Gone are the days when HBO, PBS and Showtime ruled the documentary marketplace. Netflix and Amazon — as well as the recent emergence of digital distributors including Apple, Facebook, Hulu and YouTube Red — have changed the face of the docu genre: There is a newfound excitement around unscripted projects. But with the rapid nonfiction platform expansion has come a strong demand for content — and not just any old content. Content that taps into the cultural zeitgeist. Content that tackles the latest headlines. Content that audiences want to better understand. Or at least try and understand.
Major players in the docs field such as Netflix, as well as unlikely networks like E!, are clamoring for topical documentaries about issues including the Trump presidency and movements like Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and Never Again.
“Clearly people are consumed with these stories, and many top-tier broadcaster networks are looking to capitalize on that,” says Justin Wilkes, RadicalMedia partner and president of entertainment.
Wilkes should know. RadicalMedia, a New York City-based production company, is active in everything from film to TV, commercials, experiential, digital and technology to music videos and post-production. Radical’s recent nonfiction projects include Netflix’s “Bobby Kennedy for President” and “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman” and Nat Geo’s documentary-drama hybrid, “Mars.”
The day after Donald Trump was elected Wilkes knew he needed to get a project off the ground that could “reflect the current situation in our country.”
“We didn’t says ‘let’s make an anti-Trump piece,’ ” Wilkes says. “It was much more, in this case, about the truth, which is and was being attacked. We thought, ‘What’s a nuanced way that we can approach that subject matter?’ ”
He found his answer with director Liz Garbus, with whom Radical collaborated on the 2015 Emmy-winning and Academy Award nominated Netflix doc “What Happened, Miss Simone?”
“After the election I thought about how I wanted to add to the conversation we were having in the country,” Garbus says. “I knew that there was a hunger to understand the dynamics of the election; that’s when I thought about the New York Times.”
Garbus approached the Times with the idea of documenting Trump’s first year in office via the reporters who were in charge of covering him. The result is “The Fourth Estate,” which premiered on Showtime last month.
Women for Women Intl. founder Zainab Salbi also wanted to contribute to a topical conversation, specifically about sexual harassment and assault. Her idea was to take the discussion surrounding sexual harassment to another level by engaging both women and men from all generations and walks of life.
PBS greenlit the five-part, half-hour series hosted by Zainab called “#MeToo, Now What?” in January. The first show in the series aired just weeks later in February. “There was this urgency since things were happening in real time,” says the show’s executive producer, Gina Kim. “That said, it was the quickest turnaround I’ve certainly ever worked on.”
Salbi adds that she was very nervous about the series hitting the airwaves in the wake of #MeToo movement.
“I worried if society was ready for it,” says Salbi. “People were angry and here we were [in one episode] showing the process of forgiveness. I thought, ‘Are we ahead of our time here?’ But I knew that we needed to present these issues now so we could push that national discussion further.”
While PBS is no stranger to doc fare, the cable channel E! is synonymous with “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” But Amy Introcaso-Davis, exec VP of development and production at E!, wanted to shake things up when she greenlit “Citizen Rose” in January. The five-part series about Rose McGowan’s part in the #MeToo movement began production in October. The first episode aired in late January.
“This series was a no brainer for us,” Introcaso-Davis says. “[The #MeToo movement] is such an important moment in our history, and one of the things that I have been concentrating on since I came to E! is that we should be portraying strong women with very strong points of view, and certainly Rose McGowan has a strong point of view.” While there is a rush to get topical docus out into the world, Garbus isn’t having a problem getting evergreen projects greenlit.
“I have a film that I’m pitching that is about a historical subject that is going great,” Garbus says.
Fellow veteran docu filmmaker Joe Berlinger is also experiencing pitching success.
Last year, Berlinger had three unscripted series — “Killing Richard Glossip,” “Gone: The Forgotten Women of Ohio” and “Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders” — air on Investigation Discovery, Spike TV and Sundance TV, respectively. His latest feature doc, “Wrong Man” debuts on Starz in June. But despite the growing list of distributors, Berlinger isn’t sure if the increase in documentary content is a good thing.
“It’s the best of times and worst of times for documentary maker,” he says. “There’s a tremendous amount of production going on. Far more production than I think there are eyeballs [for] and to me, that’s why it’s a blessing and a curse. It’s easier than ever to make a documentary for a television network but it’s harder than ever to break through and really make some news. Be water cooler conversation.”