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Inside CNN Films, the Company Behind ‘RBG’ and ‘Three Identical Strangers’

CNN Films became the belle of the indie box office last summer thanks to a pair of unlikely popcorn-season smashes. The film arm of the cable news channel produced “RBG,” a deep dive into the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and “Three Identical Strangers,” the incredible story of triplets separated at birth. The two documentaries went on to gross $14 million and $11.5 million, respectively. Those are lofty numbers for niche movies, particularly of the non-fiction variety.

“Both movies benefited from a lot of water-cooler talk,” said Courtney Sexton, vice president of CNN Films. “There is a hunger out there for meaningful stories.”

In each instance, CNN Films partnered with outside distributors to release the films in theaters. Neon handled the rollout of “Three Identical Strangers,” while Magnolia oversaw the release of “RBG.” The company will mount Oscar campaigns for the movies. It has already sent out screeners for “RBG” to members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the group behind the awards show, and plans to do the same for “Three Identical Strangers.”

Sexton joined CNN in 2013 after eight years as a development executive at Participant Media, where she worked on the likes of “An Inconvenient Truth” and “Food, Inc.” She’s a big believer in the value of the theatrical experience, arguing that it helps make the broadcast premieres of movies such as “RBG,” which aired over Labor Day, more of an event.

“We’re creating content that still fits into the fabric of CNN, but is not anchor-driven news,” said Sexton, adding, “we’re looking for things in the zeitgeist that have the ability to break through all the noise.”

CNN Films, which has also backed the likes of “Our Nixon” and “Blackfish,” originally started with a mixture of in-house productions and acquisitions. It now leans more heavily on nurturing projects from their inception to their release. Despite the shift in focus, Sexton and others will be on the ground at the Toronto Film Festival scouting talent and possibly buying something if it fits into their model.

Even if it leaves Toronto empty handed, CNN Films has several high-profile projects lined up in the coming months. In September, the company will team with Magnolia on the release of “Love, Gilda,” a look at the late “Saturday Night Live” star Gilda Radner, and in early 2019 it will debut “Apollo 11” to mark the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.

But one daunting assignment looms. CNN Films recently announced that it is planning a feature-length documentary on “Parts Unknown” host Anthony Bourdain. The celebrity chef’s globe-trotting culinary adventures were a staple of the news network. He died by suicide in June at the age of 61. Sexton says Bourdain’s family and friends are supportive of the project, but she admits that the task is a weighty one.

“It’s something that has to be done right and with absolute sensitivity,” said Sexton. “We want to honor his legacy and make a product he’d be proud of.”

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