Harry and Meghan’s exit from the British royal family could not have come at a better time for CNN. However, it’s not just the constant news coverage that is a boon for the WarnerMedia brand but the fact that its six-part docuseries, The Windsors: Inside The Royal Dynasty, launches on February 16.
Amy Entelis, EVP, Talent and Content Development, CNN, opened up to Deadline in an extensive interview about the story behind the royal series, the company’s latest programming slate as well as opportunities to “expand its universe” through upcoming streaming service HBO Max.
The Windsors: Inside The Royal Dynasty, produced by Three Identical Strangers and Gold Rush producer Raw Television, is narrated by A Private War star Rosamund Pike. It tells the dramatic and emotional story of the British royal family from the calamity of Wallis Simpson to the tragedy of Diana and Harry and Meghan’s recent wedding and “exit” from the family. The six-part series uses rarely seen footage as well as interviews with insiders.
“People have come to me in the last several weeks and said ‘Wow, you threw that together quickly’. It wasn’t really quickly, it was about 18 months to two years ago that we wanted to do it. Now we look like we knew something was going to happen. Sometimes you get really lucky,” Entelis told Deadline. “But our thinking about The Windsors was really that we were on this path telling stories about great dynasties, we did the Kennedys, then we turned to the Bushes and then we said we didn’t have to think just about the U.S. we could do dynasties around the world and obviously the Windsors is a key one.”
The recent Megxit development did, however, force CNN to redo much of the sixth episode, as the show was always planned to air in February. “It’s the non-fiction version of The Crown. That show provided a great runway for us as well. We are giving them the true story. There’s a lot of footage that we keep seeing over and over again but the beauty of this series is that the producers really took their time to find archive that is amazing and hasn’t been seen as much,” she added.
The Windsors will launch off the back of the second season of The Race For The White House. The series, which is narrated by Mahershala Ali, will cover elections including 1912 Wilson vs. Roosevelt vs. Taft, 1952 Eisenhower vs. Stevenson, 1964 Johnson vs. Goldwater, 1976 Carter vs. Ford, 1980 Reagan vs. Carter and 2008 Obama vs. McCain. Entelis said that while the first season was largely focused on campaigns that featured dirty tricks, the second season will be broader.
The Windsors and The Race For The White House are two of the eight original series airing on CNN’s linear network in 2020. Other new titles include Searching for Italy with Stanley Tucci, as revealed by Deadline last week, Cream Productions’ The Story of Late Night, First Ladies, a six-part docuseries produced by October Films that covers the lives of Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, Nancy Reagan, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Michelle Obama, and Ravi Patel’s Pursuit of Happiness.
The latter, revealed by Deadline today, is produced by Lloyd Braun’s Whalerock Industries, producer of Netflix’s Hyperdrive, and is a four-part docuseries that follows actor, documentarian, and philanthropist Ravi Patel (right) as he travels the globe with a friend or family member, assuming the traditional customs of those he encounters and experiencing firsthand how different cultures have implemented drastically different approaches to some of life’s most poignant questions. Topics include overparenting in Japan, workaholism in South Korea, growing old in Mexico, immigrants and the border in Denmark.
Returning series include United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell, which has run for four seasons and This is Life with Lisa Ling, which recently aired its sixth season. Entelis expects both series to continue to run for a while. “There’s an unending supply of fascinating stories. They each want to evolve their series so they have some creative latitude and the audience is accepting of that,” she said.
Entelis, who previously worked at ABC News, joined CNN in 2012 and over the past eight years has helped transform CNN from a news network into a news network with a slew of original content and feature docs. CNN Original Series and CNN Films have been responsible for more than 40 original series, including the multiple Emmy-winning Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown, and feature docs including RBG, Three Identical Strangers and Apollo 11.
CNN started out with an acquisition strategy that brought films such as Blackfish, the tragic story of a SeaWorld trainer killed by a 12,000-pound orca in 2010, but Entelis said that she knew it needed to move to a commissioning model to keep on top. “Pretty quickly we realized we were going to be outbid by the big guys, who were already well established so we started commissioning. We would not have survived if we had to wait for film festivals to bid on something against people with far deeper pockets,” she said.
One of the network’s advantages is the ability to promote original series and docs via its 24/7 news coverage, which she said is a “very powerful tool in a very crowded marketplace”. However, she admits that there has been a shift in news since Donald Trump became President in 2016. “Eight years ago, when we started CNN Films and CNN Original Series, the news was not as all-consuming or as intensive as it is now and the series and films were designed to be something that would attract people in between the great news stories. We essentially wanted to create premium content that would attract an audience to CNN outside of breaking news. Fast forward, we’re in a different news environment so it is a challenge to figure out what is the content that people enjoy on CNN given it’s always intense. That does filter in to our decisions in terms of what we’re going to make,” she added.
The production community, which includes A-list directors such as Todd Douglas Miller, Betsy West and Julie Cohen, Frédéric Tcheng and Dawn Porter, has responded by bringing it top-tier ideas. One producer told Deadline that Entelis has “excellent taste” and “gets behind films. “She gives producers creative freedom, and when she offers notes or direction they help. That’s not always the case with other buyers,” the source added.
CNN Films has had a number of breakout hits particularly RBG, the story of the life and legal legacy of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (left), the second woman to ever serve on the Supreme Court. It is now working with RBG directors West and Cohen, and Imagine Documentaries and Storyville Films, on a feature doc about Julia Child, as well as upcoming docs on Anthony Bourdain with Morgan Neville, Jackie Collins with AGC Studios and the BBC, and Congressman John Robert Lewis. “The through line is that these are iconic people in American culture,” said Entelis. “We learned from RBG that as familiar as you can be with someone, it’s amazing what you can learn with a deeper dive. We took that approach with other people that you think you know, but really aren’t as familiar as you think.”
Elsewhere, there will also be more series, docs and specials on U.S. Presidents and other historical following the launch of Richard Nixon archival series Tricky Dick. “You’d be surprised to see what we have in the pipeline, we have some extraordinary projects that are focused on very well-known people but taking a look at their lives in a different way,” she said.
There’s also potentially more comedy specials following the debut of Colin Quinn’s Red State, Blue State. The latter aired on Memorial Day after its Off Broadway run, something that spurred Jeff Zucker, Chairman, WarnerMedia News and Sports & President, CNN Worldwide, on to the idea. “We figured out how to put it together for television. It was very much an experiment and we were really happy with how it turned out. It’s not necessarily something we’re going to do a lot of but it did give us confidence to do it. If it’s there in front of us, I think we would do more,” Entelis added.
Entelis also looks after HLN’s original series and, last year, the CNN sister network found success with Golden State Killer documentary series Unmasking A Killer. This year, it is bringing back long-running crime franchise Forensic Files and plotting more hours. “We’ve had a very successful run of true crime, it’s a trend that is doing very well, we’re keeping up nicely. We intend to do more hours of crime programming in the near future,” she said.
In October, CNN revealed two more unscripted series and two documentary films. However, instead of airing them on its linear network, these documentaries are part of its debut slate produced exclusively for upcoming streaming service HBO Max. They are a mix of series and feature docs. Heaven’s Gate is a four-part series, produced by Ross Dinerstein’s Campfire, that explores the infamous religious movement and the stranger-than-fiction circumstances that culminated in the biggest mass suicide to ever take place on U.S. soil; Generation Hustle (w/t) is a 10-part series from Alex Gibney’s Jigsaw Productions, that looks at the lengths young people will go to for fame, fortune, and power; The Scoop is a documentary feature that follows the lives of CNN’s female political reporters as they cover the most unpredictable presidential campaign in American history and Persona (w/t) is a documentary feature that explores the origin story of America’s obsession with personality testing.
Entelis said that the series came about following a conversation with HBO Max content chief Sarah Aubrey. “We knew that some of the projects that we had in the development pipeline were not necessarily going to make it on to CNN, not because they were not wonderful but because either they were similar to another project or something changed in the environment in terms of timing. It gave us a place to keep going with those projects that would be very valuable to HBO Max,” she said.
It’s not clear whether there will be a particular branded block of CNN series on HBO Max, but Entelis said that she believes that subscribers will know that they are CNN projects.
“[HBO Max] allows us to expand our universe in a great way, it’s nice to collaborate with our corporate partners and there’s so much great material that we can’t necessarily get on to CNN,” Entelis said. “It’s a whole new chapter.”
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