CNN Films Chief on Sundance Strategy, Honoring Anthony Bourdain and Finding the Next 'RBG'

Jai Lennard
“We love getting involved very, very early with filmmakers, and, by and large, that’s our strategy now,” says Amy Entelis, photographed Jan. 9 in her Time Warner Center office.

Amy Entelis also opens up about Jeff Zucker's involvement in the festival slate, competing with fellow WarnerMedia network HBO and striking the right tone for politically charged docs: "It's not our job to take a side."

Since joining CNN in 2012 after a long career at ABC News, Amy Entelis can lay claim to greenlighting two of the top four docs at the 2018 box office: RBG ($14 million) and Three Identical Strangers ($12.3 million). The films, produced and financed by CNN, made their debuts at Sundance and rode the current doc boom to land among the top-performing films overall from the festival, along with Won't You Be My Neighbor? (RBG had the added bonus of scoring two Oscar nominations for best doc and original song). This year, she is bringing two of her most ambitious films to date in Todd Douglas Miller's Apollo 11 (Neon is distributing), and Frederic Tcheng's Halston, an homage to the late fashion icon that will be hotly pursued by theatrical buyers. CNN typically airs its docs after their theatrical release (Three Identical Strangers, which hit theaters June 29, debuts Jan. 27 on the small screen).

Under the leadership of the Long Island native, the network also launched CNN Original Series, spawning such hits as Emmy winner Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. On the original doc front, CNN's programming ranges from its broad appeal "Decades Series" (executive produced by Tom Hanks) to the edgier United Shades of America With W. Kamau Bell.

The married mother of two adult children — who oversees a staff of 23 between films and original series — sat down with THR in her New York office in the bustling CNN newsroom to talk about where you'll find Jeff Zucker's fingerprints on the Sundance slate, competing with fellow WarnerMedia network HBO and the challenges of honoring Bourdain's life with an upcoming documentary.

Do you expect to be buying at Sundance?

We're at Sundance for a few different reasons. One is to exhibit our own films — we're lucky enough this year to have two films. We're always looking at things that are possible acquisitions. At our very first Sundance, we acquired Blackfish, and that set the table for a couple of years. But our strategy has changed a little bit over the years. We're not as often buying films already made as we are commissioning films.

What's the mindset behind getting in earlier?

We can't sit and wait for a film to get to Sundance to buy it because many of them are already sold. So if we want to fill our slate with the number of films that Jeff Zucker gives us to put on every year, we have to get them started and not rely on a festival.

Are you interested in or averse to subjects dominating the news?

Our cycle is longer. When we choose films, we [ask] "When are they going to land on CNN, and will that story still feel fresh?" So we tend to not do things that are too terribly close to the news, where the story hasn't actually finished playing out.

What makes a film right for CNN? The appeal of some films is obvious, like RBG. Others less so.

We've done 40-plus films now in six years. If you look at the themes that run through them, they are about big cultural moments or big events where we can sort of go back in time and look at them with perspective, or they are about people who have had a great impact on the way we live and think and our politics and so on. Then you have a film like Three Identical Strangers, which might not fit, but that film is so universal on so many levels.

As the viewing public seems much more polarized in the Trump era, do you steer clear of anything that would be construed as endorsing a particular political side?

Political films are not off-limits. It's all about how you do them and what's the take? A big political documentary would work very well the way RBG did, which is to take somebody who's very much involved in the political world but to sort of look beyond the current day and look at somebody's background, their experiences, what they bring to their role and what their impact has been. We do not steer away from those films, but it's not our job to take a side.

Given how competitive the doc market has become with aggressive players like Netflix, are quality acquisitions harder to come by?

Yeah, and we don't have the same budgets as some of the big platforms. We recognized that years ago, having lost a couple of films to some of the big players, and immediately pivoted to a commissioning model.

Do the films you show on CNN also go out on CNN International?

They do not. Part of our business model is that we sell international rights. It's part of the way we finance our investment in the film, so that if CNN is underwriting a full budget or a big part of a budget, the way we get the money back is by selling the rights at the end. So we put everything on the table, and if we air [a film] on CNN International, we wouldn't necessarily recover enough of our investment.

Does Jeff Zucker get involved when you're pursuing a doc? I'm told that he badly wanted Weiner, which ultimately sold to Showtime/IFC.

I wouldn't say it was Jeff. We bid on Weiner and didn't get it. That's the way the business works. But Jeff is very involved and knows everything we're going after. Apollo 11 came from a question Jeff asked us in a brainstorming meeting two years ago. He said, "We're approaching the 50th anniversary of the first man landing on the moon. What are you thinking?" Jeff has encouraged us to look for the cultural moments.

Will CNN docs likely end up on the proposed WarnerMedia streaming service?

That's a really great question but remains to be seen. We'd be happy to have our films on that platform. It's just very, very early days.

What was the mind-set behind doing the Anthony Bourdain doc?

He was an extraordinary individual who seemed to connect the world in a way that was so unique. That all became clear when he passed away, even beyond what we knew while he was alive and doing the show with us. We're extraordinarily curious about how he had that impact on the world. To the degree that that can be explored and talked about, I think we're going to try to do that.

CNN took some heat for airing The Hunting Ground, about sexual assault on campus, because there were questions about the veracity of some of the claims made. What did you learn from that experience?

I learned it's challenging to jump into unfolding stories, but it's also very important for these stories to be told. We are proud we shared this story. Because we only make five films a year, we have to choose carefully on many fronts, and so I think we tend to stay away from things that are still evolving and unfolding because it's a little risky for us, given that we only have five and we want to get them on the air. We just want to pick stories that we think we have a handle on and have finished. We know what the ending of the story is.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.