After 30 years running a dedicated indie, Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney (pictured) cut a deal last month with Content Media Corporation to sell 50% of his New York-based firm, Jigsaw Productions, to the UK-headquartered company.
The deal, for an undisclosed sum, was shortly followed by an announcement from Content that it would be de-listing from the London AIM stock exchange and partnering with LA-based formats company Small World IFT, marking a period of notable activity for the firm.
In his first major interview since finalizing the sale, Gibney spoke to realscreen by phone from New York to discuss the reasons for the deal (“I faced a crossroads”), his plans for TV (“I’m not going to end up doing Dance Moms“), his involvement with Wikileaks (“I wouldn’t say we’re working in conjunction”) and his love of Game of Thrones.
You founded Jigsaw in 1982, right? So this is your 30th anniversary this year…
Oh my God. Yeah, hard as that is to believe. I wouldn’t say it was a multinational conglomerate at that time [laughs], but yes I founded it then, and somehow it’s managed to survive all that time.
So after 30 years…
Thirty years of wandering in the wilderness. [laughs]
So why sell half of the company now?
Well, there were two reasons. One was that I faced a crossroads: I had a choice of either making my company even smaller, and just maybe having an assistant and doing maybe one project a year… and I had been going at an insane pace that was really unsustainable, because to do that many documentaries myself, I can’t do it forever.
And I would prefer in a way to produce more and direct less, but to focus on directing the ones that I really love, be it non-fiction or fiction. I’ve done a lot of producing in the past, I rather enjoy it – and that’s a way I can also expand the company a little bit and give it a little bit more stability and have it be less dependent on me directing every film.
But nevertheless give it a key stamp, an identity, and place in the world so that it still stands for something. That’s the hope.
Why did you choose Content?
The idea of linking up with Content was to be able to get a capital infusion that would help me to hire people to expand the company and give it a little bit more of a solid infrastructure, so that I didn’t always have to be the chief cook and bottle-washer.
But also to give me some strategic clout, so that in deal-making or other things, Content might be there to put up distribution advances, to help with sales, whatever. And at the same time, I think a key component of the Content deal was that I retained absolutely flexibility.
In what way?
For example, I’m doing a film now for Universal – it would not prevent me from doing that in the future, I could still do that and do all these other things. So it seemed like a great opportunity. I saw the fork in the road either to get smaller or get bigger, and Content was a great partner in terms of understanding that and figuring out a plan forward.
What’s the Universal film, the Wikileaks doc?
That’s the Wikileaks film. We’re going to be the last Wikileaks film, rather than the first. We think that by doing so we’ll be able to tell a rather different story than everyone else has told.
Is that being made with Wikileaks members?
Let’s just say we’ve been in contact, but I wouldn’t say we’re working in conjunction [with them].
You also have a documentary on the late Fela Kuti [pictured below] in the works…
Yes, that’s a very interesting subject, and one that frankly I didn’t know that much about when I started. I’m hardly a Fela Kuti expert, but Stephen Hendel, who is the guy who produced the Broadway play, Fela!, approached me to see if I’d be interested in doing something.
Tentatively speaking, it [the forthcoming doc] is called Finding Fela. Basically it is looking at him in the past and the attempt to recreate his magic in the present as a way of finding the essence of what made him tick, and why we care about him so much still so many years afterwards. He’s a fascinating figure.
I have a long-time interest in both music and politics, and Fela Kuti is a person in which those two areas definitely collide. He’s tremendously exciting and really influential.
Are there networks onboard for that one, and how is it being funded?
No not yet. It’s being financed via Hendel, and I think it’s his hope that we’ll take it to market and release it at a festival when it’s done, and then sell it. It’s in the cutting room; I guess it would be another six months or so away probably.
With Content having 50% ownership of Jigsaw, how will that work out on the big decisions?
Creative decisions are really all mine. What projects to do and what projects not to do, that’s really up to me – but in terms of the larger financial picture, those are decisions that we have to make together. So, that’s roughly speaking how it works. And that seems to me to make a lot of sense – the idea is to expand the pie, and thereby share in the pain and share in the success.
Shortly off the back of doing the deal with you, Content announced it would be de-listing and going private. Was that something you guys had discussed, and how do you think that will affect your partnership?
Well that’s really more of a Content question, but I think their view was they weren’t getting the advantages they had hoped for by being a public company, because of where the market was at, and they were getting all the disadvantages in terms of a lack of flexibility.
As part of the deal you’ve said you want to get into TV projects. Can you expand a bit on what kind of things that you will be making – documentary series, fiction series?
Yes. Both. I think TV is great, I don’t have anything bad to say about it. I mean, there are a lot of bad shows on television but the potential for TV is enormous. And many of the viewers of my documentaries end up being TV viewers rather than theatrical viewers, even though they have a kind of theatrical profile.
Series capture the imagination of people, be they non-fiction or fiction, and they provide a forum for digging deeper into things that you might not otherwise be able to do. There’s a certain benefit to working in a two-hour form or a 90-minute form, which is to tell a concise story. But to be able to expand that story and expand those themes over time is of great benefit. And sometimes you can explore more deeply.
What kind of series do you admire?
I’m a huge fan of Game of Thrones. I was a huge fan of that Gabriel Byrne series [In Treatment]. And I’m a huge fan of that series on Showtime with Claire Danes, about the schizophrenic CIA agent…
Yes! Homeland – I stayed up all night watching Homeland one night, watching episode after episode. I found that extremely engaging, and very real – it deals a lot with issues that I’ve dealt with in my documentaries, particularly Taxi to the Dark Side.
Will you look to make politically tinged dramas then? Or do you think the TV you’ll make will be longer versions of the film stuff that you do?
I think there’s a freedom to do both. Obviously I’m interested in not just politics in the smaller sense of left versus right, but certain moral dramas, I guess you’d have to say. And I’m interested in thrillers, whether fiction or non-fiction.
I mean, the kind of programs I would do, inevitably… I’m not going to end up doing Dance Moms. That’s not going to be our focus. And I think that if I ever did a romantic comedy it would probably destroy the genre. But I am interested in thrillers and dramas that explore issues of power and corruption, and we’re exploring some series now that look at those very things.
In, sports I’ve been very interested in the kind of ‘will to win’ and the wonder and the craziness of being a fan, and I’m interested in human psychology, to be honest with you, and how that plays out in a broad way in a social environment. And if that sounds pointy-headed I don’t mean it to be, because my shows are meant to hit you in the gut as much as they hit you in the head.
What sort of things are you developing?
There’s a series we’re talking about now that’s all about innocent people who’ve been wrongly convicted. It’s almost a cliché or a stereotype, except it keeps happening over and over again – there are a tremendous number of those rather poignant stories that I hope to collect, and also have the flexibility to dig deeper into them.
I’m interested in scandals, because they often end up obscuring more than they reveal, which I find very interesting. So I think there are all sorts of possibilities.
What about branded entertainment?
It’s harder for me to imagine that. It’s possible, but sometimes with a brand comes restrictions, and I generally don’t like restrictions.
And what about making content for the web?
I love that idea, I mean, we’re starting to do it a little bit for free. It’d be nice to figure out a way of doing it and getting paid. Everything is migrating to the web and it’s important to have a presence there.
The other thing I hope is that my company can end up being a kind of incubator for a lot of younger talent coming up. That is also a great hope in terms of what we’re trying to do, and I think the web offers a great opportunity for that.
Well, congratulations on 30 years of running an indie – that’s no small feat.
Thirty years of not having a boss, that’s the remarkable thing! [laughs]