Yet nearly seven weeks after its Sundance premiere, no buyer has stepped up to acquire the movie — an unusually long period of time in a market where many well-regarded documentaries find deals at the festival or just days after, as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez movie “Knock Down The House” did with Netflix last year or the coming-of-age Texas political documentary “Boys State” did with Apple/A24 for this year.
That reluctance, particularly from global streamers Netflix and Amazon, has raised fears among experts that media companies are acceding to an authoritarian regime, in the process confirming the film’s very critique of Western complicity. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Post.)
“Without being inside the companies, it’s hard to know what the factors really are for someone not to distribute the movie,” said Yasmine Farouk, a fellow specializing in the Middle East at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a nonpartisan think tank. “But it wouldn’t at all surprise me if economic and financial interests are the main motivations here. Money has been what’s sustained the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia for 75 years.”
Documentary films have taken on an outsize journalistic role as news outlets have faced cutbacks, diving into stories and making them popular via major technology platforms. But the distribution hurdles faced by “The Dissident” highlight the dangers inherent to such a partnership — the potential for conflict between muckraking filmmakers and the massive and risk-averse corporations supporting them.
A decorated team of filmmakers has quietly been putting together their own documentary about Khashoggi. “Kingdom of Silence” is produced by a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Lawrence Wright, and an Oscar-winning documentarian, Alex Gibney. Their film also centers on the October 2018 death of Khashoggi, casting it against the historical backdrop of U.S-Saudi relations.
Filmmakers for that project have secured the buy-in of Showtime; the ViacomCBS division financed and will air the film. But they are still seeking a theatrical distributor to give the story an elevated platform in the United States — a release freighted with uncertainty.
At a moment when many activists worry that Saudi Arabia’s alleged abuses under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are in danger of fading from public consciousness, U.S.-based Saudi experts say the competition to reignite interest is heartening.
But they also note that the uphill climb these films face in capturing distributor and audience interest underscores the very risks they warn of.
“I don’t know what the right word is — censorship or repression or something else,” said Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who focuses on U.S. relations with the Islamic world. “But the basic point holds — a powerful regime that doesn’t have the same scruples as others is creating a culture of fear, and companies react with kowtowing.”
“The Dissident” has been an especially thorny case. Fogel told The Post in January that he very much wanted a streaming deal, as opposed to theatrical distribution, which would require piecing together individual agreements in the United States and abroad.
That prompted the film’s sales agent, UTA Independent Film Group, to focus Sundance sales efforts on landing one. Fogel’s previous film, the Russian whistleblowing tale “Icarus,” was distributed by Netflix. It won the documentary Oscar and had a significant effect on athletic doping policies as a result of its wide distribution.
Reviews suggested a similar deal was more than plausible for “The Dissident.” The film takes aim not just at a crime allegedly ordered by the highest levels of the Saudi government but also at the way Western companies, after only a brief post-Khashoggi pause, continue to do business with the kingdom, enabling its repressive ways.
Variety called the film “a documentary thriller of staggering relevance … [with] urgent colliding themes of free speech, power, greed, technology, violence, and the increasingly global nature of government tyranny.”
Netflix, Amazon and Apple would each be likely distributors, given their frequent pursuit of timely and buzzy documentaries.
Each of those firms, experts note, though, would also have disincentive to buy “The Dissident.”
Amazon is a prime player in the movie via the alleged Bezos hacking, potentially putting it in a complicated position if it were to come on as a distributor.
The film also shows the ease with which an iPhone can be hacked, potentially dissuading Apple.
And Netflix has capitulated to the Saudi government before, removing an episode of the Hasan Minhaj series “Patriot Act” in Saudi Arabia last year after the government complained about a joke that suggested Mohammed ordered Khashoggi’s killing. The company is also looking hard at international expansion as subscriber growth in the United States slows.
Fogel has said that fears of economic reprisal are at the center of streamers’ reluctance to pick up the rights to his project.
“I’ve come to the realization that the major global distributors are scared of this film,” he told a screening hosted by Penn and Alec Baldwin at UTA last week. “Winning an Academy Award for Netflix was not enough to make them step up to the plate.” Top executives from the streamer did not attend the film’s debut Sundance screening.
Without streaming offers, agents ae turning to U.S. theatrical distributors, which have a much smaller reach.
Penn and Baldwin are part of the agency’s strategy, common for independent films, to use celebrity muscle to raise awareness among distributors and broader Hollywood.
Fogel declined to provide a comment to The Post for this story. UTA Independent Film Group chief Rena Ronson also declined to comment.
Spokespeople for Netflix, Apple and Amazon did not comment when reached by The Post.
An executive at one theatrical distributor who engaged in conversations with UTA and spoke on the condition of anonymity to not jeopardize relationships said that part of the challenge may be the price. The movie has been compared by UTA not only to other documentaries but also to scripted films such as “Spotlight,” which grossed $45 million in the United States, sending the price higher.
U.S. theatrical distributors often pay six figures for documentaries as opposed to the seven- and eight-figure deals scripted movies command.
As the weeks go by without a streaming deal for “The Dissident,” its competitor is speeding ahead under the auspices of Gibney.
“What we are aiming to tell is a beautiful haunting story of a man [Khashoggi] discovering himself even as he’s fighting for the road he thinks his country should be on,” Gibney said in an interview. “And,” he added, “how much the U.S.-Saudi dynamic is a toxic relationship governed by money.”
Gibney said the film was born of discussions he and Wright had about a congressional memorial for Khashoggi. They did not know about the Fogel film until they were well underway, he said. (A rep for “The Dissident” disputed this timeline.)
“Kingdom of Silence” is directed by Richard Rowley, who previously directed the U.S. military exposé “Dirty Wars,” nominated for an Oscar. Gibney is a decorated investigative documentarian (“Going Clear,” “Taxi to the Dark Side”) who has won an Oscar. Wright, a New Yorker staff writer, won the Pulitzer for “The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.”
Footage of their film has recently been shown to distributors, and Gibney said the project was “almost done.” The aim, he said, was for a theatrical release this year followed soon after by a Showtime airing. He said the network has “stepped up and never regretted, never asked us to soft-pedal or step back” its critique of Saudi Arabia.
ViacomCBS has an international division that conducts business in the Middle East but does not depend on international markets the way Silicon Valley giants like Apple, Amazon and Netflix do. A Showtime spokesman declined to comment on behalf of the network.
Still, questions about the theatrical possibilities hover. U.S. consumers have tended to come out largely for feel-good documentaries such as “RBG” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” two movies that became big hits in 2018, but not necessarily darker stories of global tyranny.
Theater owners could prove an equally large question especially as major chains seek their own entrance to the Saudi market. AMC opened its first theater there in 2018 and is seeking to build out 40 more in the next five years.
Experts say the cumulative effect of both “Kingdom of Silence” and “The Dissident” is to increase the profile of alleged Saudi abuses — maybe.
“What the movies show is that the Khashoggi story is alive, that filmmakers still have this desire to bear witness, that the murder can still raise considerable concern and outrage,” Hamid said. But “people need to be able to see them,” he added.