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A&E IndieFilms Thrives After Decade of Backing Steady Stream of Quality Docs

Tucked into the Manhattan skyscraper that serves as the home base of A+E Networks is a small division that looks like nothing you’d expect to find in a broad corporate portfolio of television holdings: a feature film production company with an emphasis on premium content and robust theatrical releases.

But for 10 years now, A&E IndieFilms, with a dedicated staff of two led by senior VP Molly Thompson, has parlayed an unorthodox business model and a keen eye for story into a low-volume but enduring generator of noteworthy independent features, especially documentaries such as “Cartel Land,” “The Imposter” and “The September Issue.”

“Molly and A&E have an established position in the space, and they have impeccable taste and amazing instincts in terms of finding stories,” says Paul Davidson, senior VP of film and TV at distributor The Orchard. “If we see they’ve got something at a festival, it’s always high on our list as something we need to see.”

The Orchard picked up the production arm’s “Life, Animated” out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where the buzzy title, about an autistic man who finds a link to the world through Disney movies, earned Roger Ross Williams the documentary directing award. The movie, which will screen at this month’s Tribeca Film Festival and open in theaters July 8, reteams the companies that worked together on last year’s intense, Oscar-nominated documentary about the drug war, “Cartel Land.”

Meanwhile, for its other Sundance 2016 film, literary hoax tale “Author: The JT Leroy Story,” IndieFilms partnered with Amazon Studios, which nabbed the pic as its first documentary
acquisition. That movie will be released July 29.

Over the past decade, the production arm has worked with an array of distributors, including Magnolia (“Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer”), Samuel Goldwyn Films (the drama “Lila & Eve”), Roadside Attractions (“The September Issue”) and Sony Pictures Classics (“My Kid Could Paint That”).

“Television films come and go. Whereas if you’re in the press for a whole year, the way we were last year for ‘Cartel Land,’ it can really make a film special.”
Molly Thompson

That flexibility is just one marker of a freeform model that has served IndieFilms well as it has weathered major changes in the marketplaces in which it operates: the independent film industry and the cable network business.

A decade ago, demand for theatrical documentaries was on the upswing, with attention-grabbers like 2004’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “Super Size Me” and 2005’s “March of the Penguins” earning big bucks at the box office. A&E executives, tasked at the time with re-energizing a challenged network most associated with the long-running “Biography” series and the proliferation of reality TV, began exploring unorthodox ways to burnish the brand — and produce the kinds of films that would make for strong content on the cable net down the line.

“I don’t think anybody viewed IndieFilms as a huge contributor to earnings,” says Robert DeBitetto, who was president and general manager of A&E and Bio at the time and now oversees IndieFilms as the head of A+E Studios. “But within the overall company plan, there was an excitement about what these films could bring to us, in terms of credibility and filmmaker relationships. We talked about it elevating the brand, and it gave us an opportunity to get us off the TV pages and have a different set of viewers and writers and eyes on it.”

With Thompson, a longtime producer-writer-director of nonfiction TV at both PBS and A&E, in the lead, IndieFilms began to attract attention with early documentaries, including “Jesus Camp,” a 2007 Oscar nominee, and “My Kid Could Paint That.”

Since then, the industry has changed, with audiences fragmenting and SVOD platforms giving moviemakers a run for their money. But in the face of all that, theatrical runs remain a cornerstone of the IndieFilms model — even if the value of big-screen play is calculated in something other than box office returns. “Television films come and go,” Thompson says. “Whereas if you’re in the press for a whole year, the way we were last year for ‘Cartel Land,’ it can really make a film special.”

For filmmakers, working with a production company that has a foot in both the film and the television industries has obvious appeal. “It’s the best of times and the worst of times to be a documentary maker right now,” says Joe Berlinger (“Brother’s Keeper,” “Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru”), who worked with A&E on the 2012 Paul Simon documentary “Under African Skies.” “There have never been more opportunities for nonfiction on TV, with more players like Amazon and Netflix. But in terms of theatricals, we’re on the decline, even though the world still treats a theatrical release with more permanence and importance than a straight-to-television documentary. That’s why I welcome a model like the one A&E has.”

Director Williams agrees. “What you want to do is have that tiered release of a festival run, a theatrical run, SVOD and a great broadcast,” he says. “You get all that with A&E .”

It doesn’t hurt that IndieFilms has access to a comparatively deep pool of corporate funding. Depending on a film’s demands, it can kick in up to several million dollars, according to DeBitetto — a figure that will make most scrappy indie filmmakers salivate. (“I’m going to have to get an unlisted number after people read that!” Thompson cracked.)

Says “Cartel Land” director Matthew Heineman: “My last film, ‘Escape Fire,’ was the classic process of driving around New York-slash-America with your hat out, nickel and diming every month to try and just get by. It’s a huge benefit to have a partner that has the ability to provide the bulk of the funding, and who is also open to all those forms of distribution and then able to provide such a great home on TV for them.”

That TV home expanded in 2009, when A+E Networks merged with Lifetime, creating a broadcast appetite across three channels: History, A&E and Lifetime. History Films, the production company affiliated with the History Channel and also headed by Thompson, yielded Werner Herzog’s 2010 outing “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” and last year’s “National Lampoon: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead,” while IndieFilms’ narrative titles like “The Last of Robin Hood,” the 2013 Errol Flynn biopic with Kevin Kline; and the Viola Davis-Jennifer Lopez vigilante tale “Lila & Eve” found a place on Lifetime. (Thompson additionally oversees Lifetime Films.)

The A&E IndieFilms execs seem to have understood early that success can’t be quantified by a single measurement like box office or ratings — and that success is measured differently for every film. For instance, very few of the production unit’s movies break $1 million at the domestic box office.

“Critical reception is one really important metric, whether that’s nominations or awards or being accepted at the right festivals or being recognized at those festivals,” DeBitetto says. “That’s not the [only] measure of success, but it’s an important one. And then it’s a combination of how does [a film] do theatrically, do we have a good international run, how does it rate on the network, do we have a good OTT deal, on and on and on. When you add it all up, you get a sense of: Did it break out? Did it cut through? We don’t do these films to get lost in the shuffle.”

Owing in part to a limited release slate of just a few films per year, A&E IndieFilms has in some ways thrived under the radar. But the potential for success in the premium documentary space hasn’t gone entirely unnoticed — as evidenced by an increase in competition muscling into the market from network players including CNN and ESPN.

In comparison with its new competitors, A&E stands out with a 10-year track record of making movies for both big screen and small. It’s also got a decade-long head start in talent relations. Talking about working with Thompson, filmmakers get downright gushy, and the supportive attitude seems to run right on up the ladder at A&E. (“Can you put in there that I love Rob
Sharenow?” Williams asks, referring to the exec VP and g.m. of A&E and Lifetime. “I don’t think I’d ever seen an executive who has such passion for the form.”)

It’s the kind of atmosphere that inspires loyalty. Amir Bar-Lev, for instance, has made three films with A&E  IndieFilms: “My Kid Could Paint That,” “The Tillman Story” and “Happy Valley,” the last about the Penn State football scandal. He says he’s continually impressed by how much freedom the division gives him, and how much appetite for challenging content it has.

“I got a note on ‘Happy Valley’ — I basically got chastised for turning in a cut that didn’t have enough ambiguity. They said, ‘Come on, give us more of that ambiguous, poetic stuff you do,’ ” he recalls, still laughing in disbelief. “As a filmmaker, you die to hear that from an executive.”

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