Netflix: What’s up docs?

Internet co. to target non-fiction crowd

Netflix has entered into a distribution agreement with documentary-feature supplier Docurama, a label of New Video, with both hoping to capitalize on the online DVD rental giant’s unique ability to market niche titles.

The non-revenue-sharing deal calls for critically acclaimed titles from Docurama to enjoy a limited exclusive release window for Netflix’s more than 1.1 million subscribers.

Netflix will use its customer information database to market these titles directly via email, with customer rankings also playing a part in the promotion.

“We’re going to take people who are predisposed to documentaries and send them an email that says, basically, ‘Because you have seen documentaries, here’s another one you might like,’ ” said Ted Sarandos, VP of content acquisition for Netflix. “And if they rate the film highly, that will only accelerate the merchandising engine.”

Increased visibility

“These are films that need some time and some visibility to get the word of mouth out there,” said Docurama president Steve Savage. “Because of their software, (Netflix) is able to look at what their subscribers rent and they’re able to make that connection.”

Once word of mouth is built, Docurama will distribute the features in the wider market, with Netflix enjoying a small part of the profit participation. The deal commences with four titles:

  • “William Gibson — No Maps for These Territories” (2001): A profile of the science-fiction author of “Neuromancer,” among other works (set for Netflix release on July 15).

  • “See How They Run” (2002): An insider’s look at the 2000 San Francisco mayoral election and highly publicized runoff between incumbent Willie Brown and openly gay write-in candidate Tom Ammiano (Aug. 15).

  • “True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachia” (2002): The stories behind some of the “hillbillies” photographed by Adams over the years (TBA).

  • “Jupiter’s Wife” (1994): Sundance special jury prize-winner about a homeless woman in New York’s Central Park (TBA).

‘Bowling’ league

Sarandos said the theatrical success of Michael Moore’s Oscar-winning “Bowling for Columbine” (set for video release Aug. 19 by MGM Home Entertainment) proves “there is a hungry audience” for documentaries.

He said Netflix has been further influenced by its own success with documentary titles such as “It Was a Wonderful Life,” a lauded 1993 look at middle-class women who fell into homelessness. The title has drawn more than 10,000 rentals on the service.

“There’s an audience for these films, but Hollywood can’t sell them in a marketing meeting with a one-sentence tagline,” Sarandos said. “We’re going to see if we can bring an audience to them.”

(Daniel Frankel is a reporter for Daily Variety sister publication Video Business.)

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