Once seen as rather elitist and niche, the documentary feature market is expanding as audience demand for real life stories continues to grow.
Documentaries have become a huge genre in their own right, says Lia Devlin, head of distribution at Altitude Films, whose slate includes “Tina,” “Zappa,” “David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet,” and festival hit “Gunda,” which it releases this June.
“Audiences have reappraised the documentary genre. They are treated very much now as feature films and a solid entertainment format.”
Streamers have played a key part in helping broaden the appeal of feature docs, offering thrilling and emotional real-life stories that are often as dramatic as anything that fiction could dream up. Netflix, in particular, has helped to raise awareness. The streamer, for example, has two hotly tipped Oscar documentary contenders this year, “My Octopus Teacher” and “Crip Camp,” having previously won the category in 2018 with “Icarus” and in 2020 with “American Factory.”
Apple TV Plus, meanwhile, set the industry alight in 2019 by paying a reported $25 million for “Billie Eilish – The World’s a Little Blurry,” highlighting that there is money to be made in the genre.
Discovery Plus and Nat Geo have also pushed hard into the premium doc space, with the latter recently acquiring worldwide rights to Sundance doc “Playing With Sharks.”
It’s not just the streamers though. Last year, pay-TV firm Sky launched its own documentary service, Sky Documentaries. European public service broadcasters are also in the market for feature docs. The BBC’s long-running feature doc strand, Storyville, for example, is offering Oscar nominees “The Mole Agent” and “Collective” through to the uplifting “Into the Storm: Surfing to Survive” to viewers via the BBC iPlayer digital platform as well as on linear TV.
iPlayer is proving a fertile home for feature docs, reckons Mandy Chang, commissioning editor for BBC Storyville. “The numbers for Storyville online are starting to eclipse the numbers on TV. They sit on iPlayer for longer, and gather an audience by word of mouth, as well as on Twitter and other forms of social media.”
Chang also links the growth of feature docs to the demise of long-form, investigative newspaper journalism. “It’s a way of going deeply into the story in a way that a newspaper article may not be able to,” she says. By way of example, she cites “Collective’s” years long and jaw-dropping investigation into corruption into the Romanian health service.
For documentary makers, there is a realization that it is possible to make money out of feature docs, partly because of the growing number of platforms. “People are coming into the market because there are more sources of funding,” says Chang. “It is just about understanding how to tap into it.”
As an indication of the state of the feature doc market, specialist documentary distributor, sales agent and producer Dogwoof has just closed its best year yet, says Oli Harbottle, head of distribution and acquisitions.
This is despite the closure of cinemas due to the pandemic. With audiences stuck at home, Dogwoof – whose U.K. distribution slate includes “I Am Greta,” “Stray,” “The Mole Agent” and “Collective” – has been buoyed by a 50% increase in transactional video on demand (TVOD) revenues over the past year.
Some of these revenues have come via its recently launched Dogwoof On Demand platform, but also via other digital platforms such as Amazon Prime Video and iTunes. Dogwoof has also launched five feature docs as “virtual cinema” releases; for the launch of “Stray” on March 26, more than 40 cinemas participated. Harbottle says virtual cinema numbers are still small but growing. “I think it could play a role in the future distribution landscape,” he says.
As well as TVOD, broadcasters and streamers have also been buying over the past year, says Harbottle, who adds that Dogwoof’s sales arm has also had an “incredible year.” Among recent deals, Dogwoof sold “Playing With Sharks” to Nat Geo, having boarded the project a couple of years ago as a financier, exec producer and sales agent.
The increasingly competitive nature of the feature doc market means that companies like Dogwoof are increasingly getting involved at an earlier stage, as sales agents or financiers. Dogwoof, for example, launched its production arm a few years ago, just as streamer demand for feature docs was building. “We realized we had to be in at the source of the origination of the IP,” says Harbottle. “There are numerous other companies operating in this space, who perhaps weren’t four or five years ago, because they’ve seen the documentary genre blossoming.”
It’s a point echoed by Lia Devlin at Altitude, which also develops its own slate of documentaries. “Nowadays, every sales company has documentaries as part of their offering – and that wasn’t the case a few years ago.”