Most documentaries don’t start the way they finish. But two Magnolia Oscar contenders, “RBG” (CNN Films) and “Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes” (A&E Indie Film), adapted as the world moved around them. Both films took advantage of new perspectives with the Trump presidency and the surging #MeToo movement.
South African documentarian Alexis Bloom (“Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds”) initially began to research, for Alex Gibney’s Jigsaw Prods., a dynasty story on the Murdoch family. But she soon realized that Fox News czar Roger Ailes, who started out as a presidential campaign guru to then-candidates Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Donald Trump — was the more-interesting story. Arguably, Ailes not only permanently altered the media landscape but coarsened our national political discourse. And then, in 2016 he was brought down at Fox News by a series of sexual-harassment accusations.
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When Bloom began, Ailes was still running Fox News and access was a challenge. “It was an enormous problem to get Fox footage,” said Bloom. “It was a hermetically sealed world. The Defense Department was more available. Fox had corporate layers and bodyguards and lawyers. Nothing comes in and out of Fox without them saying it can.”
It was hard to get people to talk. “There was no motivation for people to come forward,” said Bloom. On May 18, 2017, when Ailes suddenly died, Bloom thought her movie was dead, too. Now she would never interview her elusive quarry. “We need to nail someone!” she thought.
But with Ailes gone, things opened up, with a boost from the #MeToo movement. (The filmmakers added footage of Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose; Ailes jokes with him about political influence and womanizing in journalism.) Slowly, more people saw the benefit of talking about Ailes. They wanted to expose him. One power couple had no interest in talking on the record. “It took almost a year before they agreed,” said Bloom, who cut together a fake segment to convince them. “#MeToo opened things up, they were horrified that people were covering up for these sort of men. They didn’t want to be that kind of person.”
Former Fox News correspondents, Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly, under NDAs, couldn’t speak on the record, but were helpful in other ways. CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota was eager to help the movie. “Many stars had reservations, but she found us,” said Jigsaw executive producer Stacey Offman. “She felt compelled.” It took a long time to get CNN’s lawyers to sign off. “Thank God they did. CNN’s Jeff Zucker and Roger Ailes had a longstanding clash.”
“She had no editorial control,” said Bloom. “What happens if we made her look bad? She’s valuable to them. They might not want to mess with the brand.” Camerota looks like a hero.
Bloom stayed focused on Ailes and his rise and fall, without getting caught in the weeds of how Fox News has changed the world. “Ordinary people are capable of extraordinary acts of violence and monstrosity,” said Bloom. “It’s too easy an explanation that he’s an aberration. He’s not. This is a film about Roger Ailes and everything has to go back to him. If it’s successful, it will make you want to watch Fox News, to look into that world and understand it. So many people don’t want to watch it. It’s not a film about Fox, it’s about Roger and his political influence.”
To the extent that Ailes resembles out-of-control media mogul Charles Foster Kane, it was tempting to find his Rosebud. And the filmmakers thought they did. But the story about his authoritarian father making him jump off the top of his bunkbed turned out to be fake. “We spoke to his brother at length about it,” said Bloom. “They were in bunkbeds and shared the room. If his father had asked him to jump from the top bunkbed with the two children in house, one of them [Roger] a hemophiliac, he would have remembered it.”
Since the rise of Trump and the fall of Ailes, Fox News hasn’t lost its audience. “They did so well on the midterms, that is their forum,” said Offman. “Roger built a colossal money-making machine that can continue without him.”
This documentary is one of many Ailes projects; director Jay Roach has watched it six times as he researched his upcoming fiction film written by “The Big Short” Oscar-winner Charles Randolph that stars John Lithgow as Ailes and Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly. And there’s a Showtime series as well.
In 2016, when CNN Films started developing a documentary with Betsy West and Julie Cohen about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Trump was running for the Republican presidential nomination against 17 candidates, and there was no #MeToo movement.
“We knew she was a riveting subject and that unpeeling the layers of her story would be powerful when broadcast on CNN,” said Amy Entelis, EVP for Talent and Content Development, CNN Worldwide. “The fact is, we landed between these two things. That the love story was so emotional and she argued seminal women’s rights cases in front of the Supreme Court was unknown, but where the country is now elevates it even more.”
By the time the movie debuted with Ginsburg on hand at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2018, the Notorious RBG had become a star. “The social currents had started to escalate, and she more and more became that cult figure and that icon people are looking for in very dark times,” said Entelis. “By Sundance, we realized she was a rock star. Her reception was amazing.”
The movie scored strong reviews and multiple distribution offers. CNN sold theatrical rights to Magnolia Films (partnering with Participant Media), which had turned “I Am Not Your Negro” into an Oscar-nominated theatrical hit.
The goal for CNN Films (much like A & E Indie Films) is to build a film’s profile and elevate their brand via theatrical word of mouth before it airs on CNN, followed by SVOD. They had no idea “RBG” would hit so big ($14 million domestic) last summer. ‘We’ve had a lot of films play theatrically,” said CNN Films VP Courtney Sexton. “They’ve done OK. Our goal was not to get to the top 25 docs of all time! I never thought this would hit at the level it did in this environment.”
The documentary environment has changed so radically that CNN Films (founded in 2012 when the fast-moving CNN needed long-form storytelling to hold onto fleeting audiences) has moved away from an acquisitions model. Now they hunt for new talent and projects they can own from the start. Cohen and West were working in journalism and producing film when CNN brought them in. CNN also imported Tim Wardle, a UK development executive at Raw TV, to the U.S. to make another Sundance 2018 theatrical breakout, “Three Identical Strangers” (Neon).
The “RBG” filmmakers had to tackle the challenges of making a film crammed with legalese that was not visual, with limited access to a celebrity subject you couldn’t follow down the street. The filmmakers showed Ginsburg footage about her marriage with husband Marty (the subject of the upcoming fiction film “On the Basis of Sex”), which helped to get the Justice to finally commit to a sit-down for a strategic one-and-a-half hours.
“RBG” feeds “a certain kind of hunger for in-depth storytelling that is opposite to the way we consume the rest of our media,” said Entelis. “We’re eating headlines on the phone, checking into multiple sites all day long, but that is quick and less satisfying storytelling than it is to sit down and be absorbed for a great documentary. The more the world speeds up, the more important it is to slow down.”