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Considering The 'Visionless' Decision To Gut CNN Films

A cocktail sits next to a branded CNN Films napkin
CNN Films branding at the Tribeca Festival Documentary Filmmaker Party in June in New York City.
(Rob Kim
Getty Images)
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Some movies are instantly disposable: Battlefield Earth, The Adventures of Pluto Nash and The Last Airbender come to mind. But tossing out a documentary film distributor’s entire business? That seems inexplicable.

Do the stories that Hollywood tells about itself really reflect what's going on?

Yet that’s exactly what David Zaslav did as the head of the newly formed Warner Bros. Discovery. A few weeks back, Zaslav announced he was gutting CNN Films, one of the biggest distributors of documentary movies and series. Going forward, CNN will no longer acquire independently produced non-fiction work, meaning documentary filmmakers will have one fewer outlet for distribution.

“The corporate visionless of losing such a jewel it's just devastating,” Oscar-winning director Laura Poitras told me this week. Her credits include the Edward Snowden documentary Citizenfour, and the upcoming All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, about the Sackler family and Oxycontin. “It’s a tragic loss,” she said.

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Notable Work To Date

It’s easy to associate CNN with Anderson Cooper, John King’s election night maps and not much else, but the cable channel’s documentary unit has been involved in some of the most important journalistic work of the past two decades. Its movie releases include RBG, Blackfish and Navalny. CNN’s documentary series include Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown and United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell.

CNN Films’ new focus will be to spend less and make everything in house, rather than buy movies like all of the features listed above. It’s all part of the massive $3.5 billion in cuts implemented by Zaslav (who took home $247 million in pay last year) as the company digs out from more than $50 billion in crippling debt.

Other Notable Zaslav Cancellations

Zaslav previously closed the streaming news site CNN+ just as it was launching, writing off $300 million. His team decided not to release — in theaters or on a streaming platform — the completed Warner Bros. film Batgirl. And Warner Bros. Discovery just canceled the expensive (and increasingly less popular) HBO series Westworld.

“Let me be clear,” Zaslav told Wall Street analysts last week, “we did not get rid of any show that was helping us.”

That’s “helping” defined as good for the bottom line, not good for the culture and society.

Documentaries might not offer a huge return on investment, but we’ll all be poorer after we lose one of its most important distributors.

Don't Miss Documentaries

Before CNN Films becomes a shadow of itself, it has several meaningful documentary releases available now. You can currently stream Nalvany (on HBO Max) and Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down (on iTunes, Vudu and Amazon Prime).

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And to help keep other documentary distributors going, be sure to watch some of the other top non-fiction films of the year. In addition to Nalvany, I’d recommend these titles, many of which have been featured in my reporting:

What questions do you have about film, TV, music, or arts and entertainment?
John Horn, entertainment reporter and host of our weekly podcast Retake, explores whether the stories that Hollywood tells about itself really reflect what's going on?

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