In the media-obsessed, fast-paced world of today, it always seems that the faster one can consume information, the better. However, there still remains a respected place for the in-depth narratives that documentaries embody. On Tuesday, Oct. 23, Executive Vice President for Talent and Development at CNN Worldwide Amy Entelis ’71 discussed her work with CNN Films and CNN Original Series, where she has spearheaded a documentary platform for the news site and collaborated on documentaries such as “RGB,” “Blackfish” and “Three Identical Strangers.” At the lecture, Entelis described her path through journalism and changes in the media landscape throughout her career.
Entelis began her career by teaching French and producing films on the side. After attending Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, she secured a position at ABC News, where she worked for 30 years. Entelis served as a producer for the investigative and interview-based news program 20/20 as well as World News Tonight. In addition, Entelis worked as Senior Vice President for Talent Strategy, Development and Research. She then joined CNN in 2012, where she helps create films that transcend typical modes of storytelling.
At her lecture, Entelis discussed the transformation of the media industry following the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, where, with an overflow of coverage, even important stories easily become lost to time. Commenting on this paradigm, Entelis said,“We’re all being bombarded with news all around us, we have so many sources of news and we consume so much news, but I believe we consume it in very small bits and pieces, and it’s not very satisfying in terms of the need to engage in a story, to understand characters, to see themes play out and understand a complex world.”
Entelis shared that, in developing CNN documentaries, she had to adapt to a platform that was unusual in its scope and would attract a different audience than other CNN programs. The first documentary CNN Films commissioned, titled “Girl Rising”—which followed nine girls from developing countries—received low ratings. Since then, CNN Films has released 45 films, expanding its diversity of stories and earning higher ratings.
Describing the stages of the filmmaking process, Entelis commented, “There’s a lot of work at the beginning … the filmmakers go off and do it and we bring it back several times to work on shaping and strengthening the film, and at the end we have to have a strategy for how to put it out into the world. I’m constantly nurturing and pushing and guiding projects from start to finish.”
Entelis is one of many alumnae/i who have gone on to work in the media industry. Assistant Professor of Film Shane Slattery-Quintanilla said that while Vassar’s Film Department cannot offer a conservatory-style education, it can provide insight and access into the film world through its extensive alumnae/i network. Commenting on the importance of bringing alums to campus, Slattery-Quintanilla stated, “My goal and the department’s goal when we bring visitors is to bring a diverse set of case studies…Vassar alums demonstrate that there’s not one way of doing it—you kind of have to forge a path for yourself.”
Entelis showed clips from multiple films released by CNN Films, including “RBG” and “Three Identical Strangers.” The former, which follows the political trajectory of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was released in May and is now ranked 22nd in the record of highest grossing documentaries ever released. “Three Identical Strangers,” a documentary that traces the reunion of identical triplets who were separated at birth, reveals insight into the ongoing “nature versus nurture” debate and has garnered $12.3 million in the box office. The creation of these films and their success highlight the growing interest in documentary films in the United States, perhaps in reaction to the abundance and flurry of news that constantly surrounds news consumers today.
Moreover, Slattery-Quintanilla emphasized how Entelis brings a certain Vassar style to her work. He commented, “Amy Entelis is an amazing example…she’s someone that has a very Vassar story—she started out in the liberal arts but sort of took a meandering path through journalism and now brings that same artful way of thinking about the world to CNN in curating these films.”
Both Slattery-Quintanilla and Entelis said that interest in documentary film among students and the general public has risen in recent years. Slattery-Quintanilla said, “Students who are first-years this year were born in 2000, so that’s coming of age in a very different time, coming of age in this time of the 24-hour news cycle when it’s really hard to find deeper modes of storytelling.”
Attendee Julien Peck ’22 said that he was attracted to documentaries for their pertinent role in informing people. He commented, “[With] documentaries, if you do it right, you are working with a really interesting story that can captivate an audience but also has relevant themes, relevant implications for people’s lives and what they understand about the world. It’s a direct educational and influential form of film rather than entertainment.”
When there seems to be an endless cycle of news with which to keep up, documentaries allow viewers to take a step back. As Entelis put it, “I think documentaries are filling a need right now of people needing to understand the bigger world and engage with it.”