MSNBC creates banner for documentaries

Network will develop, produce feature-length films

MSNBC is creating MSNBC Films, a banner that will serve as a financing instrument for feature-length documentaries and turn the cable channel into more of a player in the feature world.

While each deal will be structured differently, the news network could contribute to everything from development and production for new films to marketing and P&A for a movie's theatrical release. In exchange, it will typically receive television-airing rights, branding benefits and credit on the pics.

The movies will generally fall into subject areas that MSNBC already covers but may also push the definitions. "We're constantly expanding what we're interested in reporting on," said Michael Rubin, the network's vp longform programming.

MSNBC now commissions docu-style programming like its "Lockup" series and also has bought TV rights to a select number of theatrical docus, such as Morgan Spurlock's "Super Size Me." But this move will increase the number of feature-length docs on the net from about three per year to as many as six.

The first movie under the deal will be "Dear Zachary," Kurt Kuenne's harrowing look at a man who was killed by his pregnant girlfriend. The movie, which debuted at Slamdance this past winter, was a breakout with audiences at the recent Silverdocs festival. Its crime theme fits with MSNBC's longform interests.

Negotiations for "Zachary" are under way with a theatrical distributor, but MSNBC will contribute to the pic's theatrical marketing campaign. MSNBC's Rubin, Scott Hooker and Elise Warner will join Kuenne as producers on the pic.

"There's so much negativity now toward documentaries," said Submarine Entertainment's Josh Braun, who helped structure the deal for "Zachary" as well as for MSNBC Films. "But there is a market for them; people just have to work harder to make sure they get out there in the right way."

Braun also said that he believed that creating involvement in the film from more parties, including sales agents, could lead to stronger releases. "We're continuing to work on the film. We're not just selling it and moving on," he said of Submarine's involvement on "Zachary."

At a moment when theatrical platforms for docs seem to be shrinking, the announcement marks more commingling between the worlds of cable TV and documentaries, as A&E, Discovery and HBO all produce and air feature-length docus.

It also reflects a continued blurring between longform news programming and docus.

"We're getting better at finding these films," Rubin said. "And the filmmakers are better at finding us."
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