A mad rush by premium cablers and streamers to come up with the next “Jinx” followed, with Netflix’s 10-part “Making a Murderer” later that year and ESPN’s format busting “O.J.: Made in America” in 2016 further whetting the appetite for long-form docuseries.
But in the last few years docuseries have become noticeably bloated, so much so that according to several veteran docu producers, major platforms such as HBO, Netflix and Amazon are seeking shorter series or the traditional 90-minute, one-off documentary.
While the explosion of docuseries may have initially garnered subscribers for streamers, viewer data structures and algorithms have convinced doc buyers that more is not necessarily better.
“It seems clear that the data is telling these buyers that there are certain types of projects that really work in a series form and there are certain types of projects that don’t,” says Jon Bardin, head of creative for Story Syndicate, a production company co-founded by Oscar winner Dan Cogan and Emmy winner Liz Garbus. “In my experience in talking to buyers it’s actually starting to swing back in the other direction. We’re getting feedback from some of the bigger platforms really pushing on the question of why this project should be a series rather than a feature.”
After the seven-hour, 47- minute “O.J.: Made in America” won Academy Award for feature documentary in 2017, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences barred multi-part and limited series from ever winning or being nominated in best documentary feature category. But the elimination of Oscar consideration didn’t matter. Every platform in existence wanted a watercooler nonfiction series.
“Series are starting to make documentary features feel like an endangered species,” Vinnie Malhotra, Showtime’s senior vice president of documentaries, unscripted and sports programming told Variety in 2018.
Oscar-winning and nominated directors including Alex Gibney, Liz Garbus, Joe Berlinger and Amy Berg were among the many prominent documentarians to take on the docuseries format. Even narrative fiction royalty — Mark and Jay Duplass and Allen Hughes entered the market with Neftlix’s “Wild Wild Country” and HBO’s “The Defiant Ones,” respectively.
As streaming services grew to include Amazon, Apple TV Plus, HBO Max, Peacock, Hulu and most recently IMDb TV the number of docuseries increased exponentially.
“The proliferation of subscription services and OTT’s have made the whole smorgasbord of programming really necessary for a platform to survive,” says Sara Bernstein, co-president of Imagine Documentaries. “Documentaries and docuseries are a great and, in some ways, a very affordable way for networks and streamers to be able to satisfy viewers’ desires. And they can often bring awards and zeitgeisty buzz.”
Bernstein is behind Imagine’s successful four-part Netflix series “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel,” about the disappearance of Elisa Lam, and the upcoming “The Supermodels,” an Apple TV Plus series about Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista.
While social-issue oriented docus continued to dominate the feature documentary market with films like “I Am Not Your Negro,” “13th,” “American Factory,” and “The Edge of Democracy,” comprehensive looks at supermodels, cold case crimes, food, Scientology, unique houses, cults, music festivals that never happened, sports heroes, serial killers and of course private big cat zoo owners were all fair game when it comes to the nonfiction multi-part format.
“There’s been a renaissance in feature documentary filmmaking over the last decade, and that certainly created more of an audience for premium non-fiction storytelling in general,” says Industrial Media’s president Aaron Saidman. “Then you had the rise of the streamers in the middle part of the last decade, which really was the perfect timing to capture that renaissance and drive further interest in all forms of nonfiction. And of course, the streamers and binge watching being a key component of that helped fuel multi-part storytelling.”
Industrial Media is a collection of independent production banners that together have more than 60 series running across two dozen-plus networks.
“Nonfiction in general has become more important to the business models of all of these streamers,” says Bardin. “As they have seen ways to have nonfiction reach sizable audiences in a way that traditionally they thought was reserved for scripted content, it has created more space for different kinds of formats and approaches to nonfiction storytelling and a more openness to spending more money or thinking bigger about individual projects.”
That openness led to plenty of docuseries that were clearly inflated. A 10-parter could have been two episodes. A four-part docuseries could have been a one-off docu, which begged the question: Are platforms interested in good stories or just filling pipelines, gaining subscriptions and being part of the zeitgeist?
“There’s now a recognition that with the right projects you can actually drive the business and increase subscribers for these platforms with non-fiction,” says Bardin. “That’s a new perspective across these platforms over the last number of years.”
Story Syndicate has released several docuseries since launching two years ago, including Netflix’s “The Innocence Project,” about an effort to free wrongfully convicted prisoners, the six-part HBO series “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” about Michelle McNamara and the pursuit of the Golden State Killer, and Amazon Studios’ “All In: The Fight for Democracy,” centered Stacey Abrams and America’s history of voter suppression. It is currently in production on a documentary series about the GameStop for Netflix.
Over the last two years, Industrial Media’s CEO Eli Holzman says he, like Bardin, has noticed the pendulum switch from series to back to doc features.
“We went out to market with ideas for series and the buyers came back and asked us to make feature films,” says Holzman. “That was the case with our HBO documentary “The Swamp” and our Paris Hilton feature documentary “This Is Paris” for YouTube Originals.”
That said, docuseries are here to stay according to Imagine’s Bernstein.
“You could argue that every series or movie — it doesn’t just have to be a documentary it could be fiction — feels too long,” Bernstein says. “But I think that doc series are now accepted forms of what I call docutainment because you are experiencing real life, real issues, real people’s stories and in some cases real investigations and there’s an element of entertainment in the way that they digest it.
She adds: “That’s exciting for documentaries, because for the first time over recent years (documentaries) have been given parity with dramatic and comedy series in the ways that audiences consume it.”