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Scaling Back CNN Films Means ‘Troubling’ Times for Documentaries

What to expect? Less truth to power; more news-driven, low-cost, fast-turnaround documentary films and series.

CNN Films Documentaries Apollo 11 Navalny RBG

“Apollo 11,” “Navalny,” “RBG”/Courtesy of Everett Collection

Friday was a “sad day for the documentary film world,” one filmmaker told IndieWire after hearing the news that CNN Films will scale back on original documentaries from outside partners. The strategy shift means more than losing a major buyer; for filmmakers it means the great documentary gold rush had a good run, but it’s now over.

CNN is far from the only platform to tighten its nonfiction belt; cost cutting measures have also come for Netflix, Amazon, and Peacock. However, CNN was one of the last bastions for hardcore, capital-d documentaries that aspired to more than true crime or “Tiger King.”

“What’s happening across the documentary universe that’s troubling is we’re seeing more of the prestige outlets that have been traditionally for filmmakers to speak their truth and speak their story, they’re starting to dwindle,” said one talent representative within the documentary world, who spoke with IndieWire on the condition of anonymity.

“To me, it feels very short-sighted,” said another documentary executive. “This is part of the larger crisis that is facing the industry right now.”

After CNN Films acquired “Blackfish” out of Sundance in 2013, it backed docs like “RBG,” “Three Identical Strangers,” “Apollo 11,” and more. They received critical acclaim and were box-office hits; “RBG” netted an Oscar nomination. CNN Original Series cut its teeth with ratings winners like “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” and “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy.”

Those are the types of projects unlikely to find a home at CNN moving forward. In a memo to staff, CNN chief Chris Licht doubled down on the group’s commitment to long-form content while tasking CNN Films head Amy Entelis with an “in house” approach to creating it. That suggests no more co-productions, no more buzzy Sundance discoveries, and no more big-name documentary filmmakers.

“They have relied on co-production and outside forces quite a bit to facilitate these films and work with filmmakers,” the talent rep said. “This is a definite shift.”

A CNN spokesperson had no comment for this piece.

Gabby Giffords Won't Back Down

CNN Films’ “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” © Briarcliff Entertainment /Courtesy Everett Collection

Courtesy Everett Collection

So what can CNN Films do? In-house productions have included docs like 2017’s “THE END: Inside the Last Days of the Obama White House,” 2020’s “On the Trail: Inside the 2020 Primaries,” and the 2016 TV special “We Will Rise” about Michelle Obama — but while this year’s “Navalny” grew out of original CNN reporting, the network commissioned Fishbowl Films, RaeFilm Studios, and Cottage M to make it. It’s now an Oscar frontrunner.

CNN financed “RBG,” one of the brand’s biggest box-office hits with $14 million, but it commissioned Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s Storyville Films. CNN and Storyville also partnered on “Julia” and this year’s “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down.”

The executive speculates Licht’s vision will entail news-driven, low-cost, fast-turnaround documentary films and series. The talent rep suggested that the productions will lean on CNN’s vast internal reporting archives and save on licensing fees, high acquisition prices and paying a premium for filmmaking talent. Projects like these may get ratings, but they’re unlikely to see awards.

Scaling back CNN Films is just one cost-cutting measure across CNN (and parent company Warner Bros. Discovery, which has vowed to cut billions). Licht said CNN still wants to release six films and six shows under its Films and Original Series banners in 2023, a number that would be on par with both labels’ annual output.

For next year, a CNN spokesperson confirmed to IndieWire that “American Pain,” a documentary about opioid kingpins and the series “See It Loud: The History of Black Television” from LeBron James’ SpringHill Company are both still on the way. The spokesperson said the previously announced January 1 premiere date for “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” will proceed as planned, as will an eventual airdate for “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” after it was released in theaters by Briarcliff Entertainment earlier this year. Less clear is if any other future titles still in the works will be seen exclusively on linear television via CNN, through HBO Max or Discovery+, or if CNN could still look to outside partners for theatrical distribution.

Our sources praised the leadership of Entelis and executive VP Courtney Sexton in collaborating with talent and stewarding documentary films, often taking chances where others would not. But the executive said you don’t get a surprise hit like “Tinder Swindler” to dominate the conversation without embracing documentaries. With one less player like CNN Films taking those chances, the executive wonders, “Where’s the axe going to swing next?”

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