Audiences have shown an insatiable appetite for true crime series, but creating those shows is hardly a simple task.
That was the consensus of the exec gathered at an HRTS event, held Tuesday night in Beverly Hills, about the business of producing true crime. Not only must the story be compelling enough to draw an audience, but it must also be presented in a “fair and balanced” way, showing all sides of situations that are bound to be incredibly sensitive.
“Our job is to balance the objectivity of the storytelling but also allow people to tell their stories in an environment that’s comfortable,” said Nathaniel Grouille, Netflix’s senior manager of unscripted originals and acquisitions. “We have to protect everyone in that case.”
Grouille shared a story about a crew’s interview with a drug dealer getting interrupted by SWAT kicking down the door. Everyone got arrested — crew included — until the police could sort out what was going on. Law enforcement wanted to know what the crew had learned, while the drug dealer wanted to know if the crew had led the police there. It was already a tricky process to get the drug dealer to trust the crew, and this complicated matters further.
“Our challenge is to find ways to allow people to be privy to the storytelling without becoming people we’re not…and to protect the facts of the case. Often what’s compelling about true crime is the plot you get is so twisty and turn-y and the truth is so hard to come by,” he said. “I want to hear what the investigator has to say, but…you don’t lead the police to a suspect [and] conversely you don’t help a criminal do their work.”
Bob Thompson, director of business and legal affairs at Discovery Inc.,agreed, noting that often producers will try to “impress the network” with a sensationalized first cut without knowing the true story. “They don’t know if the witnesses are reliable, they haven’t checked their sources yet,” he said.
In order to properly prep producers, Thompson brings in outside counsel “to really take them by the hand and teach them how to do things, how not to do things, and how to teach their crew.”
He cited ride-alongs as an example, noting that while producers can give police cameras if they’re doing an arrest at a private residence, the crew should be “shooting on the sidewalk without zoom lenses.”
“They have to know up front, ‘This is what you can’t do,'” he said.
Thompson noted that “subpoena requests happen all of the time” for true crime projects, especially with active cases. But such requests have to be defended in order to protect the first amendment, he believes.
Kathryn Vaughan, president of Good Caper Content and former “Cold Justice” executive producer, said she has a “bible” in place to protect every case, especially because when investigating cold cases, the simple act of reopening them makes them active again.
“If you want to be a true crime producer, there is no world in which legal is your enemy. They must be your best friends. … They keep you safe,” she said. “I’m always sitting in the chair assuming a defense attorney is going to have every email…every document. … You have to be absolutely buttoned-up.”
“There’s no victimless crime, so you’re always, I think, conscious of that,” Grouille added. “When cases get reopened, that’s exciting, but that’s not our primary aim. … [The] job is to tell a great story, it’s not to solve a case.”
But because audiences are looking for answers to the mystery at the end of the show, this poses additional challenges for storytellers, broadcasters, and legal teams.
“You know inherently taking on a serialized project that’s open-ended [comes with] risk,” said Brent Hatherill, senior director of development at Investigation Discovery, given that audiences want a “satisfying conclusion.” “A wrong has been committed and I think there’s an innate human desire to see that wrong righted.”
Turning that into an ending is where “creative producing comes in,” Vaughan said. “We all want the guy in cuffs or a big, huge, splashy ending, but sometimes clearing someone’s name is huge [and] sometimes answering a family’s question is huge,” she said. “You can’t influence it when you’re shooting, so you film it and then your storytelling has to come after.”
In fact, one of the episodes that had the biggest resolution on “Cold Justice,” she recalled, was actually one in which the investigators told the family their case would never be solved.
“There are so many people out there who have a story that they want to share, and oftentimes it’s the worst moment of their lives,” she said. “But there is a cathartic part [to] being a part of a true crime show and telling their stories.”