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CNN Films’ Sexton Talks About the Impact of Strong Documentaries

Last year, two CNN original documentaries, “RBG” and “Three Identical Strangers,” garnered $14 million and $12 million, respectively, at the box office. The abnormally lofty B.O. numbers made the film arm of the cable news channel an unlikely belle of the nonfiction community. Behind both docs was executive producer and CNN Films vice president, Courtney Sexton.

Much has been made about the theatrical success of “RBG,” “Three Identical Strangers” and most recently “Apollo 11,” which grossed just over $9 million. Former HBO docs topper Sheila Nevins used to say that the happiest home for a good doc is on the small screen. How do you feel about the theatrical success of CNN docs?

We are not going to make a film that we don’t think will work on CNN, but when we look at a film we absolutely consider how will it work on other platforms. I don’t think that films should live and die on CNN. We are actually more successful when our films do well theatrically. When you see people watching our [docs] on planes, or consuming them in other places [besides CNN] there becomes a buzz and word of mouth. So we rely on those other platforms to keep our films relevant. Our strategy is that we want our documentaries to work everywhere because ultimately that’s going to be better for CNN.

This year CNN Films received nine Primetime Emmy nods for “RBG,” “Three Identical Strangers” and “Love, Gilda.” Did it surprise you that these films, which for the most part are upbeat and highly entertaining, were recognized by the Television Academy?

Sometimes people think you have to sacrifice craft to make something commercially successful. What we’ve proven with these three films is that you can do both.

Last year TIFF was the launch pad for a slew of docs including “Free Solo,” which went on to win the Academy Award. Why is TIFF one of the premiere festivals for non-fiction films?

It’s one of the few festivals that when you go into a screening, it’s most likely going to be full. For documentary filmmakers that is a real asset when you’re trying to sell a film because you not only have a robust audience, but you also have distributors in the room. So from a selling standpoint and from an acquisition standpoint, TIFF provides documentaries with a unique experience.

CNN Films does not have any docus at TIFF 2019. Why will you be attending this year?

I have a mix of objectives. One is if there is a film that is available and feels like it would work for us, we are going to make a play for it. But the acquisitions market has become more and more competitive over the past few years, so our strategy does not rely on needing to walk away with a film from TIFF. We are also looking for new talent and we look to see if there are other directors out there who we want to be working with. It’s also a great hub of industry from around the world. So I’d say it’s a very multi-pronged festival for us.

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