Khashoggi doc, too explosive for streaming, debuts on-demand

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2020 Invision

FILE - Director Bryan Fogel, left, and Hatice Cengiz pose for a portrait to promote "The Dissident," a film about slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi, during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah on Jan. 24, 2020. (Photo by Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP, File)

NEW YORK – Even before “The Dissident” made its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, director Bryan Fogel had a sense that his explosive Jamal Khashoggi documentary was going to be a tough sell.

The film, available on-demand this week, was one of the most anticipated of last January's Sundance. Fogel’s previous film, “Icarus,” about Russian doping in the Olympics, won the Academy Award for best documentary. “The Dissident” features audio recordings of Khashoggi’s murder, the participation of Khashoggi’s fiancé, Hatice Cengiz, and details on Saudi hacking efforts, including the infiltration of the cellphone of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. The audience at Sundance included Hillary Clinton, Alec Baldwin and Reed Hastings, the Netflix chief executive.

At the screening, Fogel implored media companies not to be scared off. “In my dream of dreams, distributors will stand up to Saudi Arabia,” he said. Riding in an SUV to the film’s Sundance after-party, an upbeat Fogel said he was hopeful that Netflix, Amazon, HBO or others would step forward — anyone that could give the film a global platform for Khashoggi’s story, which plays as a lethal, real-life geopolitical thriller in “The Dissident.”

But the rough road ahead for “The Dissident” had already been signaled. None of the streamers — many of whom bought up Sundance’s top films — had asked for an advance look at “The Dissident” before the festival -- something that could be expected for such a high-profile documentary from a filmmaker coming off an Oscar win.

“Many of the major streamers were actually there that day. Not their heads of content. Their CEOs. I would have hoped that would have led to: ‘We’re going to get behind this film.’ But it didn’t,” said Fogel speaking by Zoom from Los Angeles last month. “We didn’t have an offer for $1 let alone $1 million — let alone the $12 million paid for ‘Boys State,’ which is a wonderful film, but it’s about 17-year-old boys playing mock politics in Texas.”

“The Dissident,” set in a ruthlessly real political realm, will finally debut on-demand Friday. It was eventually acquired last spring, in a deal announced in September, by Briarcliff Entertainment, the independent distributor founded by Tom Ortenberg, the veteran film executive who distributed “Spotlight” and “Snowden” as chief executive of Open Road Films. After a two-week run in about 200 theaters (scaled down from 800 due to the pandemic), “The Dissident” will be available for rent on places like iTunes, Amazon and Roku.

But the cool reception from larger media companies to “The Dissident” — not because it wasn’t good (it has a 97% fresh Rotten Tomatoes rating from critics and a 99% rating from audiences ) or important but because it openly challenges the Saudi regime’s crackdown on free speech — raises questions about the future of political films on ever-larger and potentially increasingly risk-averse streaming services.

Netflix et al have played a vital role in exponentially growing audiences for documentaries. But in hunting globally for subscriber growth, media companies have sometimes capitulated to demands that border on censorship. In 2019, Netflix removed an episode of Hasan Minhaj’s “Patriot Act” that condemned the cover-up of Khashoggi's murder after a Saudi complaint. Last month, The New York Times reported Apple chief executive Tim Cook squashed an Apple TV+ series in development about Gawker. Negative depictions of China, for both old-line Hollywood studios and streamers, is typically off the table.