U.S. EXCLUSIVE: Netflix has teamed with John Wells Productions to mount a feature film about the Panama Papers, the largest single leak of data in government and corporate history. They have aligned with German investigative journalists Frederik Obermaier and Bastian Obermayer, who broke the story and led the team that uncovered The Panama Papers. Netflix has acquired their book, Panama Papers: Breaking The Story Of How The World’s Rich and Powerful Hide Their Money.
The film will tell how, using an anonymous source known as John Doe, they teamed with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists to release 11 million documents sourced from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. The revelation of the documents bared the financial machinations of rulers and royalty, compete with illegal activities connected to a swarm of banks and private individuals including director Pedro Almodovar, Jackie Chan and Emma Watson. Iceland’s Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson resigned immediately after leaked documents showed how Gunnlaugsson and his wife set up an offshore shell company in 2007 in the British Virgin Islands; he then sold his half of the company to his wife for $1 on the last day of 2009 to shield them from a new law that would have required him to declare his ownership as a conflict of interest.
Wells and Claire Rudnick Polstein will produce the film, and Zach Studein will be exec producer. The journalists will work closely in shaping the movie, and ICIJ deputy director Marina Walker and ICIJ’s D.C. head Gerard Ryle will also be part of the mix.
This is the second major movie deal to come together on the Panama Papers. Steven Soderbergh will direct and Scott Z. Burns will write a film based on Secrecy World, an upcoming book that Pulitzer-winning journalist Jake Bernstein is writing for Henry Holt and Company, with Lawrence Grey, Michael Sugar, Burns and Soderbergh producing.
There were several Wikileaks movies developed and only one, The Fifth Estate, got made, and usually the race ends when one makes it into production. But the importance of hacked documents continues to inform the zeitgeist. The Democratic National Committee started this week’s convention to nominate presidential candidate Hillary Clinton under a cloud created by the Wikileaks release of 20,000 confidential emails from the DNC, missives that showed a clear favoritism towards Clinton over rival Bernie Sanders.
Also in the plus column is that since the Panama Papers documents prompted a global debate on just how easy it has become for the wealthy to avoid taxes, game the system and evade the law, this is a case where the journalists are the good guys, which has worked in films from the Best Picture winner Spotlight to All The President’s Men.
This is the latest big swing by Netflix on topical films, showing the streaming giant’s appetite for hot-button subject matter. with the streaming giant securing big deals for the likes of the satirical War Machine with Brad Pitt as Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal and Ava DuVernay’s prison-system documentary The 13th which was just tapped to open the New York Film Festival.
“We are confident that between the expert investigative work of Obermaier and Obermayer, the only journalists in touch directly with John Doe, the ICIJ, and the master storytelling of John Wells Productions, we will be able to deliver a gripping tale that will deliver the same type of impact as the The Panama Papers when they were first revealed on the world’s front pages,” said Ted Sarandos, chief content officer at Netflix.
Said Rudnick Polstein, JWP’s president of features: “We could not be more excited to be working with Netflix on this project. They have an excellent track record of producing top-notch filmmaking and together, we are very much looking forward to getting started on shedding light on one of the most compelling news stories in recent memory.”
Obermaier and Obermeyer recalled that the scandal “all started with a ‘ping’, when John Doe contacted us. That relationship and the work that came out of it grew to become the biggest data leak in history, and by far the biggest collaboration of journalists the world has ever seen; with over 400 journalists ultimately participating in this investigation. We are proud that our newspaper was the starting point for this story which grew to be something monumental.”
ICIJ’s Walker and Ryle said: “Panama Papers is one of the biggest economic and political stories in contemporary journalism, with an impact that resonated around the globe at a time of financial anxiety. We are thrilled to align ourselves with two leading names in contemporary filmmaking, John Wells Productions and Netflix, to tell the story of how it was put together against immense odds. Four hundred reporters, some working at great personal risk in dangerous places, were led by a scrappy team of investigative reporters in a small Washington media nonprofit. They made world powers — including political leaders and regulators — take notice and force change. That this story will be told in another compelling way is exciting and meaningful.”