Filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert understand better than most how much things can change in a decade. In 2009 they released their Oscar-nominated documentary short The Last Truck, about the closing of a GM plant in Ohio. In 2019, they returned with American Factory, a feature documenting what happened to that old plant, now the site of a bustling Chinese auto glass operation.
In that 10-year span not only did the fate of that factory change, so did the distribution model for their films—The Last Truck premiered on HBO, but the pay cable channel didn’t release American Factory; Netflix scooped it up in a seven-figure deal.
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Netflix and fellow streaming platforms Amazon Prime and Hulu have produced a seismic impact on Hollywood, but they’re also disruptors of the decade in the nonfiction space—turning an admired if relatively tranquil arena into a hotbed of programming.
“[We saw] a hungry audience and an opportunity and that’s why we got into [documentaries],” Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos told Documentary magazine as the platform released its acclaimed 2015 true crime docuseries Making a Murderer. “I do think that we’ve been able to make documentary films accessible in a way that has brought real mainstream audiences to documentary films that otherwise couldn’t have happened.”
Netflix has demonstrated a willingness to spend significantly on documentaries, flooding a formerly arid landscape with unprecedented sums. As Deadline’s Mike Fleming reported last February, the streamer spent $10 million to acquire Rachel Lears’ Knock Down the House out of Sundance. Lears’ film and American Factory made the recently-announced Oscar documentary feature shortlist, as did two other highly-regarded Netflix films: The Edge of Democracy, directed by Petra Costa, and The Great Hack, directed by Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim. Netflix was also behind Noujaim and Amer’s 2013 film The Square, a documentary that made Netflix the first major streaming platform to claim an Academy Award nomination.
Awards recognition and the prestige that confers is part of the inherent value of documentaries to not just Netflix but other streamers. Last January, Hulu scored its first Oscar nomination ever, for Bing Liu’s documentary Minding the Gap.
“It does burnish a brand,” notes Simon Kilmurry, executive director of the International Documentary Association and former executive producer of the PBS doc series POV. “HBO obviously was a key player in that space and it certainly burnished their brand. I would like to think POV burnished the brand of public television and brought a younger and a more diverse audience… I think it’s okay to celebrate that.”
Netflix outbid a slew of competitors to acquire Icarus in 2017, the documentary by Bryan Fogel about the Russian athletics doping scandal, a reported $5 million investment that paid off when the film won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. Short documentaries are likewise a big part of the Netflix portfolio. Their offices in Hollywood contain a display case housing the Oscar statuette won by The White Helmets, the 2016 Netflix short directed by Orlando von Einsiedel. And when the Oscar short documentary shortlist came out in mid-December it was dominated by Netflix films—40-percent of the total.
“Streaming services are acquiring films of all different lengths, including a lot of shorts,” observes Kristine Samuelson, director of Life Overtakes Me, one of the Netflix shorts to make the Oscar shortlist. “That has transformed the possibilities for people making films that are not just features… The streaming services have really picked it up. It’s certainly made a difference to us.”
The newest streaming platforms—Disney+ and Apple TV+—have quickly demonstrated an appetite for nonfiction material. Apple TV+ inked a first-look deal with Brian Grazer and Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment documentary division for doc features and series. And the platform reportedly paid $25 million for an upcoming documentary on singer Billie Eilish from Emmy-winning director R.J. Cutler.
“Disney+, one of their first available [programs] on the day and date that they launched was their documentary series on the Imagineers. So right from the get go,” notes the IDA’s Kilmurry. “We’ll see what comes from the new entrants in the field and then the upcoming HBO Max and Peacock.”
The multiplying OTT services are creating more opportunities for documentary filmmakers, especially well-established figures like Cutler and Oscar-winner Morgan Neville (producer of the upcoming Netflix documentary Taylor Swift: Miss Americana). But if streaming platforms continue to shell out eye-popping amounts for nonfiction films and series, some worry the economics of the business may not work to the advantage of everyone.
“As these numbers get bigger and if the trend continues, I think it does make it harder for younger, less well-known talented filmmakers to break into that space because you can’t take as much of a risk if you’re paying a lot of money,” Kilmurry comments. “It’s going to be interesting to see how the next couple of years shake out. Is it going to remain as vibrant as it is at the moment or settle down a little bit? I think no one can really tell.”
Whatever the future holds for documentaries, there seems little doubt the streaming players will be a major part of it. Amazon, for instance, is making a bigger foray into documentary, getting behind another of this year’s Oscar-shortlisted documentaries—One Child Nation, directed by Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang. The deep pockets and audience reach offered by streamers make them attractive partners for filmmakers.
“It’s a global platform, a global conversation that’s alive all at once,” says director-producer Sophie Lanfear of Netflix, home of her Emmy-winning documentary nature series Our Planet. “It’s been a really rewarding platform to be a part of.”
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