Amy Entelis on five years of storytelling evolution at CNN

Amy Entelis has shepherded CNN through a transformative process since joining the organization five years ago. Under her leadership, the EVP for talent and content development launched three premium content brands: CNN ...
October 25, 2017

Amy Entelis has shepherded CNN through a transformative process since joining the organization five years ago.

Under her leadership, the EVP for talent and content development launched three premium content brands: CNN Original Series, CNN Films and CNN Film Presents.

Over the years, Entelis and her team have developed more than 30 original non-fiction series, including Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown; United Shades of America; Morgan Spurlock: Inside Man and Death Row Stories.

Since 2012, CNN Films has acquired, coproduced, or commissioned more than 40 feature and short films, including Blackfish, Ivory Tower, The Reagan Show and The Hunting Ground.

Upcoming for CNN is Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, which explores the remarkable life of one of the most influential figures in American gastronomy. The doc, presented by Anthony Bourdain, premieres on Sunday Nov. 12 at 9 p.m. EST/PST.

Also on tap for 2018 is Trophy, which screened in Sundance’s U.S. doc competition. The film takes an in-depth look at the intersection of big-game hunting, breeding and wildlife conservation.

Realscreen chatted with Entelis about how CNN Films and CNN Originals has evolved, and where she sees it going in the future. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

When you think back to when you first joined CNN in 2012, what were your goals?

When I think back to 2012, CNN was very interested in opening up our broadcast and exposing our audiences to things beyond the breaking news diet. I think we were all aware that we were the go-to network for people to find out what was happening, but we also understood that we were not necessarily providing people with longer narratives or deeper storytelling. So both CNN Films and CNN Original Series were ways to engage people in longer-form storytelling, better characters, more explanation.

How has this mandate evolved?

I don’t think the mandate has changed. I think that we have confirmed that our instinct was right and that our audience was hungry for something more experiential and deeper, done by extremely talented producers and directors, with an emphasis on beautiful cinematography, great storytelling and compelling characters. Almost every time we set out to do that, we were rewarded with a terrific response from our audience. Now, over the years we have refined the way we choose some of those projects based on our learning of who the CNN audience is, what they’re looking for and what they are most likely to watch. So we’re not just flinging out a gigantic net — we have a somewhat refined filter of what we’re looking for and what we think the CNN audience is hungry for.

How do you define the CNN audience?

I can tell you what their interests appear to be. I think the CNN audience is very interested in history. All the projects that we’ve done that are historically based seem to work like a charm. And I think part of the charm is that history does tend to repeat itself, so often these historical projects have very specific resonance to what we’re all experiencing today. So, we try to help make those linkages for the audience. Lots of our historical [projects] are not time capsules — they look at historical events through a present-day lens.

How do you feel the climate is for airing more provocative or challenging docs?

Well, I don’t think that’s in our calculation with our documentaries. We have one coming up in January that’s going to be perhaps one of the most provocative docs we’ve done, called Trophy. I think that’s bound to set off a really lively conversation. That issue is kind of in the culture wars, but we’re happy to dive in and take it on.

CNN Films are hard to commission to the degree that they take such a long time to make — you have to anticipate what’s going to be in the zeitgeist a couple of years from now. We commissioned The Reagan Show two years before we aired it, because we were interested in an archival exploration of Reagan and how he learned how the media could be his friend. The doc landed in the middle of the Donald Trump presidency, which caused a lot of people to make connections on their own. It was interesting to look back at Reagan and realize that we’re living in that sort of next iteration of that media story, so we got pretty lucky on that. Those two filmmakers were from our first Camden workshop, where we work with young filmmakers to help them develop documentaries.

It was very gratifying that two years later, that film turned out to be very relevant to what we’re all talking about right now. But we’ve seen that with others we’ve done. Escape Fire is about health care, The Hunting Ground is about campus assault. We did Pandora’s Promise, which was a very counter-intuitive look at nuclear energy and how it could be a positive for the country… it was something people did not expect to see on CNN.

How does CNN position itself against SVODs like Netflix and Hulu?

As you know, our CNN Films model is that we don’t air things first. They usually go to festivals. Many of them have theatrical releases first and then they’re followed by CNN and one of the streaming networks. We like the fact that things that we commission and in some cases acquire have a long lifespan. The worst thing in the world is for a documentary to be up and gone before anybody’s had a chance to see it. So, I think that we are very happy to take advantage of all the different platforms and ways that these films can be distributed. Unfortunately, not that many people get to see documentaries in the theater, so the fact that they know that our films can be distributed on Netflix in some cases or on Hulu, we think is positive.

What do you hope for CNN’s doc content and original series in the future?

We started with four series in the first year and now we’re past 11. So just in terms of the number of hours that we’re generating per year, it’s now almost tripled. [With] films, we go between five and seven a year… We’re not tied to any one number. Part of it is making sure that we can give each one of these projects a really successful launch, so you can’t do much more than what I’ve just described as CNN also obviously has tremendous commitment to making sure that we’re covering the entire world.

About The Author
Jillian Morgan is the Associate Editor at Realscreen with a background in journalism and digital marketing. She joined the publication in 2019 after serving as the assistant editor to trade publications HPAC and On-Site. With a bachelor of journalism from the University of King's College in Halifax, she also works as a freelance writer and fact-checker.