Bryan Fogel’s first documentary, “Icarus”, helped to uncover the doping scandal in Russia that led to the expulsion from the country of the 2018 Winter Olympics. He also won an Oscar for him and for Netflix, which released the film.
For his second project, he chose another topic of global interest: the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian dissident and Washington Post columnist, and the role that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman played in it.
A film by an Oscar-winning filmmaker would normally attract a lot of attention from streaming services, which used niche documentaries and films to attract subscribers and win prizes. Instead, when Fogel’s film, “The Dissident”, finally managed to find a distributor after eight months, it was with an independent company that had no streaming platform and a much narrower reach.
“These global media companies are no longer just thinking, ‘How is this going to play for the United States audience,'” said Fogel. “They are asking, ‘What if I release this film in Egypt? What will happen if I launch it in China, Russia, Pakistan, India? ‘All of these factors are coming into play and getting in the way of stories like this. “
“The Dissident” will now open in 150 to 200 cinemas across the country on Christmas Day and then be available for purchase on premium video-on-demand channels on January 8. (The original release plans provided for a release in 800 cinemas in October, but have been reduced due to the pandemic.) Internationally, the film will be released in Britain, Australia, Italy, Turkey and other European nations through a network of distributors .
It is a far cry from the potential audience that it would have been able to reach through a service like Netflix or Amazon Prime Video, and Fogel said he believes it is also a sign of how these platforms – increasingly powerful in the world of film documentary – are doing. in the business of increasing its subscriber base, not necessarily turning the spotlight on the excesses of the powerful.
For his film, Fogel interviewed Khashoggi’s fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, who waited outside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul in 2018 while the murder was taking place; Washington Post editor Fred Ryan; and several members of the Turkish police force. He obtained a 37-page transcript from a recording of what happened in the room where Mr. Khashoggi was smothered and quartered. He also spent significant time with Omar Abdulaziz, a young dissident in exile in Montreal who had worked with Khashoggi to combat the way the Saudi Arabian government used Twitter to try to discredit opposing voices and criticisms of the kingdom.
“The Dissident” got a coveted spot at the Sundance Film Festival in January. The Hollywood Reporter called it “vigorous, deep and comprehensive”, while Variety said it was “a documentary thriller of incredible relevance”. Hillary Clinton, who was at the Sundance Festival for a documentary about her, asked people to watch the film, saying in an interview on stage that it is “a frighteningly effective job of demonstrating the swarm that social media can be”.
The only thing left was Mr. Fogel securing a sale to a prominent streaming platform, one that could amplify the film’s discoveries, as Netflix did with “Ícaro”. When “Dissident” finally found a distributor in September, it was with independent company Briarcliff Entertainment.
Fogel said he informed Netflix of his film while it was in production and months later, when he was accepted to Sundance. “I expressed to them how excited I was for them to see,” he said. “I didn’t hear anything back.”
Reed Hastings, Netflix’s chief executive, was at the film’s Sundance premiere, but the company did not make an offer for the film. “Although disappointed, I was not shocked,” said Fogel. Netflix declined to comment, although a spokeswoman, Emily Feingold, pointed to a handful of political documentaries the service recently produced, including 2019’s Edge of Democracy, about the rise of authoritarian leader Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.
Amazon Studios also declined the offer. Images of Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive who owns The Washington Post, are shown in the film. Amazon did not respond to a request for comment. Fox Searchlight, now owned by Disney, did not bid. Neither does Neon, the independent distributor behind last year’s Oscar winner “Parasite” and who often purchases challenging content.
“What I noticed was that the desire for corporate profits has weakened the integrity of the American film culture,” said Thor Halvorssen, founder and chief executive of the nonprofit Human Rights Foundation, which funded the film and was a producer.
Documentaries don’t usually attract big box office tickets, so they’ve traditionally found their audience elsewhere. PBS has been a platform for prominent documentaries, but the rise in streaming has made companies like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu very important to the genre. But as these companies grew, their business needs changed.
“This is unquestionably political. It’s disappointing, but these are gigantic companies in a deadly race for survival, ”said Stephen Galloway, dean of the film school at Chapman University. “Do you think Disney would do something different with Disney +? Apple or any of the mega corporations? They have economic imperatives that are difficult to ignore and must balance them with issues of freedom of expression ”.
“The Dissident” is not the only political documentary that failed to secure a home on a streaming service. Earlier this year, Magnolia Pictures, which has a streaming contract with Disney’s streaming service Hulu, dropped a deal with the producers of the documentary “The Assassins”, which tells the story of Kim Jong-nam’s poisoning , the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The film’s director, Ryan White, made reference to the Sony hack in an interview with Variety, and pointed to the “rugged road” of distribution in the United States to corporations, feeling that they “could be hacked in a way that could be devastating. for them or their financial results. “
Netflix had been looking forward to having “Icarus” for several years, buying the movie for $ 5 million after it premiered at Sundance in 2017. “Fogel’s incredible risk has spawned an absorbing real-life thriller that continues to have global reverberations,” Lisa Nishimura, who was then the vice president of original documentaries for Netflix, said in a statement at the time. But Fogel wonders if the company would be so excited about the film now.
“When ‘Icarus’ was released, they had 100 million subscribers,” he said. (Netflix currently has 195 million subscribers worldwide.) “And they wanted David Fincher to make films with them, that Martin Scorsese made films with them, that Alfonso Cuarón made films with them. That is why it was so important that they had a film with which they could win an award. “
In January 2019, Netflix published an episode of comedian Hasan Minhaj’s “Patriot Act” series, when it criticized Prince Mohammed after Khashoggi’s death. Mr Hastings later defended the measure, saying: “We are not trying to make ‘truth to power’. We are trying to entertain. “
In November, Netflix signed an eight-film contract with Saudi Arabian studio Telfaz11 to produce films that, he said, “will be aimed at broad appeal to both Arab and global audiences”
The result of “The Dissident” was not ideal, but Fogel still hopes people will see the film.
“I love Netflix and consider myself part of the Netflix family after our wonderful experience with ‘Icarus’,” he said. “Unfortunately, they are not the same company as a few years ago, when they faced Russia and Putin with passion.