NatGeo Acquires Director Matthew Heineman’s Covid-19-Themed Documentary ‘The First Wave,’ Plans 2021 Debut

National Geographic Documentary Films on Monday announced its acquisition of Oscar-nominated director Matthew Heineman’s documentary The First Wave, a ground-level view inside a New York hospital as the city battled the initial explosion of Covid-19.

The vérité-style film, from Participant and Heineman’s Our Time Projects, will be released in theaters by Neon later this year, followed by a worldwide premiere on National Geographic. Heineman, a Primetime Emmy winner and two-time DGA Award winner, embedded with health care workers at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens, capturing the devastating impact of the pandemic from March through June 2020.

The First Wave spotlights the everyday heroes at the epicenter of COVID-19 as they come together to fight one of the greatest threats the world has ever encountered,” National Geographic noted. “With poignancy and intimacy, the film unflinchingly bears witness to the unseen reality of a hospital overwhelmed by COVID—the emotional and psychological toll on medical professionals, patients fighting for their lives, and their families hoping for them to come home.”

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The documentary also spotlights the unequal toll of the coronavirus, which from the beginning disproportionately impacted people of color and the economically-disadvantaged. 

“As we battle through the pandemic,” commented National Geographic’s Carolyn Bernstein, EVP Global Scripted Content and Documentary Films, “we hope Matt’s powerful, deeply humanistic film will serve as a historical record of our collective struggle against seemingly insurmountable odds and also provide some much-needed catharsis as we start to feel a little more hopeful about the future.”

“I feel deeply honored that I had the opportunity to document—through our subjects over four terrifying months—the impact of this pandemic. It has forced us to question everything, the fragility of our lives, and the way we live,” Heineman said. “The film explores every aspect of the human condition—fear and courage, death and birth, and the inescapable weight of trauma, both the kind that is deeply held and also newly experienced.”

Heineman, Jenna Millman and Leslie Norville produced The First Wave. Among the executive producers are National Geographic’s Bernstein and Ryan Harrington, Participant’s Jeff Skoll and Diane Weyermann, as well as Alex Gibney, Leah Natasha Thomas, Maiken Baird, David Fialkow and Joedan Okun. Oscar winner Gibney recently collaborated with Heineman on the two-part HBO documentary Tiger, about golf great Tiger Woods, which Heineman directed.

While continuing his work in documentary, Heineman has been branching out to scripted films. His 2018 feature A Private War, starring Rosamund Pike in the real life story of war correspondent Marie Colvin, earned Heineman a DGA Award nomination for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in a First-Time Feature Film. He is set to write and direct the upcoming scripted feature Paradise, the true story of the 2018 wildfire that decimated the town of Paradise, California.

Participant’s documentary track record includes four Oscar-winning films, including An Inconvenient Truth (2006), The Cove (2009), Citizenfour (2014), and American Factory (2019).

“Matthew Heineman and the incredible filmmaking team behind The First Wave have created a vital film of and for our time spotlighting the heroic work of frontline responders and exposing the urgent need for drastic change toward racial and health equity,” observed Weyermann, chief content officer for Participant. “We are thrilled to partner again with the teams at National Geographic and Neon in getting this extraordinary film to audiences around the world.”

The acquisition deal was negotiated by Cinetic Media, Participant’s Gabriel Brakin and Danice Woodley, and National Geographic’s Tiffany LeClere, SVP business and legal affairs.

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