What tack to take on Abby Sunderland’s tale?
Even as rescued teenage sailor Abby Sunderland makes her way back home to California, a battle is shaping up over who will tell the story of her harrowing sea voyage — and what the story line will be.
The possibility of dueling narratives emerged this week as a Los Angeles production team and Abby’s parents squabbled over the back story of her attempted around-the-world journey.
It remains unclear whether any type of film or reality TV show will emerge from Abby’s aborted trip. But the possibility has intensified debate over the Sunderland brand image and whether her story should be celebrated or serve as a cautionary tale.
The argument prompted Abby’s father, Laurence Sunderland, to go on “Larry King Live” this week to deny suggestions that he pushed his daughter to make the dangerous voyage as part of a marketing campaign that involved a reality TV show.
The Sunderlands and their supporters say she should be viewed as an inspirational figure, a girl who battled 30- foot waves and equipment troubles to sail halfway around the world by herself before a broken mast in the Indian Ocean necessitated her rescue.
But others continue to express concern about the Sunderlands’ decision to allow Abby to make the trip. And some appear to see potential profit in a competing narrative — one that could cast the young sailor more as a victim than a heroine.
Abby set sail from Marina del Rey on Jan. 23 on what was to be a nonstop circumnavigation. But repair stops became necessary in Mexico and South Africa.
Ted Caloroso, a cinematographer and aspiring filmmaker who at one point worked with the family and shot footage of Abby preparing for the trip, says he sees the story as one of a father who took too many risks, letting his daughter embark on a poorly equipped boat because of financial imperatives.
Caloroso and an associated firm, Magnetic Entertainment, say they hold the rights to some footage of Abby’s preparations, and Laurence Sunderland has said the family has no interest for now in making their own documentary. But the family did self-produce a documentary after their older son Zac completed his own solo circumnavigation last year at age 17.
It’s unclear whether the family has footage of Abby on the boat during the first legs of the voyage. There were several cameras mounted on her 40-foot sloop, Wild Eyes. The boat was abandoned after her rescue.
Last fall, a producer from Magnetic, a start-up production company, approached officials at Reveille, a Los Angeles-based independent studio that is controlled by Elisabeth Murdoch, the daughter of media billionaire Rupert Murdoch. Reveille, which signed a development deal with the family and Magnetic in November, is credited with such TV staples as NBC’s hit sitcom “The Office,” the reality contest “The Biggest Loser” and ABC’s “Ugly Betty.”
Howard T. Owens, Reveille’s managing director, said that Abby’s journey was only part of the picture. “What attracted us was that Mr. and Mrs. Sunderland had this alternative lifestyle,” he said. That included a patriarch with strong beliefs who’d guided his home-schooled kids to embark on eye-catching, adventure-filled feats.
But as Reveille shopped the project, relations between Magnetic and the Sunderlands frayed, and the producers raised concerns about the safety of Abby’s trip, he said.
“I recommended they tell the authorities and we promptly rescinded the offer,” Owens said. The family then requested and received a formal release from the deal, he said, and his firm is no longer interested in the project.
Magnetic Entertainment said it is considering its own documentary and would donate a portion of proceeds to Abby.
Caloroso said his concerns peaked when he traveled to Cabo San Lucas, where the young skipper had to make her first unscheduled stop for repairs. He said there had been problems with the boat’s electrical system as well as fuel consumption issues.
The Sunderlands’ new spokesperson said the family would have no response to Caloroso.
Earlier, Laurence Sunderland told Larry King that Caloroso had a vendetta against him and was falsely portraying him as ill-prepared. He also said the deal to shop a reality TV deal fell through when it couldn’t be sold to a network. He and Abby have insisted the trip was motivated by her dreams, not making money.
Sunderland dismissed criticism that he and his wife had sent their teens out on the ocean for profit. People making those claims were taking “cheap shots,” he told The Times earlier this week.
“It’s not at all about money,” the father said. “It’s about a passion for sailing and loving your kids so much you want to be part of their dream.”
What the market is for the Abby Sunderland brand and whether the accident that ended her trip has increased the potential audience remains unclear.
Her story has great marketing potential as a documentary, an audiobook and even a movie, said Scott Sternberg, a veteran TV producer. A documentary would depend on how much footage is available of her journey, up to her final days at sea.
“It’s a very courageous story,” said Sternberg, who’s produced “On the Case with Paula Zahn,” an investigative news show, and “Disaster in the Gulf,” a special about the British Petroleum oil spill. “The fact that the mast broke amid 30-foot waves while she was 2,000 miles away from land, that just adds to the drama. It’s something that would be terrific to make or to produce.”
Sternberg said the Sunderlands stand to make the most money by optioning the rights to her story for a movie, potentially netting hundreds of thousands of dollars plus a piece of the film’s profits. An audiobook, on her day-to-day adventures, read by Abby, could also be lucrative, he said.
A reality TV show seems the least likely prospect. But Sternberg added a big caveat.
“If she does it again, could it be a reality series, why not?” he said. " It could be a very uplifting, extraordinary, positive reality series to watch her journey.’”
Indeed, Jessica Watson of Australia, also 16, secured a book deal and a television documentary after she completed her own around-the-world solo sailing voyage last month. News reports pegged the value of her contracts and sponsorships at $885,000.
Thousand of Aussies bought tickets and flocked to three “special events” to see the young sailor, who is being hailed as a national hero. On her website, a tiny framed piece of the mainsail from her boat is fetching over $1,000.
Abby has indicated she still wants to sail around the world and has already begun writing a book, though her family said she has not yet landed a publishing deal.
The Sunderland family insists their primary focus has never been on marketing Abby’s story. Laurence Sunderland said the family has never been represented by an agent, and any public relations work has been done pro bono. By his account, the family hasn’t recouped anywhere near the $250,000 in expenses tied to the two children’s circumnavigation attempts. Based on interviews with Caloroso, Abby’s advisor and coach Jeff Casher and others familiar with the planning of Abby’s trip, sponsors —including footwear retailer Shoe City and Krikorian Premiere Theatres — have paid a total of between $100,000 and $200,000 to be associated with the project.
Several larger corporations frequently involved in sports sponsorships previously declined to be involved, partly out of concerns over adverse publicity and liability if something went wrong, according to one source familiar with the project, who was not authorized to speak about the topic and requested anonymity.
One family endeavor, with Shoe City, marketed an “Abby16" clothing and shoe line, including daily EBay auctions of a pair of hand-painted Vans deck shoes commemorating her progress and position. Shoe City did not respond to requests for comment.
Southern California theater owner George Krikorian said he has no regrets about his sponsorship. He said he checked out the boat preparations, Abby’s skills and spent time with the family. He said he felt confident about being involved, although he declined to disclose the sponsorship terms.
“I’m proud of what she did. I think she’s a hero to kids.”