Critics sneer at them and experts ridicule their inaccuracies, but for a week or two, at least, they pique the curiosity of audiences everywhere. Welcome to the world of the cut-price, quickly made biopic.
This is a form of film-making as old as cinema itself, where lurid or uplifting topical tales are transformed into cheap movies.
The ground rules are simple: keep the budget modest, cast actors who look at least vaguely like the real-life protagonists they are playing and shoot the movies at breakneck pace, so they can be released before the memories of the events have faded.
In biopics, celebrity murder trials or scandals have almost as much allure as British royal weddings. During the OJ Simpson trial of the mid-1990s, films were quickly set up (and, it is rumoured, quietly abandoned after OJ was cleared of murder). In the past year, movies have been announced about Bernie Madoff and the trapped Chilean miners.
Biopics often exist in a netherworld between reportage and drama, preying on audiences' morbidity and voyeurism. When Beverly Hills brothers Lyle and Erik Menendez were convicted of murdering their parents, rival TV movies were hastily produced.
At the same time, biopics are often about escapism and real-life soap opera. Next week sees the UK release (on DVD) of William and Kate – the Love Story, shot in Los Angeles and telling the story of Prince William and Kate's relationship from their St Andrews University days to the moment they walk down the aisle. The film has already had stinking reviews. "The naffest royal movie ever made", "God-awful", "cringeworthy" and "ghastly" are the some of the phrases that critics have been lobbing in its direction. But these are as much a recommendation as a put-down. It is the movie equivalent of the commemorative mug or tea towel, an exercise in merchandising and moment-seizing as much as one in storytelling.
Part of the pleasure in such biopics – at least for British audiences – lies in their innate cheesiness. If the actors do not really look like the characters they are portraying (Ben Cross of Chariots Of Fire fame is certainly no dead ringer for Prince Charles), the actresses sound like Valley girls and the inaccuracies and anachronisms abound, that only adds to the enjoyment. The films are not weighed down with the deadening attention to detail that makes so many British heritage pictures painful to watch.
"The interest in William and Kate is already huge and we're looking forward to releasing a high-quality film that will undoubtedly satisfy the unprecedented appetite for what is the biggest event in the UK in years. It will appeal to audiences of all ages," said Stephen Staniland, of the UK distributor Revolver. Such hyperbolic language is clearly absurd but comes with the territory. Still, the real drama in the story of the courtship of the Berkshire-born girl (played by Camilla Luddington) and the clean-cut young royal (played by Kiwi actor Nico Evers-Swindell) is pretty minimal. Speaking yesterday, Mr Staniland struck a more modest note.
"The film is not meant to be taken seriously. It is not a documentary about the life of William and Kate," he said. "It's an interpretation." William and Kate will also be screened on Channel Five this month but, even so, Revolver is optimistic of being able to sell between 50,000 and 100,000 copies of the DVD. A rival biopic, William & Kate: A Royal Love Story, is to go into production in Romania, and reports say it will be on Hallmark in the US in August, "a few weeks before the 14-year anniversary of the death of William's mother, Princess Diana".
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The Royal Romance Of Charles and Diana (1982)
Real royalty in the supporting cast: Olivia De Havilland as the Queen mum and Catherine Oxenberg as Princess Diana.
Charles and Diana: Unhappily Ever After (1992)
A decade on, Oxenberg returned to play the Princess again, opposite Roger Rees.
The OJ Simpson Story (1995)
This TV movie was started before OJ’s trial was over – before he was acquitted.
Polanski Unauthorised (2009)
This film about the Polish director was made before his arrest in 2009.
Madoff: Made Off With America (2011)
New budget drama about the swindler. The trailer does not inspire confidence.
Menendez: A Killing in Beverly Hills (1994)
One of two morbid TV movies made in double-quick time about the brothers.
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