An Oscar Winner Made a Khashoggi Documentary. Streaming Services Didn’t Want It.
Bryan Febel’s first documentary “Icarus” helped uncover the Russian doping scandal that led to the country’s exclusion from the 2018 Winter Olympics. It 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 assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian dissident and Washington Post columnist, and the role played by the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
An Oscar-winning movie would normally get a lot of attention from streaming services that have used documentaries and niche films to attract subscribers and earn awards. When Mr. Fogel’s film “The Dissident” finally found a rental 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 will this affect the US audience?'” Fogel said. “They ask, ‘What if I put this film out in Egypt? What if I publish it in China, Russia, Pakistan, India? ‘All of these factors play a role and hinder such stories. “
“The Dissident” will now open in 150-200 theaters across the country on Christmas Day and be available on premium video-on-demand channels on January 8th. (Original plans were for 800 theaters to be released in October, but these have been scaled back due to the pandemic.) Internationally, the film will be released through a distribution network in the UK, Australia, Italy, Turkey and other European countries.
It’s a far cry from the potential audience it could have reached through a service like Netflix or Amazon Prime Video, and Mr Fogel said he believed it was also a sign of how these platforms are becoming increasingly powerful in the world of documentation become film – were in the business of expanding their subscriber base and not necessarily putting the spotlight on the excesses of the powerful.
For his film, Mr. Fogel interviewed Mr. Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, who was waiting outside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul in 2018 while the murder was taking place. The Washington Post editor, Fred Ryan; and several members of the Turkish police. He secured a 37-page log from a recording of what happened in the room where Mr. Khashoggi was suffocated and dismembered. He also spent a lot of time with Omar Abdulaziz, a young dissident in exile in Montreal who had worked with Mr Khashoggi to combat the way the Saudi Arabian government was using Twitter to try to capture opposing voices and criticism Discredit kingdom.
“The Dissident” landed a coveted spot at the Sundance Film Festival in January. The Hollywood Reporter called it “powerful, deep and comprehensive” while Variety said it was “a documentary of amazing relevance”. Hillary Clinton, who was in Sundance for a documentary about her, urged people to watch the film and said in an interview on stage that he “does a terrifyingly effective job of demonstrating the crush, social media can be”.
All that was left was for Mr. Fogel to secure a sale to a prominent streaming platform that could amplify the movie’s results, as Netflix did with “Icarus.” When “Dissident” finally found a distributor in September, it was the independent company Briarcliff Entertainment.
Mr Fogel said he brought his film to Netflix’s attention while it was in production and months later when it was shot on Sundance. “I told them how excited I was that they saw it,” he said. “I didn’t hear anything back.”
Reed Hastings, the executive director of Netflix, was at the Sundance premiere of the film, but the company didn’t bid on the film. “While I was disappointed, I wasn’t shocked,” said Mr Fogel.
Netflix declined to comment despite a spokeswoman, Emily Feingold, pointing 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 turned down an offer. The footage shows Jeff Bezos, the managing director of Amazon, who privately owns the Washington Post. Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.
Fox Searchlight, now owned by Disney, did not bid. The independent distributor Neon, who is behind the Oscar-winning best picture of last year, “Parasite”, and often purchases challenging content, has not done so either.
“What I observed was that the desire for corporate profits has weakened the integrity of American film culture,” said Thor Halvorssen, the founder and director of the nonprofit human rights foundation that funded and produced the film.
Documentaries aren’t usually big box office, so traditionally they have found their audiences in other locations. PBS has long been a platform for celebrity documentaries, but the rise of streaming has made companies like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu very important to the genre. As these companies have grown, so have their business needs.
“This is undoubtedly political,” said Stephen Galloway, dean of the Chapman University film school. “It’s disappointing, but these are gigantic companies in a race to survive.”
He added, “Do you think Disney would do something different with Disney +? Would Apple or one of the mega-corporations? They have economic imperatives that are difficult to ignore and they must balance them with issues of free speech. “
“The Dissident” isn’t the only political documentary that failed to find a home on a streaming service. This year Magnolia Pictures, which has a streaming deal with Disney’s Hulu, pulled out of a deal with the makers of the documentary “The Assassins,” which tells the story of the poisoning of Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
The film’s director, Ryan White, referred to the Sony Pictures hack in 2014 in an interview with Variety, telling the companies the “bumpy road” of US distribution that they could be “hacked in ways that she or she could be devastating to their bottom line. “
Netflix desperately wanted Icarus a few years ago and bought the film for $ 5 million after it debuted on Sundance in 2017. “Fogel’s incredible risk has spawned an exciting real-life thriller that continues to resonate around the world,” said Lisa Nishimura, who was Netflix’s vice president of original documentaries, said in a statement at the time.
Mr. Fogel wonders if the company would be just as excited about this film.
“When ‘Icarus’ came out they had 100 million subscribers,” he said. (Netflix currently has 195 million subscribers worldwide.) “And they were looking to get David Fincher to make films with them, to get Martin Scorsese to make films with them, to get Alfonso Cuarón to make films to make them. That’s why it was so important that they had a film that they could win an award for. “
In January 2019, Netflix pulled an episode of the comedian Hasan Minhaj’s “Patriot Act” series when he criticized Prince Mohammed after Mr. Khashoggi’s death. Mr. Hastings later defended the move, saying, “We’re not trying to tell the truth to power. We’re trying to entertain. “
In November, Netflix signed an eight-frame film deal with Saudi Arabian studio Telfaz11 to produce films that “should have broad appeal to both Arab and global audiences”.
The result for “The Dissident” wasn’t ideal, but Mr. Fogel still hopes that people will see the film.
“I love Netflix and, after our wonderful experience with ‘Icarus’, saw myself as part of the Netflix family,” he said. “Unfortunately, they are not the same company they were a few years ago when they passionately opposed Russia and Putin.”