From King Charles to Malcolm X, Documentary Filmmaker Tom Jennings Hunts Big Names, Fresh Footage



Leading the news and documentary jury at this year’s Monte-Carlo Television Festival, Peabody and Emmy-winning filmmaker Tom Jennings has seen the non-fiction business trend toward premium offerings with more event series – an evolution shared across much of the larger television landscape and pushed, in no small part, by streamers.

“Ten to 15 years ago, we were a ratings driven business,” he tells Variety. “Now, it’s a question of getting people to sign up and stick around because what they like is on a given platform.”

For companies likes Jennings’ 1895 Films (named for the year the Lumière brothers screened their first films – all of them non-fiction, he adds) the shifting terrain has resulted in shorter episode order with greater budgets as docs and dramas find themselves showcased alongside one another with little divide.

“The call for always having something unique is probably more intense now,” says Jennings. “We have to operate at a very high level in terms quality, because we’re competing with all the blue chip narratives; we have to go toe to toe with those kind of shows, and hopefully ours are fascinating enough to win out.”

In the case of “Charles: In His Own Words,” which 1895 Films recently delivered for National Geographic, and in the ongoing “Lost Tapes” series broadcast on the Smithsonian Channel, archival originality has been key.

“[Viewers] want access that no one else has,” Jennings grants. “But it’s getting harder to find new material on topics that are big enough and global enough [to warrant this kind of focus.] So I always tell my researchers to think outside the box when looking for footage. I tell them, if I was this [dream footage], where might I live?”

When making a film about Malcolm X, the answer could be found in a Chicago garage. First, Jennings’ team heard that the civil rights leader shared the same dentist with the Nation of Islam’s Elijah Muhammad, and then sped to the Windy City upon learning that said dentist was also an amateur photographer. They discovered manna from heaven in the dentist’s archives, uncovering a treasure trove of photos and videos never developed, let alone seen.

For their one-off about the Charles who would be king, Jennings’ team pulled from unaired news footage newly digitized expressly for the film.

“Our task is to either find a great story that needs to be told, or to take a really big picture thing like Charles and promise the audience a whole new look – and then to deliver.”

Though unable, for obvious reasons, to speak in detail about the nine titles competing for Monte-Carlo’s Golden Nymph prize, Jennings says that he brought those same expectations to his jury duties.

“We wanted to feel surprised in a good way, and we wanted to enjoy watching the films just as works of craft,” Jennings explains. “We were impressed by the cleverness of the stories these filmmakers found, and by the access to people that you might never have heard of, but are key players in major global events. [But for most part we responded to] a look that we’ve never seen before, asking ourselves, did they take us on a journey that none of us in that room would have thought of right away?”


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