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CNN Films Reduces Documentaries: Analysis

What to Expect Less truth to power; more news-oriented, low-cost, fast-moving documentaries and series.

Friday was a “sad day for the documentary world,” a filmmaker told IndieWire after hearing the news that CNN Films would be offering fewer original documentaries from outside partners. The strategy shift means more than losing a major buyer; for filmmakers it means that the great documentary gold rush had a good run but is now over.

CNN is far from the only platform tightening its non-fiction belt; Cost cutting measures have also been taken for Netflix, Amazon and Peacock. However, CNN was one of the last bastions for hard-core, big-cap documentaries aiming for more than true crime or “Tiger King.”

“What is happening across the documentary universe is worrying that we are seeing more and more prestige outlets that have traditionally served filmmakers to speak their truth and tell their story. They’re starting to wane,” said a talent advocate in the documentary world, who spoke to IndieWire on condition of anonymity.

“It feels very short-sighted to me,” said another documentary maker. “This is part of the larger crisis the industry is currently facing.”

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

These are the kinds of projects that are unlikely to find a home at CNN. In a memo to employees, CNN CEO Chris Licht stressed the group’s commitment to long-form content and charged Amy Entelis, head of CNN Films, with an “in-house” approach to creation. That suggests there are no more co-productions, no more lively Sundance discoveries, and no more big-name documentarians.

“They’ve pretty much relied on co-production and outside forces to make these films possible and work with filmmakers,” the talent rep said. “This is a definite shift.”

A CNN spokesman had no comment on this article.

Gabby Giffords isn't backing down

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

Courtesy of the Everett Collection

So what can CNN Films do? Own productions have included such documents as 2017’s THE END: Inside the Last Days of the Obama White House, 2020’s On the Trail: Inside the 2020 Primarys, and the 2016 TV special We Will Rise about Michelle Obama — but while this year’s “Navalny” grew out of original CNN coverage, the network brought in Fishbowl Films, RaeFilm Studios and Cottage M to produce. It’s now an Oscar front-runner.

CNN funded “RBG,” one of the brand’s biggest box-office hits, with $14 million, but hired Julie Cohen and Betsy West to handle Storyville Films. CNN and Storyville were also partners on My Name is Pauli Murray and this year’s Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down.

The executive speculates that Licht’s vision will include news-oriented, low-cost and fast-paced documentaries and series. The talent representative suggested that the productions would rely on CNN’s vast internal reporting archives and save on royalties, high acquisition costs and paying a film talent bounty. Projects like these may get reviews, but are unlikely to win awards.

The downsizing of CNN Films is just one cost-cutting measure at CNN (and parent company Warner Bros. Discovery, which has promised to save billions). Licht said CNN plans to release six more films and six shows under its Films and Original Series banners in 2023, a number that would equate to annual output from both labels.

For next year, a CNN spokesperson confirmed to IndieWire that American Pain, a documentary about opioid kingpins, and LeBron James’ SpringHill Company’s series See It Loud: The History of Black Television are still on the way. The rep said the previously announced January 1 premiere date for Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over will go ahead as planned, as will an eventual air date for Gabby Gifford’s Won’t Back Down. What’s less clear is whether these films will be shown exclusively on linear television via CNN, via HBO Max, or Discovery+, or if CNN will turn to outside partners for theatrical distribution.

Our sources commended Entelis and Executive Vice President Courtney Sexton’s leadership in working with talent and directing documentaries, often taking risks where others wouldn’t. But the executive said you can’t get a surprise hit like “Tinder Swindler” to dominate the conversation without embracing documentaries. With one less player like CNN Films taking those risks, the executive is wondering, “Where will the ax swing next?”

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