Broken Heart Emojis: Doc Talk Podcast Digs Into Participant Shutdown With Oscar-Nominated Filmmakers Julie Cohen & Betsy West

The news last week that Participant Media would be shutting down shocked the entertainment industry, but it hit the documentary community with particular force.

Going back 20 years, the production and distribution company has supported premium nonfiction content on a major scale, backing documentaries that took on important social and political issues ranging from climate change to race in America, education, the national security state, the U.S.-Mexico drug war, and much more. Along the way, it earned Oscars for CitizenfourAn Inconvenient Truth and American Factory, and Oscar nominations for a slew of others including FleeRBGThe Square, and Food, Inc.

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On the latest episode of Deadline’s Doc Talk podcast, we discuss the developments at Participant and what they mean for a nonfiction field already been reeling from a sluggish acquisition market and slashed budgets at streamers. Our guests are Oscar-nominated filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen, directors of two acclaimed Participant documentaries: RBG and My Name Is Pauli Murray. Cohen says word of Participant closing left her Facebook feed littered with “little ‘broken-heart’ emojis.”

West and Cohen are uniquely qualified to comment on the state of documentary film not only because of their relationship with Participant, the success of their films RBGJuliaMy Name Is Pauli Murray, and Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down, but also their connection to CNN Films, home to several of their films. In 2022, CNN announced it would stop buying documentaries and original series to save money, a revelation that, in retrospect, signaled the coming contraction of what had been a thriving documentary field.

But it’s not all doom and gloom in this episode of Doc Talk. Cohen and West tell us why they’re holding onto hope for the future of serious documentaries, and they even suggest CNN Films may return to something like its previous model of documentary production.

That’s on the latest edition of Doc Talk, co-hosted by Oscar winner John Ridley and Matt Carey, Deadline’s documentary editor. Doc Talk is a production of Deadline and Ridley’s Nō Studios, presented with support from National Geographic Documentary Films. Doc Talk is a 2024 Webby Awards honoree.

Listen to the episode above or on major podcast platforms including SpotifyiHeart and Apple.

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