When Molly Thompson, the founder of A&E IndieFilms, was green-lighting documentaries three years ago, she had no way of knowing that four of her choices—all with fall debut dates—would perfectly reflect the chaotic political and cultural zeitgeist.
Alexis Blooms Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes debuted at the Toronto Film Festival and deconstructs the Fox News mastermind, his effect on Donald Trumps presidential election, and his serial sexual harassment. Werner Herzogs Meeting Gorbachev and Charles Fergusons Watergate, which both screened at Telluride, are poignant reminders of milestone moments in Russian and American political leadership, just as the countries heads of state are entwined. And on Sunday, A&E will debut Blair Fosters six-part docuseries, The Clinton Affair, which tackles another presidential fiasco with the help of Monica Lewinsky.
“It is a weird coincidence,” Thompson deadpanned of the timing. “When we green-lit Watergate, we all knew that Hillary Clinton was going to be the next president.”
As time wore on, of course, Thompson and her cohort had to adapt. “We spent the last two or three years adjusting to and metabolizing all the parallels with the Trump administration,” she said. “The Trump administration has done two things—its fatigued us and intrigued us. I think that we were certainly in the intrigued mode when we green-lit these. I mean, Gorbachev is a little bit different. Thats more of a timeless portrait of a world leader who is a relief to the Trump chaos and static and negativity. A person who is committed to positivity and pursuit of good values and kindness. The Ailes story is not purely a #MeToo movie, but theres no question that was an earth-shaking development when he was ousted from this company that he had built. Theres a lot of interest in the Roger Ailes story because hes so influential—he really kind of created the network that created the president.”
Thompson, whose documentary roster also includes Oscar nominees like Life, Animated, Cartel Land,* and Jesus Camp, had no crystal ball—“just myself and my gut.” But she did say that she is drawn to “understanding big personalities in the context of the moment they lived in. When you get really lucky, whats happening in the zeitgeist connects with what youve chosen to make because youre interested in it.” Aside from prognosticating what documentary subjects will appeal to audiences about three years down the line, Thompson has also re-oriented her programming strategy in light of “the Netflix effect in documentary”—meaning increased interest in serialized docuseries.
“I have a colleague who bitched to me once that everything we wouldve done for a one-hour show back in the day is six or eight parts on Netflix now,” laughed Thompson. “Its new to me to have done these two big six-parters—that is a pretty direct result of the trend and that willingness of an audience to stay and to engage with multiple parts.”
Thompson said that, overall, Netflix has “been a good influence in a lot of ways on our business.” Even with the surge in Netflix streaming, theatrical documentaries are having their own boom, thanks to critically acclaimed titles like Three Identical Strangers, Wont You Be My Neighbor?, and RBG, which have also done big numbers at the box office. Thompson has navigated industry shifts before—like when reality TV drew audiences away from television biographies, for example. Now, she is hoping that the high quality of her personality-based programming will lure viewers away from the endless true-crime docuseries suggested by Netflix algorithms. “You have to zag when they zig,” she said.
Given the exhausting 24/7 news cycle, though, Thompson is well aware of the potential for burnout. And when she watches the news, she wonders what kind of shelf life the characters in Trumpworld will have.
For instance: “Take somebody like Michael Cohen. I dont know if he would be a great subject for a feature documentary. Is he going to have lasting importance? Are you going to be interested in him? What I think about when Im commissioning something thats coming out of the current moment, is: are people going to be interested in this in a year? Two years? Five years? And if it doesnt withstand that test, I dont think that we pursue it.”
And even though shes in the business of gauging intrigue, Thompson—like the rest of us—cant always resist the fatigue. “Im completely on the edge of my seat all the time about whats happening,” she said, “and then Im sick of it by the end of the day.”
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Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Julie MillerJulie Miller is a Senior Hollywood writer for Vanity Fairs website.