Endorsements for a documentary don’t often come from a higher-profile person than Hillary Clinton. At the Sundance Film Festival in January, the former secretary of state not only turned out for the premiere of “The Dissident,” a new documentary about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, she talked it up afterward.
“If you haven’t seen ‘The Dissident,’ I hope you will,” Clinton told festivalgoers about the movie, which implicates Saudi Arabia’s rulers in the killing of The Washington Post columnist and slams Western companies for enabling the kingdom’s abuses. Hollywood voices such as Sean Penn later voiced their enthusiasm, joining a raft of glowing reviews and making the movie feel like a slam dunk for a content-thirsty distributor.
Yet nearly seven weeks after its Sundance premiere, no buyer has stepped up to acquire the film – an unusually long period of time in a market where most well-regarded movies find deals at the festival or just days after, as Netflix did for the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes movie “Knock Down The House” last year or Apple for the coming-of-age Texas political doc “Boys State” this year.
That reluctance, particularly from global streamers Netflix and Amazon, has raised fears among experts that media companies are acceding to an authoritarian regime and confirming the movie’s very critique that Western companies enable Saudi Arabia’s lawless behavior. (Amazon’s chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
“Without being inside the companies it’s hard to know what the factors really are for someone not to distribute the movie,” said Yasmine Farouk, a fellow specializing in the Middle East at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a nonpartisan think tank. “But it wouldn’t at all surprise me if economic and financial interests are the main motivations here. Money has been what’s sustained the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia for 75 years.”
Documentary films have taken on an outsized journalistic role as other news outlets have faced cutbacks, diving into stories and making them popular via a host of major platforms. But the distribution hurdles faced by “The Dissident” highlight the dangers inherent to such a partnership – the potential for conflict between muckraking filmmakers and the risk-averse companies enabling their efforts.
A decorated team of filmmakers has quietly been putting together their own documentary about Khashoggi. “Kingdom of Silence” is produced by a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Lawrence Wright, and Oscar-winning documentarian, Alex Gibney. Their movie also centers on the October 2018 Khashoggi death, casting it against the historical backdrop of U.S-Saudi relations.
Filmmakers for that movie have secured the buy-in of Showtime; the ViacomCBS division financed and will air the movie. But they are still seeking a theatrical distributor to give the story an elevated platform in the U.S. – a release freighted with uncertainty.
At a moment when many activists worry that Saudi Arabia’s alleged abuses under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are in danger of fading from public consciousness, U.S.-based Saudi experts say the competition to reignite interest is heartening.
But they also note that the uphill climb these films face in capturing both distributor and audience interest underscores the very risks the films come to warn about.
“I don’t know what the right word is – censorship or repression or something else,” said Shadi Hamid a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who focuses on U.S. relations with the Islamic world. “But the basic point holds – a powerful regime that doesn’t have the same scruples as others is creating a culture of fear, and companies react with kowtowing.”
“The Dissident” has been an especially thorny case. The film’s director, Bryan Fogel, told The Post in January he very much wanted a streaming deal (as opposed to theatrical distribution, which would require piecing together agreements in the U.S. and various international territories)
That prompted the film’s sales agent, UTA’s Rena Ronson, to focus Sundance sales efforts on landing one. Fogel’s previous film, the Russian-whistleblowing tale “Icarus,” was distributed by Netflix. It won the documentary Oscar and had a significant impact on doping policy as a result of its wide distribution.
Reviews suggested a similar deal was more than plausible for “The Dissident.” The film takes aim not just at a crime allegedly ordered by the highest levels of the Saudi government but at the way Western companies, after only a brief post-Khashoggi pause, continue to do business with the country, enabling its repressive ways.
Funded by the Human Rights Foundation, the movie also lays out the findings of U.N. investigators that Prince Mohammed was personally involved in hacking the cellphone of Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos as a potential act of revenge for the mogul’s response to the killing (Bezos owns The Washington Post).
Variety called the film “a documentary thriller of staggering relevance. . .[with] urgent colliding themes of free speech, power, greed, technology, violence, and the increasingly global nature of government tyranny.”
Netflix, Amazon and Apple would each be likely distributors, given their frequent pursuit of timely and buzzy documentaries.
Each of those firms, experts note, would also have disincentive to buy “The Dissident.”
Amazon is a prime player in the movie via the alleged Bezos hacking, potentially putting it in a complicated position if it were also to come on as a distributor.
The film also shows the ease with which the iPhone could be hacked, potentially dissuading Apple.
And Netflix has capitulated to the Saudi government before, removing an episode of the Hasan Minhaj series “Patriot Act” in Saudi Arabia last year after the government complained about a joke that suggested Mohammed ordered the killing. The company is also looking hard at international expansion as subscriber growth in the U.S. slows.
Fogel has pressed the narrative that fears of economic reprisal are at the center of streamers’ reluctance to pick up the rights to his movie.
“I’ve come to the realization that the major global distributors are scared of this film,” he told a screening hosted by Penn and Alec Baldwin at UTA last week. “Winning an Academy Award for Netflix was not enough to make them step up to the plate,” he said of the company, which has not made an offer on the film.
Without streaming offers, agents are likely to turn to U.S. theatrical distributors, which have a much smaller reach.
Penn, Baldwin and other celebrities are part of the agency’s strategy, common on independent films, to use celebrity muscle to raise awareness for a movie, particularly among distributors or simply within Hollywood.
Fogel declined to provide a comment to The Post for this story. Ronson also declined to comment.
Spokespeople for Netflix, Apple and Amazon all did not comment when reached by The Post.
An executive at one theatrical distributor who engaged in conversations with UTA and asked for anonymity so as not to jeopardize relationships said that part of the challenge may be the price. The movie has been compared by UTA not only to other documentaries but to scripted films such as “Spotlight,” which grossed $45 million in the U.S., sending the price higher.
U.S. theatrical distributors often pay six figures for documentaries as opposed to the seven- and eight-figure deals scripted movies command.
As the weeks go by without a streaming deal for “The Dissident,” its competitor is speeding ahead under the auspices of Gibney.
“What we are aiming to tell is a beautiful haunting story of a man [Khashoggi] discovering himself even as he’s fighting for the road he thinks his country should be on,” Gibney said in an interview. And,” he added, “how much the U.S.-Saudi dynamic is a toxic relationship governed by money.”
Gibney said the film was born of discussions he and Wright had about a congressional memorial for Khashoggi. They did not know about the Fogel film until they were well underway.
“Kingdom of Silence” is directed by Richard Rowley, who previously directed the U.S.-military expose “Dirty Wars,” nominated for an Oscar. Gibney is the decorated investigative documentarian (“Going Clear,” “Taxi to the Dark Side”) who has won the documentary Oscar. Wright, a New Yorker staff writer, won the Pulitzer for “The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.”
Footage of the movie has recently been shown to distributors, and Gibney said the movie was “almost done.” The aim, he said, was for a theatrical release this year followed soon after by a Showtime airing. He said the network has “stepped up and never regretted, never asked us to soft pedal or step back” its critique of Saudi Arabia.
Showtime is owned by ViacomCBS. The company has an international division that conducts business in the Middle East, but does not depend on international markets the way Silicon Valley giants Apple, Amazon and Netflix do. A Showtime spokesman declined to comment on behalf of the network.
Still, questions about the theatrical possibilities hover. U.S. consumers have tended to come out largely for feel-good documentaries such as “RBG” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” two movies that became big hits in 2018, but not necessarily darker stories of global tyranny.
Theater owners could be an equally large question especially as major chains seek their own entrance to the Saudi market. AMC opened its first theater there in 2018 and is seeking to build out 40 more in the next five years.
Experts say the cumulative effect of both “Kingdom of Silence” and “The Dissident” is to increase the profile of alleged Saudi abuses – maybe.
“What the movies show is that the Khashoggi story is alive, that filmmakers still have this desire to bear witness, that the murder can still raise considerable concern and outrage,” Hamid said. But “people need to be able to see them,” he added.