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Imagine Plunges Deeper Into Documentaries With ‘Stormy’ Fare

The South by Southwest debut of “Stormy” was not your typical Imagine Documentaries premiere.

About adult film star Stormy Daniels’ alleged affair with former President Donald Trump, the film drew an eclectic crowd that included porn stars and “Muppet” director-producer Frank Oz, who sat in the same row as Daniels and her entourage made up mainly of buff bodyguards. Dogs sniffed Austin’s Stateside Theater prior to the screening. After it unspooled, Daniels spoke to the SXSW audience, revealing that she first met “Stormy” exec producer Judd Apatow when he hired her for a small part in his 2005 film “40 Year-Old Virgin.” When she was a no-show due to a death in the family, Apatow sent her flowers and rescheduled her shoot date.

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“I thought he would replace me,” Daniels, who would go on to appear in “Knocked Up” for the filmmaker, told the crowd, with director Sarah Gibson standing nearby.

As a parting shot, Daniels yelled out, “Fuck Trump.” It was a first for an Imagine Doc post premiere Q&A, but might not be the last politically charged debut for the division, now solely under the leadership of Sara Bernstein and ramping up its output significantly.

“Stormy,” which premiered on Peacock on March 18, marks the fifth docu that the non-fiction branch of Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment has released since January. “Frida,” Carla Gutierrez’s docu about iconic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, debuted at Sundance and began streaming on Amazon Prime Video in March. Its 10-part docuseries “Dynasty: New England Patriots” began streaming on Apple TV+ in February, the same month Disney+ began streaming “Choir,” about a Detroit youth choir, and Max released “The Truth About Jim,” about a Zodiac killer.

“It’s been a crazy first quarter for us,” says Bernstein, who joined Imagine for the launch of its documentary division in 2018. She and Justin Wilkes ran it as co-presidents until early 2023, when he was elevated to president of Imagine Entertainment.

At Imagine, Bernstein has produced more than 30 documentaries, many of which were celebrity focused. Julia Child (“Julia”), Judy Blume (“Judy Blume Forever”), Carlos Santana (“Santana”), Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell (“The Super Models”) and Lucille Ball (“Lucy and Desi”) are among the bold faced names that the production company has highlighted. Rory Kennedy’s 2022 docu “Downfall: The Case Against Boeing” was, until now, the division’s most politically oriented docu.

Imagine’s focus on celebrity isn’t surprising given the documentary landscape in recent years. Trump’s presidency, COVID-19 and a significant contraction in the volume of content ordered by large networks and streamers due to corporate consolidation, which led to subsequent budget cuts created proliferation of nonfiction films about non-urgent, zeitgeisty topics including celebrities, murder and sports.

But in the last year, indie docus about pressing political issues including “To Kill a Tiger,” “Daughters” and “Beyond Utopia” have sold to streamers like Netflix and theatrical distribs like Roadside Attractions. The Oscar win for the Frontline docu about the war in Ukraine, “20 Days in Mariupol,” may help turn the tide in favor of more politically minded documentaries.

“I hope we get to do more,” Bernstein tells Variety, stressing the need for strong distribution support on such films. “It’s really helpful when you have an HBO or a Netflix or a CNN behind that type of project. I mean, look, even Peacock took on Stormy Daniels.”

The exec is no stranger to hard-hitting social topics. During her 14-year tenure as senior VP of HBO Documentary Films prior to joining Imagine, she worked under doc titan Sheila Nevins and produced lauded films including Oscar winning doc “Citizenfour” about computer analyst whistleblower Edward Snowden, “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer,” about the Russian female jailed punk band, as well as Emmy winning doc “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” a Scientology expose.

“Stormy” producer Erin Lee Carr brought the project to Bernstein in 2023 after developing and selling the project to Peacock, having launched her doc career with Bernstein when she was at HBO. Together, the pair made the nonfiction hits including Larry Nasser docu “At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal,” “Thought Crimes: The Case of The Cannibal Cop” and “Mommy Dead and Dearest.

“Peacock ended up doing a deal with us, but we were like, this is a very serious movie,” says Carr. “We need a lot of support.”

That’s where Bernstein came in, bringing years of experience navigating non-fiction terrain. “What’s really fascinating about Stormy is that she is a woman who found herself in the middle of a storm, making American history,” Bernstein says. “Potentially changing American history. It felt like, of course this could be an Imagine documentary.”

Grazer and Howard, who had previously produced documentaries before launching the division, hired Bernstein in 2018 for not only her taste but her ability to get deals done.

“Sara was this force with impeccable credentials, great relationships, great taste, and at her relatively young age was a major player, who knew how to get things done,” says Howard.

Carr adds, “She has this incredible read on story, but also on the market. She is a businesswoman, which is something that I so appreciate because we are often told that you can’t be both. You can’t be a businesswoman and a creative executive.”

Gutierrez, for instance, credits Bernstein with finding a home for “Frida” at Amazon. “Sara thought it would be a really good match for both the project and Amazon and she couldn’t have been more right,” says Gutierrez.

Told through Kahlo’s own words drawn from her diary, animation, revealing letters, essays and print interviews, “Frida” has been praised by audience and critics alike, making it a possible contender to become Imagine Documentaries first Oscar nominated film.

Bernstein also produced Ron Howard’s upcoming Imagine docu about puppeteer, Jim Henson, likely a strong Emmy contender this year.

Bold-faced names like Frida Kahlo and Jim Henson fall in line with Imagine Doc’s track record of producing celebrity driven fare. In January, the company inked a co-financing and production partnership with Fifth Season, with docus about celebrated photographer Richard Avedon and Martin Short on the initial slate. The multi-year deal will allow Fifth Season to help Imagine co-finance a small slate of projects without outside help.

“We are not a distributor, so we are always thinking about where is this project going to live?” says Bernstein. “We are looking to produce projects on our own and then bring them to market. We are definitely looking at the landscape and thinking how can we still produce the projects we want to produce, believe in those projects enough to feel like there will be a home for them and take a gamble.”

When it comes to getting behind a doc, celebrity-driven or not, Bernstein says they all have something in common.

“When we think about what is an Imagine documentary, it’s about, is there something worth telling about this story?” says Bernstein. “Is there something worth highlighting about this personality, this person?

“I come from the school where everyday people can have a tremendous impact with their storytelling,” she says. “I do hope that there continues and always will be some sort of lane for documentaries that highlight people’s struggles as an issue that really needs to be examined as well as documentaries about people who are doing things that can be considered inspirational.”

“Choir” is a Disney+ six-part docuseries that follows adolescents from underserved neighborhoods as they prepare for a major performance as part of the Detroit Youth Choir. Bernstein worked with director Rudy Valdez on the series, which was released in February. The series marks the third collaboration between Valdez and Imagine. Under the banner, the helmer made “Carlos,” about musician Carlos Santana and “We Are: The Brooklyn Saints,” about a Brooklyn youth football program.

“Sara’s the first person to actually call me a director,” says Valdez. “I was a D.P. on a bunch of projects and a few of them went to HBO while Sara was still there. She came up to me at one point and said, ‘Are you a director?’ I said. ‘no. I’m a D.P.’ And she said, ‘I know, but I’m just seeing a lot of themes and storytelling in the things that you are shooting and your input is always on point. I think you are a director. You should think about that.’ I wanted to tell her that I was a director secretly making my first film, ‘The Sentence,’ but I didn’t. Then fast forward to 2018 when ‘The Sentence’ finally came out. It was one of the last films that Sara helped buy at HBO.”

“The Dynasty: New England Patriots” director Matt Hamachek adds, “The thing that’s so unique about working with Imagine is that when you go to a subject that’s a high profile like the people that we talked to, having the backing of people like Ron, Brian, Justin, and Sara, who have worked in the industry in various ways over the course the last 20 plus years — obviously in Ron and Brian’s  case much longer than that — it lends so much to the request to sit down and talk to people,” he says. “And from the story standpoint they are incredible to work with.”

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