Feature Film Deepwater Horizon still from trailer
The director of the Deepwater Horizon film had a replica rig built in a water tank holding 2.5m gallons

Peter Berg could have used computer wizardry to create the backdrop for his new film, Deepwater Horizon, a dramatised account of the 2010 BP oil well blowout that killed 11 people and spewed more than 3m barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico.

Instead, the director opted to reconstruct the entire drilling rig in an abandoned amusement park in New Orleans. It took 85 welders eight months to build the 33,000-tonne structure, 85 per cent the size of the original platform and strong enough for a Chinook helicopter landing during filming.

The $156m budget for Deepwater Horizon — much of it spent in Louisiana — adds to the economic fallout from an environmental disaster that has cost BP almost $62bn in clean-up costs, fines and compensation. The film’s release this week — accompanied by a high-profile transatlantic marketing campaign — amounts to yet another penalty for BP as the worst episode in its history is thrust back into the public spotlight.

BP is scathing about what it describes as “Hollywood’s take” on the US’s largest offshore oil spill. “It is not an accurate portrayal of the events that led to the accident, our people, or the character of our company,” a spokesman said. “It ignores the conclusions reached by every official investigation: that the accident was the result of multiple errors made by a number of companies.”

The UK oil group is not the first multinational corporation to feel bruised by the big screen. Apple, Facebook and, collectively, Wall Street banks, among others, have recently come under Hollywood’s sometimes harsh spotlight. In an era of ephemeral social media and rolling news, the traditional movie, with its ability to hold viewers’ attention for two hours or more, can pose a particularly dangerous threat to corporate reputations.

Mark Wahlberg in 'Deepwater Horizon' (2016)
Mark Wahlberg plays Mike Williams, a Transocean electronics technician, in Deepwater Horizon

“Films can expose issues from the business pages to a mainstream audience,” says Rachel Griffiths, partner at the Reputation Consultancy.

Sir Jonathan Ive, Apple’s chief design officer, complained that Steve Jobs, the 2015 biopic, “hijacked” the story of the company’s founder. The New York Times reckoned that Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, came across as a “callow, socially inept schemer” in The Social Network, and judged The Big Short, a film about the subprime mortgage crisis, as “the most effective piece of anti-Wall Street propaganda ever made”.

All these films were, like Deepwater Horizon, based on real events but with inevitable trade-offs between accuracy and drama. Filmmakers are not immune from defamation laws but there tends to be some protection for artistic licence. “US courts, in particular, recognise that films have to tell stories in a couple of hours and this requires some abridgment,” says Andy Paterson, a British producer who worked on Tigers, a film about allegedly unethical practices in the marketing of Nestlé baby milk in Pakistan.

Neither BP nor Transocean, the drilling company that owned the Deepwater Horizon rig, co-operated with the filmmakers. Providing any guidance might have created an impression that the companies approved of, or at least did not object to, the way the story was told. Mr Berg told US National Public Radio that BP had been “a very effective disrupter” to the production, blocking access to equipment such as boats and helicopters, and to people involved in the disaster.

Christian Bale plays Michael Burry in The Big Short from Paramount Pictures and Regency Enterprises
Christian Bale in The Big Short

BP said the depiction of the company and its employees “does not reflect who we are today, the lengths we’ve gone to restore the Gulf, the work we’ve done to become safer, and the trust we’ve earned back around the world”. Transocean said it remained “forever mindful” of the accident and continued “to recognise the brave, heroic and highly professional actions of the rig’s crew that night”.

As well as the New York Times account of the disaster on which the film is based, Mr Berg and his writers were able to draw from some of the 72m pages of court documents generated by BP’s wrangling with US authorities and other litigants since the oil spill. Lawyers and producers say judicial proceedings are a good basis for films because evidence heard in court is legally privileged. Examples include The Insider, a 1999 drama starring Al Pacino and Russell Crowe, about a whistleblower who revealed nefarious practices at Brown & Williamson, a defunct subsidiary of British American Tobacco.

While Hollywood studios have armies of lawyers to assess risks when taking on powerful companies, smaller independent producers are more vulnerable. Mr Paterson’s Tigers, made with the Oscar-winning Bosnian director Danis Tanović, has taken a decade to reach the screen in part because of legal perils. Investors were spooked by fears that Nestlé could take out a court injunction to block the film. “Corporations are able to stop films being made simply by having deep pockets,” says Mr Paterson.

Nestlé says the events depicted in Tigers, set in the 1990s, “seriously misrepresent the facts” but has ruled out legal action. “Instead we’ll continue to openly discuss the facts about our policy and practices,” says the Swiss group on its website.

Jesse Eisenberg stars as "Mark Zuckerberg" in Columbia Pictures' THE SOCIAL NETWORK.
Jesse Eisenberg played Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network

Eugene Volokh, a law professor at the University of California, says companies often prefer to avoid legal conflict with filmmakers, even when they feel slandered. “Filing a lawsuit might end up attracting more attention to an allegation and causing more reputational damage than would have happened otherwise,” he adds.

Seldom can this calculation have provided stronger protection than for the makers of Deepwater Horizon. After six draining years of litigation, BP would hardly relish another round of courtroom arguments about what precisely happened on April 20, 2010. The company finalised its last big legal settlement last spring but Mr Berg’s film shows how difficult it will be to ever fully escape the disaster’s shadow.

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