It is the best of times and, arguably, the trickiest of times when it comes to the documentary industry. There’s no doubt that 2018 was a banner year for documentaries at the box office with Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s Academy Award-winning “Free Solo” garnering $29 million; Morgan Neville’s “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” grossing $22.8 million; and Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s “RBG” taking in $14.4 million. This year has not proven as stellar at the B.O. but Neon’s “Apollo 11” has had a healthy run. The film grossed $12 million worldwide and was the big winner at the fourth annual Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards, grabbing the documentary feature, editing and score prizes.
Non-fiction films have also gotten a big boost from streamers, undoubtedly raising the profiles of docs in recent years.
“The real impact of streamers is that they have brought documentaries to an audience that wouldn’t typically watch documentaries,” says nonfiction film director Ryan White. “More people are willing to see a documentary as cinema and as entertainment rather than just as education.”
White would know. He began working with Netflix in 2016 when his tour-de-force docuseries “The Keepers” was picked up by the streamer at Sundance Catalyst. His latest feature, “Ask Dr. Ruth,” about the revolutionary sex therapist, sold to Hulu ahead of its Sundance Film Festival premiere earlier this year. Currently White has a project in the works with one of the newest streamers on the scene — Apple.
Meanwhile, veteran nonfiction helmer Joe Berlinger has become an active filmmaker for Netflix.
“Because of the global audience that Netflix keeps growing it has broadened the subject matter that you can go for as a doc filmmaker,” says Berlinger. “I’m just starting a music doc that has an international appeal to it. In the old days if it was just for U.S. play, for say an HBO, it might not have been interesting to funders. But now, filmmakers have opportunities because the streamers can go for more niche subject matters because they’re playing on an international level and so they will still have massive audiences.”
Berlinger was nominated for an Academy Award in 2012 for HBO’s “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory.” In 2016 he began working with Netflix when he made “Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru.” Earlier this year his docuseries “Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes” and his narrative film “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” debuted on the streamer.
In November Berlinger’s Red Bull Films doc, “The Longest Wave,” about windsurfing legend Robby Naish, premiered at DOC NYC.
“There’s 10 times more production going on then there was even six or seven years ago,” Berlinger explains. “I’m busier than ever. In my pipeline, I have four Netflix series and a Netflix documentary.”
To the naked eye, documentarians seem to be living in a golden age of nonfiction filmmaking. In addition to more distributors being interested in docs — features and series — streamers have deep pockets.
“When it comes to streamers, the biggest advantage out of the gates is that they have the money to fully fund your budget,” White says. “So it’s taken away a whole extra part of the producing, which is cobbling together the budget. Before ‘The Keepers,’ the entire time I was making a film, I was also cobbling together the budget. Since I’ve done ‘The Keepers’ I haven’t had to go through that process anymore.”
Filmmakers Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim’s most recent feature docu, “The Great Hack,” was made with Netflix. It marks the second time the directing duo worked with the streamer. Their doc “The Square” was the first film to garner an Academy Award nomination for Netflix back in 2014. In “The Great Hack,” Amer and Noujaim examine Cambridge Analytica, a U.K.-based political consulting firm that played a critical role in Donald Trump’s campaign by using data gleaned from Facebook to target persuadable voters in key swing states.
Amer says that while the film didn’t get a lengthy theatrical run, he is thrilled with the global audience the film has garnered.
“With Netflix you create a world conversation when your film is released,” says Amer. “Now people around the world, from different backgrounds, are talking about data transparency and Facebook. People around the world are like, ‘Wait. What am I leaving behind with every swipe and with every click?’ I don’t know how you could do that without Netflix.”
Berlinger believes that new streaming services like Apple, Disney and WarnerMedia will only make the nonfiction space that much better.
“What Netflix and the streaming revolution has done is put everybody on notice that they have to play at a higher level because it’s the battle for the future of viewing,” Berlinger says. “The traditional players — basic cable and subscription services like HBO, Starz, Showtime — everyone is playing harder to keep eyeballs.”
But both Amer and White still dream about their respective future docs having a strong theatrical presence.
“Maybe it’s a generational thing,” White says. “I grew up going to movie theaters all weekend and that’s why I became a filmmaker. So in some ways streamers can be like the forbidden apple. But I have to say that I have had films with theatrical offers and streamer offers and it’s very hard to pass up the streaming offer. The theatrical companies can’t come close.”
Director Richard Ladkani is one filmmaker who turned down a Netflix offer for his latest film, “Sea of Shadows,” about efforts to save the endangered vaquita whale in the Sea of Cortez. Ladkani wanted a guaranteed theatrical release for “Sea.” The director’s previous doc, “The Ivory Game,” sold to Netflix in 2016. But this year, after “Sea of Shadows” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and won the Audience Award for world cinema documentary, Ladkani went with National Geographic Documentary Films.
“The whole media campaign that comes with the theatrical release is a hundred times bigger than if you just release on a streaming service or just on TV,” says Ladkani. “You will just get so much more attention over longer periods of time on a global level if you have a real theatrical release.”
But Berlinger is not so sure. In the last decade, the filmmaker’s perspective on theatrical has flipped.
“When I entered the fray there was no such thing as streaming or social media,” he says. “That’s why with my first film, ‘Brother’s Keeper,’ (co-director) Bruce Sinofsky and I maxed out a dozen credit cards and took out second mortgages on our homes for a theatrical release because of that communal experience that a theater provides. But now the combination of streamers and social media has created a community in the same sense that I was going for when I was a committed theatrical release guy.”
Ladkani believes that giving “Sea of Shadows” a global theatrical release will not only sustain media attention, but also lengthen the legs of the doc’s impact campaign. “I know it’s awards season but it’s not just about the awards, it’s also about the general attention,” he explains. “If this movie is able to help save the vaquita it will be a symbol of hope for so many other filmmakers and for people in general to raise their voice.”
While “Sea of Shadows” is an environmental film it is also undoubtedly a political film, which White says might keep the theatrical documentary footprint alive and well.
“Documentary filmmaking is not safe,” says White. “Most of our films have some element that isn’t family-friendly fare. Political risk is involved and that might upset powerful individuals or powerful governments. So as streamers become more corporate or if they’re owned by the larger companies, they will probably have to be more careful about the things they program.”
White theorizes that streamers will continue to take on “sexy subject matters” and theatrical arms like Magnolia and Neon will become home to risky political docs and/or artsy docus that streamers might not want to take a chance on.
“Netflix has grown so large and so powerful and so global that they have to be more careful about the things they program,” says White. “It’s an interesting challenge.”