MSNBC is giving cable news rival CNN increased competition in the exploding documentary arena through ramped up acquisitions by a revived arm devoted to non-fiction programming.
MSNBC Films showed the seriousness of its intent in June, when it won an intense bidding war for “Paper & Glue,” by the visual artist and prior Oscar nominee JR, ahead of its Tribeca Film Festival premiere. “Paper & Glue” has since qualified for Academy Award consideration, and is competing against documentaries including “Julia,” backed by CNN Films and Sony Pictures Classics. MSNBC also has two short documentaries up for Oscar consideration – Emily L. Harrold’s “Meltdown at Dixie” and Seth Freed Wessler’s “The Facility.” (Field of Vision qualified “The Facility.”)
“We’re cherry-picking projects that exist in the ecosystem, whether it’s content from studios, or from an independent filmmaker, or a production company,” explains MSNBC president Rashida Jones, who brought in veteran docu producer Amanda Spain as VP of longform acquisitions in March.
“At MSNBC Films, we acquire films that are finished, or films that are in post-production or in pre-production or we’ll even come on a film in early development,” Spain adds.
MSNBC Films gained credibility after teaming with sister division Focus Features to air Dawn Porter’s documentary “The Way I See It” in October 2020. About former White House photographer Pete Souza, the doc became the highest-rated non-news program in MSNBC history, NBC says. Per Nielsen, the commercial-free television premiere of the doc delivered 3.7 million total viewers.
Jones, senior VP of NBC News and MSNBC prior to being named MSNBC president a year ago, said the success of “The Way I See It” demonstrated that “there was an audience for this kind of program and there was a market for it,” considering it an early indication that this type of content “can work for our network. This is content that can work for our audience and there’s interest. So, how do we build an ecosystem to build upon that?”
In March, Jones hired Spain. Since then, Spain has acquired nine feature documentaries, five docuseries and three shorts. Besides JR’s “Paper & Glue,” they include Rachel Boynton’s “Civil War (Or, Who Do We Think We Are),” Christopher Stoudt’s “Four Seasons Total Documentary,” “Meltdown in Dixie,” Field of Vision’s “The Facility,” and Nicholas Mihm’s “In the Dark of the Valley.” Andre Gaines’ “Stories We Tell: The Fertility Secret,” featuring NBC news anchor and correspondent Sheinelle Jones, will air Dec. 19 on MSNBC.
Spain is quick to point out that MSNBC Films is not tied to the traditional documentary feature format, pointing out that “Stories We Tell: The Fertility Secret” is considered a broadcast hour.
“In our space we are doing feature films, but we’re also doing series, and then there’s still your broadcast hour,” she says. “So, our long form isn’t just one thing.”
As for what she’s looking for, Spain says “humanity” and a story that goes beyond the headlines.
“MSNBC is a place for news and politics, and so we do want to make sure that we’re telling the stories behind those stories,” she says. “People read a headline or see a news subject, and they think they know everything, but what’s so great about documentaries is that they take a deeper dive into things that people think they know and really show the human side of these issues or moments in history.”
JR’s last feature length docu, “Faces Places,” earned him an Oscar nomination along with the late Agnes Varda and MSNBC Films teamed with Abramorama to put “Paper & Glue” into theaters to qualify for Oscar consideration this season. MSNBC docus typically air on the news cabler on a Sunday night and eventually make their way onto MSNBC’s The Choice channel on Peacock, the streaming service owned by NBCUniversal.
“One of our goals with MSNBC Films was to try to reach a new audience,” says Jones. “So, there are people who are interested in these topics, but not necessarily watching MSNBC or not necessarily always watching linear. So, the goal simply put, was to broaden our audience base and to diversify our audience base. Streaming is a piece of that, where some of our program’s air on streaming, but really looking for an opportunity to get to more people who aren’t necessarily consuming MSNBC on a regular basis.”
Another goal is to attract premiere documentary filmmakers and production houses like Brian Grazer and Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment, which produced “Paper & Glue.” But being a newbie distributor in a landscape filled with deep-pocketed competition like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon is challenging. To compete, Spain approached JR and team with a promise.
“I told them no one was going to take care of their baby like we would, and I meant it,” she says. “A lot of (distributors) do a lot of films because they can, and they have the capacity to do a lot of films, but that also means that sometimes some films get lost in the shuffle. When we have a film, we are going to really take care of it and push it out as much as possible and use all of our assets to do it.”
Jones adds: “Working with MSNBC Films, gives you access to a lot of other different networks and platforms. So, when you come into the NBCU News Group ecosystem there is a lot of reach when you look at the entire portfolio and that’s something that we very much try to leverage. That kind of exposure and promotion is something that isn’t easy to replicate in a lot of other places.”
While CNN Films, known for “RBG,” “Three Identical Strangers” and most recently “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,” might appear to be MSNBC Films’ main competitor, Jones refutes that notion.
“Yes, we’re both cable networks, but we are competing, not only with CNN, we’re competing with Netflix, we’re competing with Hulu, the New York Times,” she says. “There are so many different distribution platforms and so our primary focus is finding projects to distribute that fit our brand.”
(Pictured: “Paper & Glue”)