Are Streamers Muzzling Controversial Documentaries?
Are Streamers Muzzling Controversial Documentaries?
On May 25, YouTube pulled the Michael Moore-produced environmental documentary Planet of the Humans, a few weeks after the provocateur launched the film for free on his highly trafficked YouTube channel. The tech giant cited a copyright infringement claim made by photographer Toby Smith over a four-second clip used in the controversial doc, which takes on some of the environmental movement's most beloved figures, including Al Gore and Bill McKibben, and explores big money's influence on sustainability efforts. Smith said in an interview with The Guardian that he made the claim because he disagreed with the film's thesis, and YouTube acquiesced.
Moore was not pleased. "The fact that some so-called leaders of our beloved environmental movement resorted to slandering and suppressing a movie that called them out for their failures, that warned the public that we were losing the battle against climate change because these 'leaders' believed capitalism and billionaires would save planet Earth, has set the movement back so many years," the producer tells THR.
Director Jeff Gibbs says he and Moore later won the right to use the footage, and after a maelstrom of bad PR for the platform, YouTube restored the doc to Moore's channel.
The removal of Planet of the Humans wasn't an isolated event. Over the past year, a number of docs that seem to challenge the business interests of multinational conglomerates have been muzzled, buried or simply neglected — including ones from Oscar winners and nominees like Moore. In nearly every case, the distributor was a Silicon Valley tech giant.
Take Citizen K from Oscar winner Alex Gibney. Days ahead of its August world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, Amazon quietly dropped the doc that paints a harsh portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Multiple sources say Citizen K, which traces the rise of Putin and the fall of titular oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was on Amazon's fall 2019 theatrical release calendar and was pulled without explanation. One source says the film was seen as too incendiary and risky for a multinational corporation to distribute. Instead, boutique Greenwich Entertainment released the film to little fanfare. (An Amazon rep denies the company ever had theatrical rights to the film, though it paid the travel costs for the Venice premiere.)
Citizen K isn't the only hot-button doc to receive the cold shoulder from Amazon. The Mike Cernovich-produced film Hoaxed, a right-wing take on corporate malfeasance and media bias, was pulled from Amazon April 9. No explanation was given to the distributor Random Media. Even stranger, Cernovich began hearing from viewers who had purchased Hoaxed via the Amazon store and later found it had disappeared from their libraries. "The distributors were shocked. They had never seen this happen before," Cernovich tells THR. "Amazon told them, 'It's not a technical issue. We don't have to tell you why we removed Hoaxed.'"
Cernovich has a theory. "I believe the film was banned from Amazon because there is a sequence discussing Jeff Bezos and Amazon's $600 million contract with the CIA," he says. "Bezos does not want the public reminded of that." Amazon wouldn't comment on Hoaxed.
“These platforms are so big that not being able to get your viewpoint on one of them effectively means that people probably don’t know the film exists,” says Patricia Aufderheide, founder of the Center for Media & Social Impact at American University and an expert on censorship.
Even in other genres, Hollywood is increasingly hesitant to antagonize foreign governments or corporate interests. Studios will avoid offending China at all costs thanks to its box office prowess. (Consider Disney staying out of the fray as its Mulan star Liu Yifei threw her support behind police using force to quash pro-democracy demonstrations last year.) But the chilling effect is more pronounced in the documentary community, which had previously relied on niche distributors. Now doc distribution is far more susceptible to the whims of the streaming giants because, in recent years, Netflix, Amazon and their rivals have become the most voracious buyers.
Another Russia-critical doc — David France's Welcome to Chechnya, which documented the life-and-death plight of gay people in the republic — was nearly acquired by Netflix. But a knowledgeable source says the streamer dropped out at the eleventh hour without explanation (the film found another home and will debut June 30 on HBO Max). Similarly, Netflix stayed far away from the Jamal Khashoggi doc The Dissident, a yet-to-be-picked-up film that is critical of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his alleged order of the columnist's 2018 murder. Sean Penn, who championed the Bryan Fogel-helmed film, took a dig at Netflix’s lack of interest during a February Dissident screening at UTA, saying the streamer was "too busy" paying off sexual misconduct settlements — an apparent reference to former House of Cards star Kevin Spacey — to back The Dissident, adding, “There's a lot of stress on such a gentleman as Ted Sarandos.”
In the case of Planet of the Humans, a fellow director, Gasland's Josh Fox, embarked on a campaign to keep Gibbs' film from being seen — a highly unusual move in the collegial doc community that champions freedom of expression. Fox successfully lobbied Films for Action, which had posted Planet of the Humans on its site via an embed from the official YouTube, to remove the it (Films for Action later reversed course). Fox says his actions were justified because "the film attacks incredibly important [environmental] movement leaders and is factually incorrect." He adds, "It has nothing to do with censorship. I never tried to censor Michael Moore."
Moore took a swing at Fox without naming him. "The fact that anyone calling themself a filmmaker could take part in a censorship campaign, and then participate in such a dishonest and unhinged attack, is appalling and pathetic.”
Still, suppression may have its benefits. In the case of Planet of the Humans, the film now has more than 10.6 million views, including 8.6 million on YouTube, perhaps buoyed by the censorship outcry. Notes Gibbs, who also was a producer on Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11: "People do not like to be told they cannot see a film."
But in one final bizarre twist, YouTube algorithms appear to have at least temporarily buried Planet of the Humans for viewers looking to locate it via the platform's main search engine. For at least a week in late June, the top hits by title search included content that purports to debunk the film but not the doc itself on Moore's channel. The filmmakers alerted YouTube of the problem. Says a publicist for the film, "They replied and said they would look into it. There has been no other update." But the night before this story was being readied for publication, the issue appears to have been resolved.
A version of this story first appeared in the June 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
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