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What the world’s producers, platforms and channels are developing.

Bringing a touch of CreativeChaos to docuseries

Ilan Arboleda and Tom Donahue have already enacted social and political change through their feature doc firm CreativeChaos and are now eyeing the world of documentary series to expand their slate.

Ilan Arboleda

Have you heard the one about the Georgetown student who went to DC to become a diplomat and came out the other side a filmmaker?

Ilan Arboleda stumbled into film financing and was chief operating officer at LA-based prodco Go Go Luckey for a time after graduating. He met experienced filmmaker Tom Donahue at Sundance in 2004 and the pair launched production outfit CreativeChaos in 2010.

With their documentaries, they have discovered it possible to enact the sort of political and social change Arboleda always wanted to be part of, but through films and docs rather than political lobbying.

Their first project together, 2012 feature doc Casting By, was bought by HBO after a bidding war and brought together a plethora of big names in film, including Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen, to discuss the role of casting directors and shame the Academy for not dedicating an Oscar award to them. It quickly resulted in a casting branch being established at the Academy.

“We understood the market for docs was about to explode but also Casting By gave us an insight into something else – it moved the dial on the cultural conversation,” Arboleda says. “We had a doc on Hollywood that almost instantly made change in Hollywood just through its existence. Casting directors got recognised in a way they didn’t before, and we realised we had lightning in a bottle.”

Tom Donahue

Their second film, Thank You For Your Service, spotlighted the mental health crisis in the US military and called for a codified regulatory health body led by a general that prioritised mental as well as physical health. Multiple laws in multiple states culminated in the 2019 National Defence Authorisation Act, which Donahue and Arboleda co-wrote with congress. This Changes Everything, in 2018, focused on gender inequality in Hollywood, just as the #MeToo movement was building momentum.

Like expressing a political opinion on Twitter, making political films in the current climate of division on both sides of the Atlantic can be like sticking your hand in a wasp nest. “We make political films but we try not to make partisan films,” Arboleda says. “We try to find something based in common sense and a systemic problem and then attack it that way. When it should be common sense, both sides tend to come together.”

“We don’t have an ideology, we’re not idealogues,” Donahue adds. “We don’t go in with an agenda on any social-impact documentary. We try to get both sides and then we know our point of view and try to bring everybody along to it.”

The company has used a variety of funding methods to get projects off the ground – from a single investor or commissioner paying 100%, to a hybrid model usually made up of one-third private investment, one-third corporate sponsorship (Bloomberg and Lyft were both on board This Changes Everything) and one-third donations from individuals or non-profit NGOs.

Paramount+ mafia crime doc Murder of God’s Banker

Since the company launched, of course, docs have become big business, particularly on streaming services, but that doesn’t necessarily stretch to social-impact docs. “The streamers are now looking for more celebrity-focused films that will have an automatic audience, so there is less appeal for them to finance social-impact docs,” Donahue says.

“They don’t want to divide the American audience any more than it’s already divided. Any kind of film that will disrupt half their audience or cause a boycott, they’ll avoid. Look what was programmed at Sundance this year, a Michael J Fox and a Brooke Shields documentary. That’s where the market is.”

“When they’re fighting for every potential subscriber, the last thing they want to do is offend, so I do think that’s taken some of the bite out of their docs,” Arboleda adds.

CreativeChaos, meanwhile, has pivoted again into the trendy docuseries space, with mafia crime doc Murder of God’s Banker, which launched on Paramount+ in February. Another six-part series is also in the works for the same streamer as the company’s development slate moves in that direction.

“Ilan always had this idea that I thought was half-baked because it was too complex for a 90-minute documentary,” Donahue says. “When the lockdowns happened, we entered the golden age of docuseries where you can tell a story of four to 10 parts and it was the perfect opportunity to pitch a version of this story that might work.”

“We’ve also realised these streamers with an international bent lend themselves to the sort of work we can do in series,” Arboleda adds.