‘Racing Extinction’ Launches New Era For Discovery Documentaries

When Rich Ross took the reins of Discovery Channel in January he promised to bring high-end documentary fare to the mothership of the Discovery Communications cable empire. This week he made good on that promise with the New York premiere of “Racing Extinction.”

Ross and John Hoffman, the veteran producer who joined Discovery this year as head of documentary programming, picked up domestic and international distribution rights to the politically-charged docu from Oscar-winner Louie Psihoyos at Sundance, where the film had its world premiere.

Racing Extinction” examines global threats to endangered species. In Psihoyos telling, factors contributing to mass extinction range from poaching to carbon emissions

Discovery grabbed the film after a bidding skirmish, which resulted in a reported seven-figure deal for the film from the director of “The Cove” and his team. Discovery is giving “Extinction” a global rollout on Dec. 2 in  220 markets.

“We are very focused now on stories that will get people to act,” Ross said Wednesday evening at a post-screening reception at The Times Center. “We are a purpose-driven company so when I started in January I thought that it was time to pick a couple of the right stories to galvanize our audience.”

In recent years Discovery generated plenty of criticism for using re-enactments and other questionable practices in a range of programs. But by appointing Hoffman, an HBO docu alum, Ross made it clear to not just viewers, but the nonfiction community that live stunts are out and authenticity is in.

In addition to “Racing Extinction” Discovery also qualified Jennifer Peedom’s “Sherpa” for Academy Award consideration. Peedom’s doc looks at how Mount Everest’s Sherpa community united in grief and anger to reclaim the mountain following the deadly avalanche that struck on April 18, 2014, killing 16 of their members. Next year, cabler will air “Telescope.” Directed by Academy-Award nominated filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn, doc, about the making of the James Webb Space Telescope, is one of the first commissioned nonfiction films under the new regime.

“What I learned at HBO was how documentaries can be brand defining for entertainment companies,” Hoffman said. “Part of my job there was putting a halo over that brand and showing that that brand has a commitment to a certain cause. Knowing how do to that is what I was able to bring to Discovery. I’m bringing that halo effect. With “Racing Extinction” it’s a huge opportunity to put a halo over the Discovery brand all over the world.”

Despite numerous other offers, for Psihoyos, going with the new regime at Discovery was a no-brainer.

“You always struggle to get anyone to see any kind of documentary,” helmer said. “So when the biggest network in the world with access to 2.4 billion people said they were interested in my movie and would offer a company wide initiative to promote the film I got interested. They were offering us a huge audience globally. The potential is just enormous.”

While the director hopes to make the documentary shortlist, he feels like he’s already won the hardest race.

“My ego would love to get on the list, but I keep reminding myself that the reward is getting potentially a billion people to see the film. To me, that is way bigger than an Academy Award,” Psihoyos said.

(Pictured: John Hoffman, Discovery CEO David Zaslav, Louie Psihoyos and Rich Ross)

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