Brian Fogel’s first documentary, “Icarus”, helped to uncover the Russian doping scandal, leading to the country’s expulsion from the 2018 Winter Olympics. It also won Oscars for her and Netflix, which released the film.
For his second project, he chose another subject with global interest: the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Arab dissident and Washington Post columnist, and the role of Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
A film by an Oscar-winning filmmaker will typically receive a lot of attention from streaming services, which have used documentaries and niche films to attract customers and earn awards. Instead, when Mr. Fogel’s film, “The Dissident,” was finally able to find a distributor after eight months, it was with an independent company that had no streaming platform and much more narrow reach.
“These global media companies are no longer just thinking, ‘How is it going to play for American audiences?” “Mr. Fogel said.” They are asking: ‘What if I exclude this film in Egypt? What if I release it in China, Russia, Pakistan, India? ‘All these factors are coming into play, and it’s happening in the form of stories like this. “
“The President” will now open in 150 to 200 theaters across the country on Christmas day and then become available for purchase on premium video-on-demand channels. 8. (The original plans called for an 800-theater release in October) but those were repatriated due to the epidemic.) Internationally, it is based in the UK, Australia, Italy, Turkey through a network of film distributors And will be released in other European countries.
It is far from a potential audience reached via a service like Netflix or Amazon Prime Video, and Mr. Fogel said he believed it was also a sign of how these forums – increasingly in the documentary world Powerful Film – were in the business of expanding their subscriber base, not necessarily turning the spotlight on the excess of powerful.
For his film, Mr. Fogel interviewed Mr. Khashogi’s fiancée, Hattis Kengiz, who was waiting outside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul in 2018, while the murder occurred; Washington Post publisher, Fred Ryan; And several members of the Turkish police force. He obtained a 37-page transcript of what had happened in the room where Mr. Khashogi was suffocated. He spent an important time with Omar Abdulaziz, a young dissident deported in Montreal, who worked with Mr. Khashogi to counter the way the Saudi Arabian government used Twitter.
“The Resident” landed a prestigious spot at the Sundance Film Festival in January. The Hollywood Reporter called it “loud, deep and broad”, while Variety said it was “a documentary thriller of staggering relevance.” Hillary Clinton, who was at Sundance for a documentary about her, urged people to watch the film, saying in an on-stage interview that it “does a fairly effective job of showcasing the herd that social media can is.”
The only thing left for Mr. Fogel to secure sales to a major streaming platform, one that could increase the film’s conclusions, as did Netflix with “Icarus”. When “Dissident” finally found a distributor in September, it was the independent company Briarcliff Entertainment.
Mr. Fogel said that he had made Netflix aware of his film while it was in production and then months later when it was accepted at Sundance. “I told him how excited I am to see it,” he said. “I didn’t hear anything.”
Netflix chief executive Reed Hastings was at the film’s Sundance premiere, but the company did not bid on the film. “While frustrated, I didn’t get a shock,” Mr. Fogel said.
Netflix declined to comment, although a spokesperson, Emily Feingold, pointed to several political documentaries produced recently, including the “edge of democracy” in 2019, about the rise of authoritarian leader Jayson Masonaro in Brazil is.
Amazon Studios also declined to bid. The film features Jeff Bezos, the Washington Post owner of Amazon chief executive. Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.
Fox Searchlight, now owned by Disney, did not bid. Neither was independent distributor Neon, behind last year’s Oscar-winning best picture, “Parasite”, and often received challenging material.
“I noticed that the desire for corporate profits has undermined the integrity of America’s film culture,” said Thor Halvorsen, founder and chief executive of the nonprofit Human Rights Foundation, who financed the film and worked as a producer.
Documentaries are not usually large box-office draws, so they have traditionally found their audiences elsewhere. PBS has long been a platform for major documentaries, but the rise of streaming has made companies like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu very important to the genre. As those companies have grown, their business needs have changed.
“It’s undeniably political,” said Stephen Galloway, dean of Chapman University’s film school. “It’s disappointing, but these are huge companies in a death race to survive.”
He said: “Do you think Disney will do anything different with Disney +? Will there be Apple or any megacorporations? They have economic imperatives that are hard to ignore, and they have to balance with issues of free speech.”
“The President” is not the only political documentary that has failed to secure a home on the streaming service. This year, Magnolia Pictures, which has a streaming deal with Disney-owned Hulu, pulled out of a deal with the makers of the documentary “The Essence”, which tells the story of the poisoning of Kim Jong-nam’s half-brother North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
The film’s director, Ryan White, cited Sony Pictures’ 2014 hack in an interview with Variety, and made corporations feel the “bumpy road” of American distribution by realizing they were “hacked in this way” Which can be disastrous for them ”their bottom line. “
Netflix longed for “Icarus” several years ago, after making a debut at Sundance in 2017 and bought the film for $ 5 million. “Fogel’s unbelievable risk-taking has given a real-life thriller that continues to make global adaptations,” Lisa Nishimura, Netflix’s vice president of original documentation, said in a statement at the time.
Mr. Fogel wondered if the company would now be excited about that film.
“When Icarus’ came out, they had 100 million subscribers,” he said. (Netflix currently has 195 million subscribers worldwide.) “And they hunt to get David Fincher to do films with him, Martin Scorsese to do movies with him, Alfonso Quarone to do movies with him. So it was so important that he had a film with which he could win an award. “
In January 2019, Netflix pulled an episode of comedian Hassan Minhaj’s series, “Patriot Act”, when he criticized Prince Mohammed after Mr. Khashogi’s death. Mr Hastings later defended the move, saying: “We are not trying to make truth ‘for power’.” We are trying to entertain. “
In November, Netflix signed an eight-picture film deal with Saudi Arabia’s studio Telfaz11 to produce the films, stating that it would “aim for a wider appeal in both Arab and global audiences.”
The result of “The Dissident” has not been the norm, but Mr. Fogel is still hoping that people will see the film.
He said, “I love Netflix and consider myself part of the Netflix family after my great experience with ‘Icarus’.” “Sadly, they are not the same company they were a few years ago when they were Russian and Putin fans.”