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National Geographic Unveils New Banner to Produce Feature Documentaries (EXCLUSIVE)

National Geographic Networks is stepping up its efforts to produce feature-length documentaries, unveiling a new banner titled National Geographic Documentary Films.

“We abandoned the space for some reason, but now we are actively resuming our proper place,” the network’s CEO Courteney Monroe told Variety exclusively ahead of their session at the Television Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena, California. “We want to be making timely, issue-oriented, very provocative films with the very best documentary filmmakers in the business. Given the success of ‘Before the Flood’ and ‘He Named Me Malala,’ these are the types of stories we want to be telling.”

Monroe said that four previously announced feature documentaries will now be produced under the new banner, including “Water & Power: A California Heist,” from director Marina Zenovich and executive producer Alex Gibney, which will be premiering at the Sundance Film Festival; “Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS” from Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested; “LA 92” (working title), produced by Simon Chinn and Jonathan Chinn, and directed by Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin; and the untitled Jane Goodall project from executive producer, director and writer Brett Morgen.

Monroe estimates that they’ll produce four films a year with the goal of getting critical acclaim, festival play, and hopefully awards. Subject matters like climate change, water crisis, space exploration, race issues, ISIS are all on her agenda. “Those are issues that are really organic to the National Geographic brand. Who better to tell these stories?” she said. “When you’re paddling with the current, progress can come faster. We feel really excited about the fact that we can assume a mantle of leadership of telling these really important stories.”

Although the documentary space has become ever more competitive in recent months, she’s confident that she can attract top-tier projects. Monroe pointed to the recent project “Mars,” from executive producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer. “You see lots of fancy names coming from networks, but it’s unprecedented for National Geographic to be working with that caliber of talent,” she said. “That speaks to the power of the brand, which is a real calling card for us. It speaks to our new premium higher-budget programming strategy, which we’re now in the marketplace with. And it speaks to the size and reach of our National Geographic portfolio. We reach 730 million people around the world. That’s really powerful to filmmakers, who want their stories to be told on the grandest stage possible.”

“Before the Flood,” a climate change documentary from executive producers Leonardo DiCaprio and Fisher Stevens, became the most watched National Geographic film ever thanks to an extensive rollout plan across digital and streaming platforms. “Our goal was to get as many people to see it as possible with our yellow border around it,” she explained.

Future documentaries will get both theatrical and television releases, and a similar digital strategy is on the table. “These are films we believe should be seen a lot of people so we’re not going to be overly precious,” she said. “We don’t have a set playbook.”

Monroe said she’s most excited about the network first-ever upcoming scripted series “Genius.” The show is about Albert Einstein based on Walter Isaacson’s biography, which also marks Ron Howard’s television directing debut. “The creative auspices are incredible,” she said. “The topics are germane to our brand. It’s a very humane story.”

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