RJ Cutler’s ‘Murf the Surf,’ Developed by Epix, Ushers in New Era on MGM+

Five docuseries are tipped to debut on Amazon's streaming service in 2023

Murf the Surf
Courtesy image

The top-to-bottom rebrand of Epix into MGM+ under Amazon’s ownership means an increase in not only scripted series but also documentary content.

R.J. Cutler’s “Murf the Surf: Jewels, Jesus and Mayhem in the USA” is the first of five docuseries that will stream on the new platform in 2023.

About Jack Roland Murphy, an infamous jewel thief turned murderer, “Murf the Surf” was commissioned by Epix three years ago after Imagine Documentaries’ president Sara Bernstein and her former co-president Justin Wilkes pitched the story to Michael Wright, former president of Epix and current head of MGM+. (Wilkes was recently promoted to president of Imagine Entertainment.) After reading a New York Times’ article with the headline “How a Band of Surfer Dudes Pulled Off the Biggest Jewel Heist in N.Y. History,” Bernstein and Wilkes were immediately intrigued.

“It read like an “Ocean’s Eleven” story,” Bernstein says. “So, we sought out Jack Murphy, and eventually, our team flew to Florida to meet with him. We were then able to secure his life rights.” (Murphy died at age 83 in 2020.)

Cutler (“Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry”) and his production company This Machine came on board shortly after.

The filmmaker, who calls Murphy “the very first true crime television superstar,” say the outlaw’s story appealed to him for numerous reasons.

“This is very much a story of our times,” Culter says. “If ever there was a Trumpian figure in American popular culture, and there have been many, Murf was certainly one of them.

“He was somebody whose presentation controlled the narrative,” the filmmaker continues. “He wasn’t necessarily concerned with whether what he said was the truth, and his followers weren’t necessarily concerned with whether or not what he said was the truth. But what he said mattered to them. They embraced it, and for some people, it led them to find salvation, which makes (this story) all that much more complicated.”

Wright greenlit “Murf the Surf” in 2020, two years before Amazon acquired MGM for $8.5 billion. But Wright isn’t concerned that the series never made it to Epix because, despite the rebrand, the nonfiction content he’s looking for is the same content he was looking for back in 2020.

“We want to tell stories that have a pop culture appeal told through a journalistic lens,” Wright says. “I always say to people, ‘Think Rolling Stone Magazine.’ For those of us of a certain age, that magazine always had really interesting pop-culture stories written by and told by skilled journalists with a really interesting point of view. That’s what we’re doing with our series. So, audiences will see a lot of music, true crime, cinema, sports, and occasionally politics.”

During his tenure at Epix, Wright greenlit docuseries including the Emmy-nominated two-parter “Laurel Canyon,” which was executive produced by Alex Gibney and Frank Marshall, as well as “Helter Skelter,” “Slow Burn,” and “My Life as a Rolling Stone.”

“We’ve been doing this for the last three or four years, and we built up a pretty successful and creatively very satisfying business around very specific kinds of docuseries over the past several years,” says Wright.

In addition to “Murf the Surf,” the MGM+ 2023 docuseries slate includes “San Francisco Sounds” from Jigsaw Productions, the Kennedy/Marshall Company, Amblin Television, and Jeff Pollack; and “Making of a Haunting: The Amityville Murders,” executive produced by Lesley Chilcott, Blaine Duncan, Brooklyn Hudson, and Amanda Raymond, Rhett Bachner, and Brien Meagher. B17 Entertainment is attached as the production company for the latter. 

The remaining two docuseries slated for 2023 have yet to be disclosed.

Docuseries in development include: “Hot Stuff,” produced by XTR; “Hollywood Black,” from Justin Simien and Jeffrey Schwartz; ”The Devil Within,” executive produced by Eli Roth with executive producers Dirk Hoogstra and Nicole Sorrenti for Half Yard Productions, and “Wonderland Murders & the Secret History of Hollywood,” which Alison Ellwood (“The Go-Go’s,” “How to Change Your Mind,” “Laurel Canyon”) will direct as well as executive produce.

According to Wright, three-quarters to two-thirds of MGM+’s nonfiction projects originated with Epix and in the early stages of production. While Epix nonfiction series varied in length, MGM+ projects will predominantly be four parts.

Although more original scripted content is being produced for MGM+, Wright says that documentaries are vital to the platform’s business model.

“We are going to put on a hundred hours of original content a year, two original episodes a week,” says Wright. “So, everything we put on has a vital purpose to us, including our docuseries. They are great at keeping audiences engaged in between maybe some of your more highly marketed scripted series.”

While Epix attracted documentary juggernauts like Cutler, Gibney, and Marshall, being a first-party channel on Amazon is helping to attract even more talent, according to Wright.

“When you raise your awareness, you raise your profile,” he says. “That is obvious to artists and talent as well. We didn’t have a hard time attracting talent (at Epix), but I’d say that the good thing is more people are noticing us now. As I’ve said for many years, if you’re in this business, you’re only as successful as the talent you’re able to recruit to the task.”

MGM+ released the first episode of “Murf the Surf” globally on Feb. 5. A new episode will be released each week until the finale on Feb. 26.