That was fast: ‘College Admissions Scandal’ movie to air on Lifetime on Saturday

The Boston Globe Lifestyle 2 months ago

Those riveted by the college-admissions scandal will get a double dose Saturday, when the Lifetime cable network airs a two-hour movie and hourlong investigative piece on the topic.

But another sort of drama happened behind the scenes: a flat-out sprint to produce a ripped-from-the-headlines film while viewers are still interested.

Even by Lifetime’s standards, ‘‘The College Admissions Scandal’’ came together fast. The female-focused network began working on the film just weeks after the scandal broke in March. Lifetime then compressed a process that typically takes 18 months into just seven.

It started when Lifetime executive Tanya Lopez emailed screenwriter Stephen Tolkin after hearing he was working on a pitch. ‘‘Get in here,’’ she said. The pair created a verbal outline of the story, saving time on back-and-forth drafts. The network wanted to get the story out before a new set of kids started applying to schools this fall. Shooting wrapped in August.

‘‘That’s about as fast as you can get a movie done,’’ Tolkin said.

Lifetime, which is jointly owned by Walt Disney Co. and Hearst Corp., has long been a player in true crime - a genre that’s gotten increasingly popular, with entire channels and serialized podcasts devoted to it.

Lifetime has reason to be aggressive. Like other cable networks, it’s struggling to hang on to viewers who are defecting to streaming services such as Netflix. The overall audience at the channel has fallen 4 percent to an average of 689,000 viewers in prime time this year - slightly better than the industrywide decline.

With the college-admissions firestorm, the network found something with plenty of compelling angles: rich kids, desperate parents, and federal crimes. But Lifetime had to navigate some delicate territory.

Actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, both of whom perform in TV movies, were among the dozens of high-profile people caught up in the scandal. Loughlin previously appeared in the Lifetime movie ‘‘A Mother’s Rage,’’ about a woman terrorized while dropping off her daughter at college.

That meant the controversy hit close to home. Even though ‘‘The College Admissions Scandal’’ isn’t based on the stories of Loughlin or Huffman, some actors turned down roles because they were friendly with the actresses.

The movie focuses instead on a fictional hedge fund manager (Mia Kirshner) who gets her daughter into Yale University by having her cheat on her SAT test. There’s also an interior decorator (Penelope Ann Miller) and her attorney husband who get their unknowing son into Stanford University by creating a doctored photo of him appearing on a crew team.

Critics have already taken shots at the movie’s unsubtle title, while simultaneously praising it as escapist fare. (”The College Admissions Scandal’’ was presented as a working title in July, but Lifetime ended up using it for the finished product.)

‘‘It’s one of those things where it doesn’t matter if it’s good or not,’’ said EJ Dickson in Rolling Stone. ‘‘Because obviously you’re going to watch it and drink exactly 2.5 glasses of white wine and shriek with delight while your significant other fumes in the other room.’’

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