TIFF ’19: A look behind the Showtime curtain

With two films showing in the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival docs program this year, Showtime’s EVP of non-fiction programming, Vinnie Malhotra, was on hand at the TIFF Doc Conference on ...
September 10, 2019

With two films showing in the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival docs program this year, Showtime’s EVP of non-fiction programming, Vinnie Malhotra, was on hand at the TIFF Doc Conference on Monday (Sept. 9) to discuss what the premium cable net looks for when commissioning unscripted content.

TIFF documentary programmer Thom Powers sat down with Malhotra (pictured) as the two dug into what producers and filmmakers can expect if they want to work with Showtime, and how the network has changed during Malhotra’s tenure.

“There’s been a longstanding foundation of documentaries at Showtime, but primarily they were never really that woven into the overall programming strategy,” said Malhotra, noting that the premium unscripted space has changed dramatically over the last decade, with programs like HBO’s The Jinx marking a tipping point in popularity. “Now we’re in a very crowded landscape,” he said. “In that big space, in that cloud, there was a question of what is our voice going to be, how do we cut through, and I think it’s really important to have a brand, and to really approach it with a filter in mind.”

That brand has solidified into a sharp focus on topics that are current. “The brand…is really to try to be kind of a mirror of our times, is really to try to stay contemporary. We rarely do historical storytelling,” he explained. And when Showtime does stray into historical material, the project has to have some kind of contemporary resonance. The historical subject needs to be specifically linked to the world we live in today.

Ready For War, which premiered at TIFF last Friday (Sept. 6) checked off a lot of boxes for Malhotra. The film explores the causes and effects of deporting U.S. military veterans when they return home — and the forced recruitment into Mexican drug cartels that often awaits in Mexico. Issues explored include PTSD, drug abuse, crime convictions for combat veterans and the broader implications of immigrant soldiers.

The story is told through three green card-holding soldiers at various stages in this process. One is in Tijuana fighting to come back to the U.S. and reunite with his family. One is in ICE detention fighting deportation. And the third is already in the clutches of a drug cartel in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

While questions of immigration, deportation and veterans rights are all headline-making news of the day, the specific question also spoke to Malhotra as an issue he simply wasn’t aware of, despite remaining politically informed.

“I was excited by the fact that this was a story that was relatively fresh and new to me, and I was also really taken by a very young and up-and-coming filmmaker in Andrew Renzi and the boldness with which he approached this story,” he told Powers.

That last point is important, as major organizations like Showtime can often seem impenetrable for emerging voices in the documentary industry. Malhotra pushed back against this notion, stressing that Showtime wants to hear those fresh voices.

“It is incumbent on places like Showtime and documentary brands to always be out there looking for new voices and fresh perspectives,” he said, though he acknowledged that it’s not as easy as sending over clips or a resume and hoping someone gets back to you.

“To be very honest with you, the cold call, or just sending the envelope, it never really works that way with a place like us,” he said, stressing instead the importance of professional networking as a way in: “I do think that documentary is a very tight community of people, and I think that when you look at your network of people, there’s probably other filmmakers within there, doc programmers within there, producers within there, and somebody who has a connection to somebody at Showtime.”

Malhotra said that filmmakers have in fact come aboard Showtime without major credits but with a good word from an established colleague or mentor.

“We do have our ears perked up for that.”

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