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Reality Checks: How the End of Al Jazeera America Will Affect Its Documentaries

Reality Checks: How the End of Al Jazeera America Will Affect Its Documentaries

Barbara Kopple, Al Maysles, Steve James, Joe Berlinger, Alex Gibney’s Jigsaw Productions, Chicago’s Kartemquin Films: the list of prominent directors and documentary companies involved with Al Jazeera America (AJAM) is as impressive as you can get. So when the broadcaster announced earlier this year that it would close its operations this April, the documentary community was flabbergasted — bummed for the loss of a viable broadcaster, and also frustrated that a number of quality projects were now in limbo.

“We are very sad to see them to go,” said Tim Horsburgh, Director of Distribution at Kartemquin Films, which produced the award-winning nonfiction series “Hard Earned” as well as Steve James’ “Head Games,” and Brent Huffman’s “Saving Mes Aynak” (all of which appeared on the network).

“What was great about them is they had an interest in global stories,” Horsburgh added, “but also real issues effecting Americans, and telling stories that dove into issues through intimate, character-driven personal portrayals.”

Simon Kilmurry, executive director of the International Documentary Association and former head of POV, said the loss of AJAM was particularly troubling because it was once seen as a viable alternative for filmmakers who did not receive the support of public television. “Where else would a series like ‘Hard Earned’ go?” he said. “I can’t think of many other places that would commission it.”

While the range of broadcasters looking for independent documentaries may have increased in recent years, including power-player Netflix, Horsburgh noted that a lot of the outlets these days “are looking for more inherently commercial product, such as celebrity-based or ripped-from-the-headlines stories.”

But AJAM prided itself on the “proposition that no single human life is worth less than any other,” as a farewell post declared on the company’s website.

Indeed, Al Jazeera docs such as Kopple’s “Shelter,” about homeless U.S. military veterans, “Guantanamo’s Child,” about the youngest person in captivity at Guantanamo, or Albert Maysles’ “In Transit,” a look at ordinary Americans aboard an Amtrak train — which was commissioned by the channel but never aired — would seem to have a hard time finding a home with more mainstream broadcasters.

But despite a steadfast commitment to this noble mission and a documentary unit that counted highly respected former ITVS executive Cynthia Kane as its Senior Commissioning Producer, the station never really caught on with viewers. “On the flip side,” said Kilmurry, “it was always disappointing in terms of getting the audience.”

Sales agent Diana Holtzberg, who licensed AJAM their first six documentaries plus others through Film Transit International as well as several docs through her own company, East Village Entertainment, said she only had good experiences with AJAM’s documentary team. But, she added, “they were as frustrated as we were with what felt like a lack of support from the company’s PR and marketing teams,” she said.

Available in over 60 million households, about a third less than its major rivals, some programs barely registered on Nielsen’s ratings. One senior executive told CNN, “The journalism was there. The audience was not there.”

Now filmmakers are worried about whether their films will ever get the chance to find audiences in the future. With the channel gone as of April 31, dozens of independent documentaries will be left without a U.S. home.

It appears that AJAM has been attempting to reach deals with filmmakers.

For the films that were fully commissioned and those non-commissioned films slated to appear in 2016, one option is that the filmmakers would receive a kill fee, allowing them to re-sell the rights to another broadcaster. Another is that AJAM will retain the rights and license them to another broadcaster, or let the content live on at AJAM’s sister company, Al Jazeera English. 

Some of the early films’ licenses were already set to expire this year, anyway. But newer films that were slated to premiere on AJAM in 2016 — such as Rebecca Parrish’s “Radical Grace” and Maysles Films’ “In Transit” — are still in limbo.

Veteran entertainment attorney Steven C. Beer, who is not involved with AJAM, but has extensive knowledge of license agreements, said the filmmakers with documentaries that were already broadcast and are still under contract could  never get their content back. “Most licenses are extremely broad and they typically have the option to sub-license to an affiliate company, or to third parties, without any approval,” he said. “If they’re giving money, they want more leverage and that includes the right to assign to third parties. This isn’t like a bankruptcy,” he continued, “where the rights are necessarily going to revert back to the licensor.”

Indeed, one filmmaker, who preferred to remain anonymous so as not to jeopardize their standing, said they had little contact regarding the future of their film and were unsure if it would ever be seen again.

Another team was seeking to kill their contract; while the negotiations had not yet been resolved, the filmmakers were annoyed, but still hopeful.
“It’s obviously been very upsetting to the filmmakers,” said Film Transit and East Village Entertainment’s Holtzberg. “And it will be an additional round of work.” Regarding how easy or difficult it will be to sign new deals for films slated to premiere in 2016, Holtzberg added, “the films are strong so they should find new homes. Business Affairs at AJAM and also Al Jazeera Media Networks have agreed to honor their commitments and work with me to help make this happen.”

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