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Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

MLK: The Assassination Tapes: Winning Awards by Overcoming the Challenges of Working with the Archive

To mark today’s 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination, I have republished our coverage of the Peabody Award-winning documentary “MLK: The Assassination Tapes.” 

Originally published July 1, 2013.

David Royle, EVP Programming & Production, Smithsonian Networks, and Tom Jennings, Executive Producer & Founder, 1895 Films explored the development and commissioning of their multiple-award-winning documentary at MIPDoc 2013.

Major awards won by MLK include:

  • Peabody Award
  • Cine Golden Eagle
  • Impact Media Awards, New York: Best Historical Production, Best Use of Archive
  • Real Screen Awards: Best Use of Archive, Best Editing

You can watch the MIPDoc panel in its entirety here.



  • 1895 Films previously produced a similarly-styled doc on the JFK assassination.
  • Tom says: “We used no narration, no interviews – only the documentary evidence available at the time.”
    • “Usually you have experts explaining what you’re seeing, what you just saw, what you’re about to see…or you have a narrator.”
    • “Our ‘new frontier’ was to present the archive almost as a feature film so that the story unfolds seamlessly.”

Timeline: From Pitch to Greenlight

  • Tom pitched to Smithsonian, who said: “Go out and find us the footage.”
  • “This is often the most difficult part of the process. We had been previously rejected by other channels.”
  • “At the time, a lot of channels were changing their formats to character-driven reality shows.”

What were Smithsonian’s concerns?

  • According to David Royle, “when you use archival footage in large quantities,  you have all sorts of rights issues that you have to deal with.”
  • Also, David said that Tom’s film could be seen as an ‘old-fashioned approach’ that may not connect with viewers.
  • “If you look at the Internet today, it’s all about experiencing raw material that’s just flung out there.”
  • “Tom did something similar with all the archive captured in 1968, and he brings it all together and lets the audience decide for themselves what they’re seeing…which I believe is one of the reasons his film has such vitality.”
  • Although Tom noted he had not developed much of the film at the time of the pitch, David emphasized that “Tom managed to make connections with my colleagues who saw the real power of what he was trying to do!”
  • David’s Takeaway? “Make friends with different people in a network to multiply the prospects for your film.”
  • Timeline: 1 year from greenlight to broadcast.

Frontier 1: The Archive is Everywhere – Find it! Get Access!

  • Tom described the many challenges of finding footage:
    • “Television networks, especially on the local level, do not keep their archives. 90% of our material came from the University of Memphis, where a group of professors had saved the material.”
    • “Even though they had the archive, we had to license it from the TV stations who originally created it.”
  • “We only use local footage to make it feel that, though it’s a familiar event, it makes viewers feel like they’re experiencing the assassination for the first time.”

Frontier 2: Editorial Patience & Imagination!

  • David described the collaboration with 1895 Films:
    • “We screen, we give feedback, we make suggestions, it’s a pretty collaborative process with a lot of back and forth.”
    • “At the end of the day, we’re not trying to take anyone’s film away from them, we’re just trying to support our producers and directors and try to communicate to them what makes a film work for our channel.”
  • Tom: “Our experience with the Smithsonian Channel was one of the best I’ve had as far as dealing with networks giving notes.”
    • “Too many of the networks employ people who have not made films before, so when they give you notes and changes, sometimes it can be confusing or vague.”
  • According to David: “We had to choose between a one hour or two hour film. Most films are better when they’re tighter. We narrowed down Tom’s first curt to 45 minutes. I’d prefer to have a really intense one hour where the audience leaves wanting to know more.”
  • Tom: “The editing process took about twice as long as for typical program.”
    • “We had to cut it in a way that made sense for the Smithsonian Channel.”
    • “We’re so used to seeing the same clips of historical events, that they become ingrained in our minds. It’s because we let the newly discovered footage play out that we achieved such a great overall product.”

Frontier 3: Avoid the Traps, Particularly Rights

  • “The biggest trap was the rights issue.”
  • “We had to pay a licensing fee to the  network for the footage.”
  • “I learned that the smaller the markets, the bigger the traps you’ll have with rights issues.”
  • David: “Increasingly in the U.S., networks want all media rights. We need our programs to be distributed on all media platforms.”
  • The challenge of working with the King family:
    • “We needed permission from the family to use MLK’s speeches and image.”
    • The MLK family educated the producers, saying: “Not only do you have to license Martin’s speech, we get to tell you whether or not you can create the program at all, and how much it’s going to cost.”
    • Tom says: “We all lived through a very anxious few weeks.”
    • Eventually, “while we did have to pay a license fee, it was much, much less than what we had feared.”

Summing Up

  • David says: “The challenge of this technique is to do it in a way that infuses the film with drama and creates real tension, with a real story that pulls the audience through.”
  • “It pulled people in. People got to see the events leading up to the assassination in a totally new way.”
  • MLK has performed extremely well for us!”


  • MLK was a work-for-hire commission
  • Cost: Half went to footage.