Have you watched this Netflix documentary about Robert Downey Jr.’s father? Sr. is fun and emotional for sure, but it’s a fairly traditional tribute/vanity doc, with Jr. and wife Susan Downey producing, and directed by Tiger King executive producer Chris Smith. It premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in September and was acquired by Netflix as a long-shot Oscar play in a year in which the streamer’s awards cupboard is unusually bare. (It has Margaret Brown’s slave ship saga Descendant in the doc race and Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio in animated feature, but its two big all-category awards films, Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Bardo and Noah Baumbach’s White Noise, both flamed out at the festivals.) Maybe the Netflix campaign machine and Downey Jr.’s willingness to promote Sr. will overcome the traditional snootiness of the Academy’s 600-person documentary branch, though I doubt it.
But that’s not why I’m mentioning Sr.. What’s interesting is that at Telluride, Netflix chose to buy that movie instead of Icarus: The Aftermath, the enthusiastically-reviewed follow up to the Russia sports doping documentary Icarus, one of the most important movies in the history of Netflix. Remember, back in 2018, when Icarus won the best documentary Oscar for director Bryan Fogel, it was Netflix’s first win for a feature of any kind. The upstart streamer had spent millions of dollars campaigning for top awards, hoping to translate the Oscar and Emmy halo into brand equity and greater acceptance by the creative community. With Icarus, it finally broke through in a major category.
How big a deal was that internally? Everyone in Hollywood is obsessed with awards (especially those who insist they aren’t), but Netflix co-C.E.O. Ted Sarandos is really obsessed with awards. He doled out millions to buy aggressive lobbyist Lisa Taback’s company, and he often shocks his rivals with the money he spends—buying the billboard company, launching the vanity print magazine, and taking over the movie theaters in voter-heavy neighborhoods like the Palisades, not to mention stunts like those ridiculous waste-of-space Glass Onion mailers that just went out. All to position Netflix to Hollywood as a prestige outlet, even as lowbrow minute-burners like Purple Hearts and Love Is Blind increasingly define the brand.
Plus, co-C.E.O. Reed Hastings is a devoted documentary fan; I’ve seen him in line for morning doc screenings at Sundance with the regular folks, no handlers or special seating. He must have loved winning for Icarus, a truly Important film that, in 2018, made a big statement about Netflix’s prestige push, particularly its status as a fearless global platform for edgy non-fiction content, regardless of who it might piss off.
After all, this was a movie that Vladimir Putin and his allies hated, and that helped lead to Russia’s ban from the Olympics. Netflix bought the film at Sundance in 2017 for a then-hefty $5 million, according to sources, a day after it was reported that the F.B.I. was investigating whether a cyberattack that crippled the festival that year was related to the fact that Icarus premiered the day before. And that bet paid off, not just in awards and branding but in audience. Sources say the viewership was among the healthiest for non-true-crime documentaries on the service. A big win all-around.
So… why did Netflix pass on the sequel? After all, Netflix is all about serving members more of what they have already watched, and we’re in a heyday of sorts for documentary series sequels like the follow-ups to HBO Max’s The Way Down and The Vow, and Netflix’s Tiger King. But several sources close to the film and familiar with Netflix’s thinking say that as its content strategy has matured and the financial environment has become more challenged, its appetite for this kind of radioactive non-fiction project has decreased significantly, especially when it involves sensitive growth markets (although Netflix has suspended its service in Russia due to the war in Ukraine). In short, it’s just not worth it, like it might have been five years ago when Netflix was still trying to establish its content bona fides.
That’s Netflix’s right, of course, and it’s a concern that is not unique to Netflix. Doc filmmakers complain about it all the time. I can’t imagine risk-phobic Apple even entertaining the idea of Icarus: The Aftermath for AppleTV+, and the number of buyers willing to take a big political risk is dwindling. As Hastings has said when questioned about censoring content in regions like Saudi Arabia, Netflix is a for-profit entertainment company, not a “truth to power business.” No shame there; he’s saying out loud what most high-minded executives won’t.
Still, given the dominance that the global streamers have over the documentary market these days, and the collapsing business model for docs in theaters and on linear television (R.I.P. CNN Films), it’s disheartening to see Netflix back away from a movie that really should be seen by a lot of people. It’s not censorship, of course, but as a frequent viewer of these kinds of films, I think there’s a market that’s being neglected. We’re headed toward a world of Tiger Kings and Vows and the grisly crime or cult doc of the week—and, of course, the celebrity tributes like Sr. It’s a bummer.
Yes, it’s true that Icarus was a lightning-in-a-bottle movie, with Fogel happening upon whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov, which led to the explosive nature of the allegations in the film. The sequel, which focuses on the fallout for Rodchenkov, and his fraught attempt to move on with his life, is compelling, say the reviews (I haven’t seen it yet), but perhaps not as compelling. Also, the zeitgeist Russia story right now is Ukraine, not necessarily sports doping. Awards attention is so important for these prestige docs, and maybe Netflix thinks the Academy’s doc branch won’t reward a follow-up to something that already won (sequels almost never score with voters, and last year, the doc branch snubbed The Rescue, the riveting Thai cave rescue doc from Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, who won in 2019 for Free Solo).
Plus, Fogel himself is no picnic, say those who have worked with him, and he publicly lashed out at Netflix and other streamers when they all passed on The Dissident, his searing 2020 probe of the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi that drew a direct connection to the Saudi government. That film ended up too hot for any streamer, most of which have financial or other market ties to the Saudis, and it was eventually released only on-demand by Tom Ortenberg’s small distributor Briarcliff Entertainment. “These global media conglomerates are aiding and abetting and silencing films that take on subject matter like this despite the fact their audiences want content like this,” Fogel said at the time about The Dissident.
Fogel has remained silent on the fate of his Icarus follow-up, but according to sources, its sales agency UTA has had a hard time finding a non-Netflix home because of the sensitivities, and the fact that the first film is so closely identified with Netflix, which is understandably refusing to license the original film to pair with the sequel on a rival platform. Again, that’s Netflix’s right, it’s just a bummer. For its financiers, including the young fund manager Jordan Fudge and the Human Rights Foundation, it’s a bigger bummer.
It’s hard enough to get a great, button-pushing documentary made and screened today. A hot topic in the doc world is whether films outside the approved group-think and progressive politics of the entertainment community can even happen any more. Remember, Sundance just disavowed a challenging and well-reviewed film, Jihad Rehab, that it had enthusiastically screened and supported at January’s festival, amid criticism from Arab and Muslim filmmakers that a white director had tackled this story. Situations like that definitely chill future docs.
Hopefully Icarus: The Aftermath will find a home. I heard Netflix might be open to some kind of licensing deal once it finds a distributor elsewhere (it declined to comment), but these days I wouldn’t hold my breath.