Park City Producer Lands Oscar
Russian Doping Documentary
Winning an Oscar was never on Jim Swartz’s bucket list. Producing documentary films is simply a hobby for venture capitalist Swartz, albeit one that is arguably more interesting than golf.
He’s been involved with documentaries since the late 1990s and through his film group Impact Partners has produced more than 90 documentaries. “Icarus,” a documentary about state-sponsored doping among Russian athletes, landed Swartz the Oscar prize he never dreamed of but was thrilled to get. The film won best documentary feature at the 2018 Academy Awards in March.
“It was pretty exhilarating,” says Swartz, who lives part-time in Park City. “It was sort of an out-of-body experience. I know I was there because I have a video copy of it, but it is all a pretty distant memory at this point.”
Flying Too Close to the Sun
When Swartz first heard about “Icarus,” it was from director Bryan Fogel whose initial plan was to uncover the techniques of doping in bike racing. Fogel connected with Grigory Rodchenkov, director of Russia’s Anti-Doping Laboratory, for help with the documentary. Rodchenkov agreed to put together a doping regimen for Fogel that would outsmart the drug tests he encountered as an amateur cyclist.
Halfway through Fogel’s experiment, the project took a dramatic turn. A German documentary exposed doping in Russian Olympic sports and pointed the finger at Rodchenkov who was then asked to resign by Russian authorities.
“He was at the center of it, but of course he was being instructed by a large number of people,” Swartz says. “When he saw this happening to him, he knew his life was at risk.”
The producers of “Icarus” enabled Rodchenkov to fly to America in November 2015, where he and Fogel spent months sifting through documents Rodchenkov brought from Russia. Fogel transitioned from being the subject of the film to being an investigative journalist. Swartz flew to Los Angeles to meet with the men, and says, “It was very clear we had a huge story at that point. And basically a whole new film on our hands.”
No Going Back Now
With the new information and risks, some of the film’s financers got cold feet; others stepped in with new funds as Swartz and his producing partners Dan Cogan and David Fialkow raised capital to move the film ahead.
“We knew we were going to have a very challenging road ahead of us,” Swartz says. “We felt comfortable with the evidence from Grigory and believed him, but there had been no independent verification. There was still an enormous amount of risk, but we felt that it was a story that had to be told.”
Eventually, the story broke in The New York Times and an investigation from the World Anti-Doping Agency substantiated and verified everything Rodchenkov revealed. The film ends at that point, although the real story does not.
“The Russians have still refused to acknowledge any of this,” Swartz says. “The film exposes the International Olympic Committee and a number of the worldwide sports federations as being enormously inept if not corrupt. The film’s had a huge impact in exposing a lot of this, but there still hasn’t been nearly as much action as there should be.”
The Path Forward
Swartz is one of several who have started FairSport.org. FairSport is raising funds to support whistleblowers and to work with athletes to give them a voice. “The athletes basically don’t have a voice here. They are just pawns in the system. As soon as they speak up they get swept aside; we’ve got to find a better way for all of that.”
“Icarus” debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2017. The crowd favorite film won a Grand Jury Award. Netflix bought the film for a reputed $5 million — one of the largest deals ever for a documentary film — and released it on Aug. 5, 2017.
With an Oscar under his belt, Swartz is moving forward on several film projects but says he doesn’t know what their future will be.
“It’s very much like the venture capital business. You start these things and you work with them, but you never know how big they are going to be. They are all interesting, they are all useful, but you never know which one is going to turn out to be the most impactful.”