‘The Jinx’ Ushers in Golden Age for Documentaries, Fueled By Netflix Push

Robert Durst Arrest Caps Good-Luck Finish
Courtesy of HBO

The arrest of Robert Durst on a murder charge this month was cause for celebration in documentary filmmaking circles.

HBO’s successful six-part series “The Jinx,” an investigative look at murder suspect and real estate heir Robert Durst, adds fuel to a white-hot market for deep-dive investigative documentary fare.

In recent months, nonfiction works such as “Going Clear,” a critical look at Scientology; “The Hunting Ground,” a broadside against sexual violence on college campuses; and “Serial,” a hit podcast about a real-life murder, have sparked intense debate and mobilized committed followers, while whistleblower tale “Citizenfour” took the doc Oscar.

A confluence of trends is driving the nonfiction boom. Nobody goes into the business to get rich, but opportunities are expanding, particularly for films that have something profound to say about a social issue or have a big reveal in a true-crime story. And the amplifier effect of social media has helped enhance docs’ real-world impact.

“This decade has been a golden age of nonfiction filmmaking,” said Joe Berlinger, director of the “Paradise Lost” trio of films about the West Memphis Three.

Key to the docu spike has been Netflix’s decision to enter the arena in a big way — and with a fat checkbook. The netcaster has been making the festival rounds for acquisitions, and helping to seed projects early on with filmmakers.

The prices that Netflix is paying to underwrite production or to license material — ranging anywhere from high-six to low-seven figures — has had a ripple effect on other buyers. Showtime, CNN, A&E Network, OWN, IFC, SundanceTV and others have entered the space.

“All of those platforms are out there hunting, and it’s driving the documentary business, and definitely raising the market value of films,” said CNN Films chief Vinnie Malhotra.

Dealmaking ranges from outright acquisitions to licensing pacts that allow creators to retain the underlying copyright, which means the content can eventually be licensed to other buyers for a fresh round of fees.

“There are a lot of places to turn to when you have an idea that you’re excited about pursuing,” said veteran producer R.J. Cutler, whose recent doc works include 2009’s “The September Issue,” 2012’s  “The World According to Dick Cheney,” for Showtime, and Showtime’s upcoming “Listen to Me Marlon” study of the famed actor using his private audio recordings.

Cutler notes that the reality TV boom has also expanded the appetite of a wide range of outlets for unscripted programming.

“Since the beginning of what has become known as the reality television era, you’ve had a simultaneous growth in non-fiction drama series, the kind of thing we started with (the 1999 Fox docu series) ‘American High.’ It’s a healthy market if you know how to work it,” Cutler said.

Along with the influx of TV money, support from nonprofits is on the rise, as organizations see the kind of impact that a well-made doc can have on social issues and specific causes. The Ford Foundation and MacArthur Foundation are among the well-heeled benefactors that have increased their grant money, according to Marjan Safinia, president of the Intl. Documentary Assn., a membership org for filmmakers and doc enthusiasts.

Private corporations are also underwriting documentaries that they see as a fit with their public image, Safinia noted. Patagonia, the outdoor apparel firm, sponsored “DamNation,” a look at the environmental damage caused by aging dams. Soft-drink maker Mountain Dew helped fund the skateboarding doc “We Are Blood,” which debuts this summer.

At the other end of the spectrum, crowdfunding campaigns have evolved in the past few years to become viable sources of coin for projects with enough sizzle.

And then there’s the expansion of the documentary form itself — from classic but confining video-verite studies to a range that incorporates all manner of POVs and presentations.

“The documentary film has really evolved as a format,” Safinia said. “It’s moved away from being the broccoli of films to using storytelling styles that are really engaging.”

Netflix also has made an impact in the way that the service’s recommendation engines suggest titles to its 50 million-plus global audience. Endorsed documentaries are woven into the same streams as those of narrative features and TV shows, pushing them out of the niche realm.

But theatrical play is no longer the holy grail of the documentary world. Releases of a film in more than a few theaters are rare, and only a few docs ever crack $1 million in receipts. Berlinger notes that his recent film “Whitey,” a look at Boston gangster Whitey Bulger, flatlined at the box office, even though it was a VOD hit.

“You have to realign your expectations of what constitutes success,” said Berlinger. “Expecting big revenues from theatrical documentaries is an old model.”

Digital revenues and rights deals with streaming services are helping to fill the void. Radius-TWC co-president Tom Quinn, whose company won back-to-back best doc Oscars for “20 Feet From Stardom” and “Citizenfour,” said he’s seen a 60% increase in the ancillary revenue docs generate from a combination of VOD, electronic sell-through, streaming and broadcast rights.

“There are now multiple places to go and watch documentaries, and that has built a large and significant nonfiction audience,” he said.

Yet democratization of the form, thanks to cheap digital cameras, has spawned a generation of wannabes. “To stand out, you have to be about something relevant and urgent,” said Brad Barber, co-director of the SXSW breakout documentary “Peace Officer.”

Though filmmakers such as Berlinger report that they’re busier than ever, most supplement their incomes from other sources. Barber and “Peace Officer” co-director Scott Christopherson teach film studies, while several top directors make commercials and branded films.

Ultimately, though, as the swell of interest in the Durst saga showed last week, documentaries are clearly making a strong case with viewers.

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