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News Orgs Are the Next Breed of Doc Heavy-Hitters; At Sundance, They’re Ready to Buy Big

The news divisions of media conglomerates are hungry for nonfiction features. Why? Two NBC execs break down their festival strategy to IndieWire.

Shawnee Benton Gibson and Bruce McIntyre appear in Aftershock by Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Kerwin Devonish.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

“Aftershock,” one of this year’s Sundance documentaries that focus on current social issues

Sundance

As Sundance kicks off Thursday, a new breed of buyers will be poring over the doc-heavy lineup of acquisitions titles, ready to spend big in a nonfiction marketplace that’s already hotter than ever. They’re the news divisions of media conglomerates, who have spent the last several years putting in place production and acquisition strategies that meet at the nexus of theatrical, streaming, and broadcast TV.

WarnerMedia is readying to launch CNN+ in the spring, adding another true-life player to a corporate roster that includes HBO Max, familiar doc player CNN Films, and soon, Discovery. And a film released by one of Disney’s divisions could end up in theaters, and/or Disney+ or Hulu, under the banner of National Geographic Documentary Films, a Hulu Original, or ABC News.

Confused? So are many in the business who work outside the halls of these big players.

“The biggest category of people that are coming through as new buyers are those news divisions of large conglomerates,” one sales agent said. “A lot of it is still trying to figure out how all the different divisions work with one another, something I think they’re still trying to figure out themselves.”

Since 2020, NBCUniversal has ramped up a documentary initiative across its news group. That year NBC News President Noah Oppenheim launched NBC News Studios as a producer of features and series, and in 2021 under MSNBC President Rashida Jones, revived MSNBC’s once-dormant documentary unit as MSNBC Films, which broadcasts and streams acquired content and that produced by its corporate siblings.

In an interview with IndieWire, two executives — MSNBC’s VP of longform acquisitions Amanda Spain and NBC News Studios head of documentary Molly O’Brien — broke down the strategies of their respective divisions and laid out how they intersect.

Spain is in buying mode. She said she has a list of documentaries she’s interested in that could be good fits for MSNBC Films. “People know the brand MSNBC for news and politics. We look at films through that filter, but with the idea that they’re taking a deeper look behind the headlines, or behind stories that people think they know,” she said.

Bring Your Own Brigade

“Bring Your Own Brigade”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Getty Images

One recent example is MSNBC Film’s “Civil War,” Rachel Boynton’s examination of the way the Civil War is taught and understood across the country. It premiered on Peacock in June before an MSNBC broadcast in October. “It worked perfectly to integrate into our primetime shows, the conversations they were already having around critical race theory in the week ahead of the broadcast,” Spain said.

It was a success: MSNBC beat CNN in ratings during the 10 p.m. Sunday broadcast, and its 700,000 total viewers were triple the network’s time period average, according to Nielsen. MSNBC is making that time slot the destination for MSNBC Films documentaries and series.

“I think the audience is craving a deeper connection with the people and places and spaces that we’re hearing about so that we can once again connect to the human part of us,” Spain said. “I think when you get stuck in the headlines, it can just fly by you and you can forget that there are really people behind these stories, there are really places behind these stories — its not just a meme or a moment.”

Some of the Sundance documentaries that Spain and her competitors might be interested include Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee’s U.S. maternal health doc “Aftershock”; Meg Smaker’s “Jihad Rehab,” which follows Al-Qaeda prisoners after their release from Guantanamo and to a rehabilitation center for Islamic extremists; and “To the End,” Rachel Lears’ look at the Green New Deal.

“I Didn’t See You There”

Sundance

As a production company – not buyer – NBC News Studios will be at the festival with two films they supported through their Original Voices Fellowship, “I Didn’t See You There,” Reid Davenport’s documentary shot from his perspective in his wheelchair; and Isabel Castro’s “Mija,” which follows a Latina music manager whose family is undocumented. Both are sales titles. The filmmakers were part of the inaugural class of the fellowship, a program that was launched last year by the studio and NBCU Academy.

The two films speak to the range of projects NBC News Studios is interested in. “It doesn’t need to be ripped from the headlines by any means,” O’Brien said. The studio produces films that are released in partnership with other NBCUniversal companies — like its first film, “The Way I See it,” which got a theatrical run from Focus and aired under the MSNBC Films banner before it landed on Peacock — in addition to producing films and series that will be distributed with outside partners.

It’s not just NBC that is getting into the game at this year’s festival. As ViacomCBS readied to launch Paramount+ last year, several of its divisions were among the festival circuit’s most prolific buyers. MTV Documentary Films, under the leadership of Shiela Nevins, led the pack with titles including “76 Days,” while the company’s news streaming service CBSN bought Lucy Walker’s “Bring Your Own Brigade” out of Sundance.

The distinction may be slight, but for ViacomCBS and its competitors, each acquisition is a step toward building a brand for its various divisions. A news divisions’ movies should compliment its reporting with films not too close to the current news cycle and give viewers a chance to dive deeper into something that, in the best of cases, will have a long shelf life. With California wildfires only getting deadlier by the year, “Bring Your Own Brigade” should only get more poignant with age.

Maria Zuckerman, president of one of the film’s producers, Topic Studios, has high regards for where the film ended up. “We loved that we got so many different forms of support from their ecosystem,” she said. “We got a theatrical release from Paramount, and it was from big Paramount — we had all the marketing support. Then it went to streaming and there were so many eyeballs that can access the film between CBSN and Paramount+.”

XTR CEO Bryn Mooser, whose studio was another producer of “Bring Your Own Brigade,” said more broadly, these new players should help make a hot documentary market even hotter.

“Every time there’s a new buyer in the space it’s really exciting,” he said. “When any new platform launches that’s making competitive offers for films, it pushes the price up and also continues to push innovation, even on their competitors.”

At this year’s festival, news orgs and their brass will be seeking out another facet of the doc pipeline. O’Brien will also be looking for new directing and producing talent at Sundance. And a production deal with NBC News Studios comes with some valuable resources beyond the journalism and distribution channels of its parent company. NBC News has an archive that dates back 80 years, something that “Crip Camp” director Nicole Newnham is using for her upcoming documentary about female sexuality researcher Shere Hite.

Festival and theatrical runs are the preference for films O’Brien works on, she said. “In addition to it being a real high for everyone involved in a celebration of the work, it can also serve to generate press and actually be incredible word of mouth, which can help drive people to tune in on a broadcast or streaming network,” she said. “I don’t think that power is diminished by the platform — be it streaming, broadcast, cable, theatrical, festival. We used to pass notes in school, now we sent texts. It’s the same flirtation, it’s just another way of distributing the message.”

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