When no distributors wanted Bryan Fogel’s new film ‘The Dissident,’ Tom Ortenberg stepped up

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Bryan Fogel’s latest documentary is “The Dissident,” now available on-demand. The film explores the horrific murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, perpetrated by Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s brutal regime. 

Six months before Khashoggi was killed in October 2018, the Saudi Prince  went on a getting-to-know-you tour of Hollywood. Rupert Murdoch hosted a dinner for him, attended by many top industry executives with eyes on Saudi money. But a few months after Khashoggi’s murder, Endeavor, the parent company of top talent agency WME, returned a $400 million Saudi investment. 

“The Dissident” follows others who are working to carry on Khashoggi’s legacy, including his fiancee Hatice Cengiz, who’s ceaselessly trying to hold Khashoggi’s killers accountable. There’s also Saudi activist Omar Abdulaziz, who at the time of filming, was hiding in Montreal. 

While Abdulaziz barely made it out of Saudi Arabia, his brothers back home have been imprisoned and tortured. 

Fogel has been a guest on The Business before to talk about “Icarus,” the film that followed Russian whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov, who revealed that Vladimir Putin's anti-doping program for athletes was really a doping program. Rodchenkov now lives under witness protection. “Icarus” won the Oscar for best documentary feature, a first for Netflix.

With that kind of acclaim, it seems like Netflix would be a prime candidate to stream Fogel’s next movie, especially after a strong Sundance debut in early 2020. But after getting raves from critics, Fogel heard not a peep from Netflix or from any other streamer, including Amazon. The head of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post, where Khashoggi worked, and Bezos appears in the film at Khashoggi’s memorial service. 

Fogel believes major streamers have put global growth ahead of everything else. He says, “The risk assessment that has happened within these big global media companies is: Human rights be damned.” What’s more important to them, Fogel believes, is that they’re “able to do business and grow in these regions.”

One person, however, did step up. Tom Ortenberg is the head of Briarcliff Entertainment. His company agreed to distribute the film and got it into theaters, the ones that were open anyway, on Christmas Day. 

Ortenberg has experience handling challenging films, including “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “Dogma,” and “Deliver Us from Evil.” And he knows just how risky the movie business can be. In 2015, he was the head of Open Road Films, the distributor of “Spotlight,” which won Best Picture at the Oscars. But just a year and half later, Open Road was bought up and eventually declared bankruptcy. 

Briarcliff Entertainment is Ortenberg’s new company, and while Fogel is grateful he found a distributor, he still laments that it wasn’t able to go to a big streamer. He hopes it might eventually end up on one, when time has gone by and the film isn’t perceived as quite so risky. In the meantime, Ortenberg will be at work on an Oscar campaign for “The Dissident.” 




Kim Masters


Kaitlin Parker