Showtime is heading to Park City, Utah armed with two hot-button documentaries about very different iconoclasts — Marlon Brando and Warren Jeffs.
The two films, “Listen to Me Marlon” and “Prophet’s Prey,” will debut in the World Cinema Documentary Competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival before airing on the premium cable channel and, possibly, in theaters.
“Sundance is a great launching pad and it’s particularly good for documentaries,” said David Nevins, president of entertainment at Showtime Networks. “I want these documentaries to get seeded out in the world and for journalists and tastemakers to see them and build buzz before they go on the air.”
The premium cable channel has big ambitions for the films and believes that the Brando film, in particular, could attract Oscars and awards attention.
“Documentaries do incredibly well with our audience and they get real ratings and have cultural currency more than any other time that I’ve been in the television business,” said Nevins.
“Both of these people are fascinating,” he added. “You have these taboo figures, in a way, from the polygamous marriages practiced by Warren Jeffs and how he exerted control over his followers to an iconic and creative figure like Brando. He loomed so large that every actor in Hollywood will have to watch this.”
“Listen to Me Marlon” centers on the actor’s never-before-heard personal audio archive. The recordings follow Brando as he prepares for roles and muses about art and life. Their public debut was fortuitous. Nevins found out that the tapes existed after having a conversation with Brando’s estate executor, film producer Mike Medavoy.
“This fell in our lap,” he said. “You get to spend two hours in the mind of a genius.”
“This film is not a biography,” added Nevins. “There are no interviews. The entire film is from Brando’s point of view. He’s the only one speaking. There’s an interesting, dream-like quality. You get lost in his voice. It’s about how he sees the world and what influenced him.”
“Listen to Me Marlon” is written, edited and directed by Stevan Riley (“Fire in Babylon”) and has powerhouse producers such as John Battsek (“Searching for Sugar Man”), R.J. Cutler (“The World According to Dick Cheney”) and George Chignell (“Ali”).
The Warren Jeffs documentary “Prophet’s Prey” pulls back the curtain on the cult leader and convicted child sex abuser. It arrives from director Amy Berg, whose acclaimed 2006 film “Deliver Us from Evil” explored sex abuse cases in the Roman Catholic Church.
“This is the story of how insidious Jeffs was,” said Nevins. “His trial got a lot of attention at the time, but I don’t think it’s ever been dealt with in-depth. It’s very powerful.”
There are some other big names operating behind the camera. Brian Grazer and Ron Howard of Imagine Entertainment serve as executive producers on “Prophet’s Prey” with “Milk” screenwriter Dustin Lance Black.
Along with CNN and HBO, Showtime has aggressively moved into the documentary space in recent years, producing or acquiring non-fiction films about a range of topics such as Richard Pryor, climate change and Dick Cheney. These cable players are providing vital platforms for films that would struggle to find distribution. A few pictures such as “Citizenfour” and “The Act of Killing” may generate a great deal of media attention, but even documentaries that generate headlines can have a hard time selling tickets.
Those same barriers don’t apply to networks like Showtime that can take chances on edgier fare because they derive their revenues from subscriptions, not ticket sales or advertising.
“There are very few documentaries that have that giant pull that brings people into a theater, but they play great on a small screen,” said Nevins. “They’re so immersive and the screens on home televisions have improved that it works really well.”
Nevins plans to make the trek to Utah himself, where he will act both as a cable executive and as a film lover.
“When I go to Sundance, I try to avoid all the parties,” he said. “All I do is watch movies. It’s my idea of heaven — watching five movies a day.”