Acclaimed Documentary Filmmakers Face Distribution Issues For Hot-Button Subjects

Will two high-profile documentaries find an audience?

Scene from "The Dissident"
A scene from the documentary "The Dissident."
Briarcliff Entertainment

Among the side effects of the growth of new streaming services in recent years has been an uptick in the audience for documentary films. Movies like Icarus and American Factory used homes on streaming services to find both a large audience and critical acclaim — and, in theory, creating even more of an audience for more incisive documentaries about complex issues facing the world today.

You’d think so, anyway.

A new article by Anne Thompson at IndieWire explores the issues facing documentary filmmakers whose work turns out to be a little too resonant for some. The current project by Emmy-nominated filmmaker Ryan White (The Keeper) is Assassins, about the killing of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother. The latest from Oscar winner Bryan Fogel (Icarus) is The Dissident, about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Two films, each about an event that sparked global headlines and helmed by an acclaimed director — surely this would draw the attention of companies like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. Again, one might think so — but that’s not the case.

The IndieWire piece outlines the reasons why larger distributors have balked at releasing these films. In the case of The Dissident, Fogel expressed concern that some companies may be reluctant to offend the government of Saudi Arabia. As for Assassins, White stated his belief that studios are wary of their relationship with North Korea following the Sony hack in 2014.

Both films do have distributors lined up — Assassins has a release date of December 11, while The Dissident will follow a week later. Still, the history that’s gotten them to this point stands as a worrying sign of the way global politics and film distribution can be interwoven in unexpected ways.

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