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Soon to Be 'The Most Trusted Name in Docs'? CNN Launches Nonfiction Division with 'Girl Rising'

By Addie Morfoot

From Richard E. Robbins’ Girl Rising, which premieres in theaters through CNN Films

In 2012, CNN became another player in the documentary field—a very desirable new broadcast player-when the cable channel launched CNN Films.

Headed by Amy Entelis, senior vice president of talent and content development for CNN Worldwide, and Vinnie Malhotra, senior vice president of development and acquisitions for CNN Worldwide, CNN Films will acquire and/or fully fund at least four documentaries per year. Following a potential theatrical run, the selected docs will make their broadcast premiere on CNN and in some cases CNN International during primetime hours.

In concert with the premiere of each documentary, CNN will run programming that sheds light on the topics and issues discussed in each film. In-depth interviews, expert commentary, roundtable discussions, debates and behind-the-scenes footage will be featured across all of CNN's broadcast and online platforms.

Submarine Entertainment's Josh Braun, a leading documentary sales rep and a producer on an upcoming doc by Andrew Rossi (Page One: Inside The New York Times) about higher education, calls the new venue "a major positive development. Andrew and I met with the CNN Films team early on and, to me, it seems like a great opportunity for documentary filmmakers to have a place to go to get real budgets and real support to make the films they want to make."

The launch of the nonfiction division comes in conjunction with an overall network revamp. "CNN already has the In America and CNN Presents series, which are one-hour, long-form genre," Malhotra explains. "And while we refer to them as documentaries, they are more reporting-based than they are storytelling. So we started to look at some of our series and what we could do with outside voices and outside producers to bring a different lens to a lot of the material that we cover on an ongoing basis. We thought, Why not step outside and engage some of the top filmmakers in the documentary genre who we think are wonderful storytellers and who have the ability to spend two, sometimes three years inside a story?"

The documentaries CNN Films selects to air each year (one per quarter) will cover a wide array of topical issues, but will not be not limited to social-issue stories.

"Over the past few years, CNN has narrowed its focus to politics, hard news and breaking news," Malhotra says. "CNN Films will allow the network to get off the front page and take on a subject matter that is not your traditional newsroom headline news by delving into the art, style and even sports sections. So while not every film we take on has to be a social-issue film, it does need to be an important film that tells a strong story and is character-driven."

In addition to signing a development deal with Rossi, CNN Films is also working with Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side) and Michael Tucker (Gunner Palace) to develop and direct original documentaries that will air on the network in the next 18 months. 

Last spring, CNN Films made its first acquisition with the broadcast purchase of Girl Rising. Directed by Richard E. Robbins (Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience), Girl Rising tells the stories of girls from such countries as India, Ethiopia and Peru, who are fighting impoverished conditions in hopes of pursuing an education. The hybrid documentary, which incorporates animated short stories about each of the ten girls in the film, features voice performances by Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Kerry Washington and Selena Gomez. Girl Rising is set to air on CNN in late spring during primetime hours, with limited commercial interruption.

From Richard E. Robbins’ Girl Rising, which premieres in theaters through CNN Films

Girl Rising will make its big screen debut March 8 via the theatrical on-demand site Gathr. The film, executive produced by Tom Yellin and Holly Gordon of DocGroup and Paul G. Allen of Vulcan Productions, is the focal point of "10 x 10," a global action campaign to promote girls' education; the campaign is partnering with nonprofits, policy leaders and corporations.

In addition to being "wildly impressed with Operation Homecoming," Malhotra enthuses that Girl Rising was a perfect fit for CNN Films due to Robbins' ability to find "a compelling storyline inside an issue that has great relevance to the CNN audience," as well as the director's "unique style" and ability to bring a different lens to the issue. "Richard found ten girls and paired each with a writer from the particular region of the world she was in; the writers would pen a short story about the girl's life," she explains Then Richard would interpret those short stories into a short film.

"Each short has a different cinematic style to it," Malhorta continues. "One is animated and two are scripted. It's a wonderfully creative approach that really captures the inner spirit of the girls more so than getting lost in the surrounding of some very difficult environments. I think the storytelling is so strong that it will give our audience more perspective on the issues girls face around the world when it comes to education. His perspective adds a new dimension to CNN programming."

For Robbins, CNN Films had many appealing factors, including an international audience. "I care a great deal about the American audience, but Girl Rising is really a global film, so having a broadcast outlet that has the kind of international reach that CNN does was a huge plus," he maintains.

In addition to a worldwide audience, Robbins considers the programming CNN will air in conjunction with the doc's television premiere invaluable. "You always have that feeling that there was so much left unsaid—things that you just couldn't fit in because of time, etc., so having some space to present some of the other issues to open a larger dialogue surrounding the issue of girls' education around the world is remarkable. This film won't just come and go. There will be other programming that will live around the film and help give it the context that I think it deserves."

While Christiane Amanpour has already hosted a few events addressing the issues presented in Girl Rising, with more to come, Malhotra explains that depending on what's appropriate for each particular film, Amanpour—as well as fellow CNN correspondents such as Anderson Cooper—will help drive attention toward selected docs. "The additional content will serve as a promotional vehicle for the film, but also as a way for us to raise awareness about those issues," she says.

For Braun, CNN Films is a great addition to the ever-changing documentary broadcast landscape. "They are creating a brand that is attractive to filmmakers," he says. "Part of that is spending real money on budgets, committing real money to the films and giving them prominence on the network. Once the launch happens, more and more filmmakers will want to work with them. I feel very happy and lucky to be in with them during their first round."


Addie Morfoot writes about the film industry for Daily Variety. She has also written for the Los Angeles Times, Premiere and Marie Claire. She holds an MFA in creative writing from The New School.