Jeff Zucker, CNN Films Execs Talk News-Docs Interplay, Tease Future Features

Jeff Zucker

“I’d like to run a professional football team … the USTA, be the sports editor of The New York Times. Would I consider a run for political office? Yes.”
— The CNN president (and tennis fanatic), on his future plans after telling New York magazine that this is likely the last job he’ll have in television.

But there are no plans to make scripted movies

Even though it was just founded two years ago, CNN Films is already one of the three pillars of the network's strategy, CNN president Jeff Zucker said Thursday at an intimate lunch with CNN Films execs and filmmakers.

Zucker identified the other two pillars as breaking news, a key cornerstone ("I don't want to underplay or diminish that in any way; CNN is and always will be the home of what's happening anywhere in the world today"), and original series like Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown and This is Life With Lisa Ling.

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Zucker was joined by Amy Entelis, CNN's svp, talent and content development, and Vinnie Malhotra, CNN's svp, development and acquisitions, at A Voce Columbus in Manhattan's Time Warner Center. The midday meal, which was also attended by the directors and producers of many of CNN's documentaries as well as members of the media and other industry figures, was bookended by a presentation about what CNN Films has done and is working on and a Q&A.

After it was established in Oct. 2012, CNN Films aired seven documentaries in 2013, including Blackfish, which the execs came back to many times during the meal, noting it was seen by 27 million people across its 28 airings on CNN. This year, they premiered three films at Sundance and acquired a fourth, Dinosaur 13. The three Sundance premieres — Roger Ebert doc Life Itself, Whitey Bulger doc Whitey and Ivory Tower, about the cost of college education — have since been released in theaters, with Whitey airing on CNN in September and Ivory Tower set to premiere on CNN on Nov. 20. Dinosaur 13, which also premiered at Sundance and was released in theaters this summer, will air on CNN in December. Life Itself and Whitey as well as Documented, a film about illegal immigrant and Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Jose Vargas, have all received Oscar buzz.

The fact that CNN is a network also gives the company the opportunity to further explore the issues in its films through its news programs, via stories, conversations and debates.

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Zucker insisted that doing this film-inspired content isn't CNN shilling for its movies, explaining that the subjects of the documentaries are "exactly what we should be talking about on CNN."

For instance, in the case of Ivory Tower, Zucker said, "The cost of college education, is it worth it, is one of the most important topics in education today. That's a topic that we would be doing, should be doing, regardless of whether we have Ivory Tower. The fact that we have Ivory Tower only adds to and enhances that." Entelis noted that CNN's business correspondent is doing a multi-part series about the solutions to college debt that touches on some of the same issues the film explores without being repetitive.

"It really broadens the whole subject and treats it in a way that in the course of the normal coverage on our programs we wouldn't really have the opportunity to do," she said. "The film is actually the centerpiece of it…We can create conversations that go in all different directions that actually add value to the subject."

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Still, Zucker didn't apologize for promoting the film in CNN's news programs.

"We are also a commercial enterprise. Just like all the filmmakers here want people to see their films, that's why we make them," he said. "We want people to watch these films as well, so we promote the films through that news program. I don't think that lessens the impact in any way. Frankly, it enhances it. It's one of the things that I think makes it really worthwhile for filmmakers to have their films here on CNN."

And the process goes the other way, with documentary filmmakers able to delve deep into the issues and larger story behind a news item that quickly works its way through the 24-hour news cycle, which Malhotra said was the case with Blackfish, as the story of the death of a Sea World trainer was gone from breaking news coverage after two days, but Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite was able to spend two years "unraveling a 30-year story of animal abuse and corporate malfeasance," Malhotra said.

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But that doesn't mean that CNN quickly creates documentaries about hot-button issues. For instance, its latest title, Pandemic, which was announced earlier in the day on Thursday, about the risks and progress in the battle against Ebola and other infectious diseases was already in the works for a year, Zucker insisted.

"It's not just something that because 'fear-bola' is out there all of a sudden, we wanted to crash a film on that," he said.

Pandemic director Janet Tobias was at the lunch, with Malhotra explaining that she already has a team shooting in West Africa and will soon go over there.

"We are both excited and cautious about her trip," he said.

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Malhotra also teased two other upcoming titles: Fresh Dressed, directed by former Vibe writer-editor Sacha Jenkins, which traces the evolution of hip hop and style, and the untitled college sex crimes doc from the team behind Oscar-nominated doc The Invisible War, about rape in the military, which CNN announced at the end of October that it had partnered with Radius on. Both titles are set to premiere at a film festival early next year followed by a theatrical release and CNN premiere later in 2015.

But CNN Films has no plans to expand from documentaries into narrative or scripted feature films, Zucker insisted, despite reports that might have indicated otherwise.

After explaining that his response at an L.A. event, in which he said there were no plans to make scripted films but "I wouldn't rule anything out," led to an array of articles claiming CNN was open to making fictional movies, Zucker clarified that there were not then nor are there now any plans to make scripted films.

He ended his remarks at the lunch with a final defense of CNN.

"Sometimes CNN gets caught in the crosshairs because CNN is CNN. When you're a huge, shiny object, people like to throw darts," he said. "Frankly, I don't give a shit. None of the people that do that stop to think about the incredible quality that is assembled by the people in this room. Take all the shots you want, but I think the quality of films on CNN Films is unassailable."