Earlier this year, CNN Films screened two documentary features at Sundance, RBG and Three Identical Strangers. The former, a documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and her fight for women’s rights as she made her way to the highest court in America. The latter about identical triplets separated at birth, reunited in a strange twist of fate as adults.
Courtney Sexton is VP for CNN Films discusses below how she and Amy Entelis – Executive VP of Talent and Content Development pick films and over see the strategy for CNN film. Sexton also talks about learning about the story of the three identical strangers and their story.
How did you first learn about the story of Three Identical Strangers?
Tim Wardle the director and the company RAW came to us in the early days. They had a sizzle that had an interview that they had done with the brothers. I think there was some visual material with a hint of what the film could be as far as style and tone.
I think they also had a pitch deck and pitched the story that they knew had happened. However, there was this unknown element of where was this story going to go. They were looking for a partner that would trust them and trust that no matter where the story was going, they were going to figure it out. They were going to do it in a way that really had some pay off. We were totally taken by the story that we know, but also the idea that there would be something discovered and unraveled. I think we saw promise in the material that they showed us. I will say were blown away by what Tim created along with Becky Read the producer. I think they hit a home run in terms of so delicately weaving a story and giving the audience enough to hint that there is something else, but never enough that you totally understood what was going on. It came early in the production and we were totally taken by it.
It was a news story before, but how much did you know about the brothers before Tim approached you?
I did not know about it. I had never heard of it, but I believe there were a few people on the New York side that were around when it happened and it felt like maybe familiar, but so many people didn’t fully remember it. For most of us, it was a new story.
People come away feeling emotionally rocked. Some people are affected because they’re a twin or they’ve been adopted. Besides the entry point of it being an interesting story, there are so many different ways it’s resonating because of all these things that are just such human experiences.
Between this and RBG, I’m sure you must get hundreds of stories pitched. How do you pick your stories?
We do get a lot. It starts with the story, it has to be a great story. Even if you have an iconic figure like Justice Ginsberg, it has to be more. What are the deeper threads of her life that will keep the narrative going and surprise people? I think the love story for us was a piece that we felt would really make a story. We felt that aspect would also be surprising to people besides her legal work. It’s really story first. The talent making these films were critical and making sure that the people at the helm of it can pull off at least what they think the story is going to be. With docs, it’s very much a surprise for many because you never know what rabbit holes you’re going to go down.
For CNN, because we’ve reached a broad cross-section of this country, it really has to feel commercially viable. Can we break through the noise of a typical day on CNN and get people to pay attention to a feature-length documentary. There are a lot of wonderful storytellers that are making films about things that we don’t think will work and unfortunately, we have to let them go. The ones we do feel have the commercial legs to draw in an audience is also a critical piece of the puzzle.
The two stories are so opposite. You have RBG who is an icon and you have Three Identical Strangers. How was the marketing strategy for you?
From the CNN perspective, we have only released RBG on the channel. Three Identical Strangers will air on January 27. For the theatrical distributors, RBG, they focused on the woman and icon who at a moment in time, we couldn’t have predicted with #MeToo and this want for heroes and people who we can look up to. I think she’s the central force and going back to the love story, I think using that note that she has been doing this and built her legacy, that was more on the nose, as it should be.
With Three Identical Strangers, Neon was very smart with how they positioned it. They knew RBG was coming out in early Summer, Then, Won’t You Be My Neighbor came out. They strategically put the film out after those two. Did any of us know that they’d be huge box office successes? No, but it was pretty intuitive on their part to know that this film didn’t have the assets of the other two with RBG herself and Mr. Rogers. So, they were like we had to use the back of those two to promote Three Identical Strangers. They never revealed too much, but they used the imagery of the brothers. There is not a better story that you will hear this year. It’s moving, it’s shocking, it’s incredible and when you couple those remarks with the experience that epople have had with the images of the boys, it’s irresistible. Then you have word of mouth which was a brilliant play to let the film come out, breath instead of pushing it out very quickly. I think that really built the film out.