Discovery Drops Decade-Long SilverDocs Support


Discovery Channel has abandoned its support and partnership in the annual “SilverDocs” documentary festival. Discovery had collaborated with the American Film Institute, its Silver Spring, Maryland, neighbor, since the event’s inception in 2003.

This year’s June 19-23 program has been renamed “AFI Docs.”  Car-maker Audi has stepped into the major role of presenting sponsor, mirroring its support for the “AFI Fest” in Los Angeles in November.

A Discovery executive told me that the company is “turning its attention to other activities in the community,” a close-in Washington, DC, suburb. 

Although Discovery has appeared to be trimming its stake and participation in SilverDocs in recent years, last week’s revelation that it will not be part of the event came as a surprise to many observers.  The move comes as Discovery Networks’ programming itself moves away from the founding focus on documentaries.

ABC News and The Washington Post have stepped in as media sponsors for this year’s AFI Docs.  Many of the documentaries will be screened at Smithsonian Institution sites, the Newseum and other downtown Washington venues, although AFI officials assure that all films will also appear at the Silver Spring theater.     

When the first SilverDocs week-long festival and symposia were created in 2003, a joint announcement of “the AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival,” emphasized the “unique collaboration between AFI and the Discovery Channel … [to] establish benchmarks for excellence in the international documentary field.” The program was also touted as signature event in revitalizing the old suburban downtown area about 10 miles from downtown D.C.

Although relatively few of the screened documentaries made their way into Discovery channel lineups, the film-makers were often awed to be showing their works in the shadow (literally) of the esteemed network headquarters.  And hopes persisted that some documentaries (or their producers) would be discovered – so to speak – for future assignments, as I learned during conversations with producers over the years I attended SilverDocs.

The Discovery headquarters building and AFI’s refurbished “Silver Theater and Cultural Center” were partially supported by local government funding and tax breaks. The two facilities, less than a block apart, have shared venues for many events.

Discovery Founder John Hendricks sits on the Los Angeles-based AFI Board of Trustees.

AFI Docs is spinning that this year’s shorter agenda (four days rather than six to eight days of previous years) reflects the new objective to bring high-profile documentaries and panel discussions closer to policy-makers and non-governmental organization staffs in DC.

Discovery’s absence from the event comes at a time of growing interest in non-fiction video. Variety called last year’s SilverDocs, which drew more than 27,000 attendees and conference  participants, as "Non-fiction Nirvana.”  The screenings, awards competition and high-profile symposia, attracted global film-makers to the event.

Although local rumors persist that Discovery will further reduce its presence in Silver Spring after its tax benefits expire in coming years, company officials insist that “we’re not going away.” Nonetheless, many of the company’s top executives and sales forces are headquartered in New York.