” he says. ”I can’t believe HBO knew about this.”

”We do this all the time,” says an HBO spokesperson, adding that Gerda Weissmann Klein, the subject of 1995’s Oscar-winning One Survivor Remembers (which HBO coproduced) ”was paid a substantial amount of money…. I think it only becomes a controversy when you are doing it on an investigative piece.”

According to Owens, ”There’s no [rule] with pay cable about paying talent.” Says Nevins, ”Pimps are in the business for money. We’re simply reimbursing for services rendered.” Filmmaker Barbara Kopple (Wild Man Blues) thinks that’s all too true. ”They are, in a sense, being johns,” she says, adding that she never pays participants. Traditionally, when money is exchanged, the transaction becomes part of the film. No disclaimer or footage of payments appears in any of the HBO documentaries.

The Hughes brothers also paid pimps for their self-financed project (and plan to include a disclaimer) but only after HBO opened the floodgates. ”Our first two pimps, we didn’t pay them anything,” says Allen. ”After [Owens] did it, it, like, went out on the pimp Internet. Everyone wanted to be paid.” All of which serves to reinforce an old prostitution adage: ”The game should be sold, not told.”