“Everyone keeps implying that this doc bubble is going to burst… but I’m excited about where the documentary form is headed,” co-president of Imagine Docs says
Ask Sara Bernstein where she thinks documentaries are headed, and she’s optimistic that the genre will continue to grow in popular culture, but also that she and her team at Imagine Documentaries believe they will be the ones to help push the form to the next level.
“I want us to continue to push the limits of what can be a commercially viable and still a very important project,” Bernstein told TheWrap. “I’d love to do a documentary musical.”
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A music doc? No, a “documentary musical,” she says, and she even hopes Lin Manuel-Miranda might be listening. “It’s something I talk about all the time. We do so many music docs, I love music docs, but I don’t know, I want to be in an unexpected place where people sing about their lives,” she said. “The real world is ripe for that, comedy, tragedy, so why not set it to song? I don’t know, I haven’t found the right way to do it yet. Just in terms of my own ways of wanting to push the form.”
If someone can crack the code, it might be Bernstein. As the co-president of Imagine Documentaries, the nonfiction branch of Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment, the films she has produced have won 10 Emmys, two Oscars and 11 Peabodys. Today, she said the company has 27 different documentary films in active production or that will soon premiere, including the Sundance docs “Lucy and Desi” from Amy Poehler and Rory Kennedy’s “Downfall: The Case Against Boeing” (premiering on Netflix on Friday) or “We Feed People,” Ron Howard’s study of Spanish chef Jose Andres that’s premiering at SXSW.
Before joining Imagine, Bernstein worked as SVP at HBO Documentary Films and oversaw development of films like “Citizenfour,” “Going Clear,” “The Case Against 8” and “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck.” She now hopes to translate that formula to commercial success at Imagine in a day and age when the “Tiger Kings” and “The Last Dance” generate as much discussion and excitement as any narrative feature.
In speaking with TheWrap, Bernstein discussed how she hopes to continue to grow Imagine Documentaries, find an independent voice within the company’s DNA and even “make a little money or a lot of money doing it.”
“Everyone keeps implying that this doc bubble is going to burst, but I don’t believe that. Maybe the prices will level out, but I think it’s here to stay,” Bernstein said. “Content is content, audiences need a lot to consume, and streaming platforms need to be able to offer a wide range. I’m excited about where the documentary form is headed.”
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Tell me a bit about yourself and how your career at HBO led you to documentaries.
I was opened up to this whole world of theatrical-style documentary storytelling. I was certainly interested in journalism. I certainly knew the iconic documentaries over the years like “Salesman,” the great work from [D.A.] Pennebaker and the Maysles and Barbara Kopple and “Harlan County,” but I didn’t know you could actually make a living or a career on documentaries when I was out of school and working in the film business.
I saw what Sheila [Nevins] was doing and what she had created at HBO, and I was really riveted by the idea that real life could unfold more powerfully and provocatively and thrilling then a lot of the scripted work that I was seeing. I was engaged and really became quite passionate very much in verité work.
HBO was such a great home for so many years, and I was able to work with the best documentarians out there like Alex Gibney, Laura Poitras, Roger Ross Williams, a lot of people who I met very early on in their careers. So I never looked back.
It was around the same time Imagine was interested in and committed to expanding as an independent studio, and part of that mandate and mission was to become more aggressively engaged in some ways financing documentaries. There was this great opportunity to come on board and launch something new with Justin Wilkes, who is my partner in the division, for Ron and Brian, and I didn’t take the move lightly. I wanted to go somewhere that was really respected and had recognition and muscle behind it, but also really quality storytelling.
For us, there was this great exciting challenge about what could we do that would mirror what Imagine has done on the scripted side and really plant a flag in a commercially viable way with documentaries.
At the same time, this was back in 2018, the whole landscape of the streaming universe really changed. When I was at HBO for the most part of my career, there wasn’t anyone who was doing what we were doing at HBO, until maybe Netflix. You had PBS and you had what Molly Thompson was doing a bit at A&E, but there wasn’t anyone who was full-on financing, championing documentaries with real budgets. And over the past few years, we have seen such a proliferation in the marketplace and thought, “We can do this, can we do this, let’s try to do this.” Let’s also try to create really amazing programming, but let’s also try to make a little money or a lot of money doing it.
Beyond streaming on its own, what do you feel has led to the proliferation of documentaries in the industry and market?
The way Netflix has given parity to nonfiction, totally, against dramatic or comedic or scripted titles. When you scroll, we have “Crime Scene,” which has become fortunately for us a really big hit, but “Crime Scene” when you scroll bumps right up next to “The Crown” on your queue, or “Queen’s Gambit” or “Squid Game.” So there isn’t really a distinction between watching something that is a traditional documentary form compared to narrative, so I think audiences are really conditioned to love the form.
What has been some of the growth you’ve observed since 2018, and why have docs been a priority for Brian and Ron?
If you look at “8 Mile,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Apollo 13,” these are all based on real stories. Obviously, Brian is the most inquisitive person I know. There is a natural gravitation toward real life as inspiration, so there’s been a very strong commitment to the idea of what we can do at Imagine Documentaries from the start because it feeds our DNA.
To see our slate really grow has been amazing. Part of it has been the proliferation of the platform and the need for content, but a huge part of it is the collaboration and creative camaraderie-ship that we offer our creators, our directors, our producers, and I think, in a very short time, we’re able to start premiering the projects that we’ve been developing — “On Pointe,” “Brooklyn Saints,” “Crime Scene,” “Rebuilding Paradise” — you grow your reputation. What has been really exciting for us now is network partners are coming to us with ideas or projects that they have already that they need a creative production partner on. We’ve proved our hypothesis or thesis that we could actually grow into a viable, profitable, commercial doc studio.
Do you have requirements or mandates in terms of the types of documentaries you’re pursuing or developing?
Part of this evolution in growing our slate has been this more aggressive stance on financing projects. Our first was “Lucy and Desi,” which we brought to Amazon, and we also financed “Julia,” which is Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s film [about Julia Child]. That is an exciting direction that I think Imagine will become more aggressive in.
We are looking for eventized projects. Story comes first, but is it a story, a person, a subject or an issue that we really want to spend time in or with because we feel we can elevate it? Does it feel big? Is it a big story? And even if it’s not a big icon story, is there a way we can elevate the way the story is told or the access we can get to a project?
Ron now has done several docs, but it feels like he’s doing more now. How does he decide which documentary projects he takes on?
We bug him. And to be very clear about this too, it’s not that our whole slate is made up of Ron Howard-directed documentaries. Ron, as long as he wants to, will always have at least one Ron Howard-directed documentary project in development or production at the same time that he might have a couple of scripted projects. He’s excited, but I think it’s more us bringing him ideas.
How are you finding the talent that you want to work with?
We are really aggressive from a development standpoint. We are constantly thinking, What are those subjects, is there an article we read, is there a book, a podcast? And we’re constantly thinking about who are big iconic personalities, like Lucy and Desi, like Louis Armstrong, like Jose Andres — whether they are with us or not with us — who deserve to have their story told or deserve to have their story told in a different way than what’s been done before.
We are constantly asking our filmmakers too — our directors, our producers — what do you want to do, is there something you’ve been passionate about doing that you need resources for, whether it’s development, or financing, do you just need help getting to the subjects? What can we do to be really additive to something that you’re really passionate about? Relationships are really important to us.
In our annual count of eligible films at the Oscars, documentaries have come closer to gender parity for female directors compared to other fields. How are you hoping to increase opportunities for female storytellers in this field?
Documentaries traditionally have had more parity in terms of gender equality with directors. Over my 20-plus years doing this, I have worked with so many women directors. I think it’s because there was a better chance for them with documentaries than there was for scripted projects. I think women are really aggressive and tenacious because we’ve had to work harder. We just have had to work harder. Documentaries are a great form for that because you have to persist and go after your subjects and can’t let up, and most of the women filmmakers I’ve been lucky enough to work with are like that. They’re just really committed and passionate, but they know what it takes to get what they want.
It’s not even a commitment, it’s just what we gravitate towards. I gravitate towards all different subjects, but we certainly think about the parity among our projects and the directors that we’re working with. But it feels like the industry overall is paying more attention to that. When you have great filmmakers like Chloé Zhao directing a big Marvel film, it feels like, “Finally.” Not that that should be the bar, but in our industry, that is the bar, because traditionally those are the films that have had the biggest budgets, made the most money in box office, and those have traditionally been directed by men. So I feel like we’re getting there, but we can always do better.
What are your overall goals for Imagine in the next few years? Where do you see your branch and documentaries as a genre going from here?
Our slate will continue to evolve and to grow, and I’m most proud of these continuing relationships we have with filmmakers. And being able to finance more is definitely a priority for us. Expanding the repertoire of filmmakers we’re working with will be really important to us. Continuing to eventize the documentary form will be really important. Returnable documentary franchises would be great in a way that is unexpected, that’s not an anthology series that just keeps going. That’s something I want to think about and really crack.
But I’m excited where Imagine is headed too. The company overall has created such an incredible, creative hive of talent, executives and producers over the last few years that it’s exciting to think where we all can continue to take it.
Film Reporter • firstname.lastname@example.org • Twitter: @brianwelk