Sundance: American Masters Launches Theatrical Label

American Masters,” the popular documentary series about the lives of artists and innovators, may move from the small screen to the big one.

WNET, parent company of New York’s public television stations Thirteen and WLIW21, is launching its first theatrical imprint, American Masters Pictures, and will encourage its filmmakers to find ways to have their films get released in cinemas, Variety has learned.

“There seems to be this great interest in having a limited theatrical run for the kind of films that we do,” said Michael Kantor, “American Masters” executive producer. “We’re all about reaching as many people as we can and building buzz.”

It has also picked up broadcasting rights to Louis Black and Karen Bernstein’’s “Richard Linklater : Dream is Destiny” out of the Sundance Film Festival. The documentary follows the career of the indie filmmaker behind “Dazed and Confused” and “Boyhood.” Cinetic Media negotiated the deal on behalf of the “Dream is Destiny” filmmakers. Theatrical and video-on-demand rights are still available.

The label will oversee documentaries that are co-produced by the “American Masters” series and the first two films to get released under the banner, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You” and Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack’s “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise,” will premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.Both documentaries will hit PBS next fall.

“We want to alert the indie film community that we value this form of distribution,” said Kantor. “We’re planting a flag because this is a natural fit with what we do well.”

American Masters Pictures is launching at a time when many other broadcasters are straddling the lines between television and film. CNN Films, Showtime and HBO routinely purchase documentaries or release them theatrically as a way of building buzz and qualifying them for awards.

“There’s a lot of excitement in the culture right now around documentaries,” said Stephen Segaller, vice president of programming at WNET. “There’s more now than at any other time I’ve seen in my career. Many of our fellow broadcasters have created sub brands and we don’t want to be left behind.”

Beyond the popularity of documentary programs such as HBO’s “The Jinx” and Netflix’s “Making a Murderer,” Segaller notes that there is a reason that non-fiction storytelling is in the spotlight again.

“There’s an advent of home movies and video on the era of rock ‘n’ roll and Vietnam and Watergate,” said Segaller. “A lot of those stories unfolded on TV and that means that there’s a lot of resources available to filmmakers to plunder.”

Upcoming projects include “Hedy: The Untold Story of Actress & Inventor Hedy Lamarr” directed by Alexandra Dean and “Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me” directed by Sam Pollard.
Since kicking off in 1986, “American Masters” has earned 28 Emmy Awards, 12 Peabodys, an Oscar, three Grammys, two Producers Guild Awards and many other honors.

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