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Why Hollywood is so obsessed with this 44-year-old kidnapping

How a forgotten script spawned two big-budget Getty kidnapping projects in film and TV

by Oriana Schwindt
Jan 17 2018, 6:45pm

Maybe you've heard of the Getty kidnapping. If you haven't: In July 1973, 16-year-old J. Paul Getty III, grandson of oil tycoon and then–richest man in the world J. Paul Getty, was snatched off a street in Rome and held for ransom in southern Italy. Getty III ended up losing an ear before eventually being ransomed six months later.

The full story is fascinating and harrowing, packed with the dramatic turns and messy family dynamics that are catnip to purveyors of popular culture. Yet the kidnapping of J. Paul Getty III isn't quite a cultural touchstone on the level of the O.J. Simpson trial or, say, the disappearance of Amelia Earhart. Which is why it feels so odd to have two versions of this story coming out within four months of each other: Ridley Scott's film, "All the Money in the World," is currently in theaters; and FX's new drama series "Trust," executive produced by Danny Boyle, Simon Beaufoy, and Christian Colson, will premiere March 25.

Again, it's not hard to see why the story would attract the attention of directors like Scott and Boyle. Getty III's grandfather, played by Christopher Plummer in "All the Money in the World" and by Donald Sutherland in "Trust," initially refused to pay the ransom, and Getty III was sold to another crime organization while his mother (Michelle Williams in the film, Hilary Swank in the series) and his grandfather's fixer desperately searched for him. Still, how did we get two versions of this decades-old story at roughly the same time?

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Coincidence, sort of. This much we know: The script for "All the Money in the World," penned by David Scarpa, was placed on the coveted Black List of best unproduced screenplays in 2015. Around the same time, Simon Beaufoy and Danny Boyle and Christian Colson were putting together a pitch for FX for a series based on the Getty family. The trio were “aware” of Scarpa’s script, according to Eric Schrier, president of original programming for FX Networks and FX Productions, but that’s about it. Schrier told VICE News that FX ordered "Trust" in March 2016 as part of a first-look deal with Boyle and Colson, who had been working on an entirely different project before Beaufoy came to them with a different idea.

"Danny and Christian came to us and said, 'Simon would really like to do a drama about the Getty family,'" Schrier said, and the natural starting point for that story was with the kidnapping of young Paul. In 2017, Ridley Scott read Scarpa's script, agreed to direct it, and told Entertainment Weekly he had no idea there was an FX series in the works.

This isn't the first time FX has had to reckon with another high-profile project with the same subject matter. In 2016, its limited series "The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story" premiered in January. ESPN's five-part documentary "O.J.: Made in America" premiered at Sundance in January and aired a few months later. FX's version won nine Emmys; ESPN's was eligible for the Emmys and Oscars, and it won two Emmys and the Oscar for best documentary. This particular cluster—with a whole mess of true-crime specials swirling around—had at least an obvious hook: The 20th anniversary of the conclusion of the O.J. Simpson trial had just passed, in October 2015.

"They were very different tellings of the story," Schrier pointed out. "Ours was more focused on the courtroom, while the documentary version was more about O.J. and the society around him. Both were really entertaining and good ways of telling the story, but different."

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In the case of the Getty kidnapping, FX is trusting in the inherent differences between film and TV to pull in viewers. "The plan is to tell a multiseason arc about the Getty family," Schrier said of "Trust." "Simon and Danny and Christian Colson haven't really worked in this form of television before, and I think they find it really liberating and fascinating to tell stories in this way, not having to condense it into a two-hour runtime."

Clusters of shows and films that tell the same story have been popping up since the beginning of media. Stories are sometimes just "in the ether," and with a family as well-documented as the Gettys, material isn't hard to come by. There's more than the usual thirst, too, in this current moment for stories that reveal the seamy underbelly of the rich and powerful—the horrors late capitalism can wreak even on its beneficiaries are very much in vogue.

But in this case the storytellers’ enthusiasm might not quite match the public’s: "All the Money in the World" has made just $23 million as of its fourth weekend at the box office — a sum that J. Paul Getty would consider mere pocket change.