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Inside the Demand for Docus: How Streamers and New Financing Options are Causing a Boom

Billie Eilish Crip Camp Documentaris MIPCOM
World’s A Little Blurry: Apple TV+; Crip Camp: HolLynn D’Lil/Netflix

After years of talk about the difficulty of funding premium docs, there’s a sense of buoyancy in the documentary industry.

“Documentary has become part of watercooler conversations,” says Leo Pearlman, managing partner, Fulwell 73, whose credits include Amazon original “All or Nothing: Juventus” and “I Am Bolt.”

Although for years “documentaries were something that strange cinephiles spoke about in corners,” Pearlman says, streamers have played a big role in driving demand, and opening up new financing opportunities for producers beyond traditional theatrical and TV investors. Netflix, for example, has the breakout hit “My Octopus Teacher” and “Crip Camp,” which was produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Prods. Apple TV Plus, meanwhile, picked up “Billie Eilish — The World’s a Little Blurry,” while Discovery Plus pushed hard into the premium doc space, unveiling a slew of commissions in February.

(It’s not just the streamers, though: Last year pay-TV firm Sky launched its own service, Sky Documentaries.)

Still, as the shift to streaming accelerates, John Smithson, creative director of Arrow Pictures, which is making  three-part Sky original “Positive,” about Britain’s 40-year struggle with HIV/AIDS, and is behind new feature doc “River,” says docs are also less boxed in by the strict time constraints of linear schedules. “There is a lot more flexibility now.”

Moreover, long-time documentary backers such as the BBC, Channel 4, HBO, Showtime and RTL have come to appreciate the longevity of premium docs on their streaming platforms, where viewers can catch up and discover non-fiction fare weeks or even years after they launch on their channels.

“They can sit around for a long time, and platforms also want to be full of amazing, diverse stories,” says Karen Edwards, executive producer at Zinc Media, who is making a feature-length documentary for ITV to mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11. It also has U.S. and French broadcaster funding.

Producers can now justify the decision to focus on single docs, says Andrew Eastel, creative director of Middlechild Prods., which is behind Channel 5 feature-length doc “The World’s Biggest Murder Trial: Nuremberg.”

“Broadcasters are prepared to spend more money on a single film, or a short run, and they sell very well internationally,” Eastel says.

Increasingly, however, producers will see whether a documentary idea can stretch into multiple parts to become a series, such as “The Last Dance,” ESPN and Netflix’s 10-parter about Michael Jordan’s final season with the Chicago Bulls. Given the access to Jordan, the commercial returns on a series are likely to be more significant than a 100-minute doc. A multipart series also gives the opportunity to dig deeper into a subject.

“When we come up with a new idea or subject for a documentary, the first question we ask ourselves is whether it is multi-part or not,” Pearlman says. “We wouldn’t have done that five years ago.”

Interestingly, though, few say that the COVID-19 pandemic caused a spike in doc demand as a result of the production hiatus faced by many scripted projects. Neither do producers reckon that the pandemic has altered the kinds of projects that funders want.

“There’s some talk about feel-good and positive stories, but I still think the power of a good story is key,” says Smithson, who cites double-Oscar nominee “Collective,” about corruption within the Romanian health service, as one of his favorite recent docs. “It’s not necessarily something you’d sit down on a Friday night to watch, but the power of the story engrosses you.”

During the pandemic, some have turned to archive projects, but others have decided to wait to make their stories until they are able to do so properly.

Says Pearlman: “A great story is a great story. And it’ll be a great story if you have to wait an extra six months to tell it.”