Back in the 1980s, former HBO Documentary Films president Sheila Nevins saw an opportunity in the nonfiction short format.
“I was watching the Academy Awards one night and there was this category called best docu short and the people who made them were getting Oscars,” Nevins says. “At the Emmys, docus were kept hidden and given out on a special day. Docs were all by themselves in a corner at the Emmys, but at the Oscars doc filmmakers went up on the stage and they won. So, when I learned that we could qualify for this thing called a short and play with the big boys, I did it.”
In March 1989 HBO garnered its third Academy Award for “You Don’t Have to Die” — a 27-minute doc about 11-year-old Jason Gaes’ successful bout with cancer. It would be the first of 15 Oscars HBO nabbed in the documentary short nonfiction category during Nevins’ 38-year tenure at HBO.
If there had not been an Oscar category for short nonfiction content, Nevins says she would not have invested in them.
“It was a form to capitalize on,” says Nevins. “Certainly not share. I didn’t mean to share it.”
At HBO and in her new role as head of MTV Documentary Films, Nevins has had to “share” the Oscar category with numerous media platforms that see the opportunity the doc maven saw in short form content more than 20 years ago. Those platforms include Netflix, Disney Plus, MSNBC Films, the New York Times, the Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, the New Yorker, A&E and ESPN.
Traditionally, doc shorts are made by up-and-coming directors looking to get their foot in the nonfiction filmmaking door. But the proliferation of platforms that are distributing short subject films has drawn established documentary feature helmers including Errol Morris, Laura Poitras and Alex Gibney to the format.
That said, the payday for a short doc is generally well below six figures because, in part, they are not moneymakers. But if a doc short receives an Oscar nom, or better yet, wins an Academy Award, both newbie and veteran filmmakers benefit career-wise.
So, what’s in it for the platform? Brand equity.
In 2017 Netflix garnered its very first Academy Award for Orlando von Einsiedel’s nonfiction short “The White Helmets.” The campaign to win that Oscar likely cost the streaming service more than it did to make “The White Helmets,” but it was a worthy investment. For one, it served as a signal to the entertainment industry’s creative talent circles that Netflix was legit. It also gave the streaming behemoth clout, which in turn increased subscription numbers.
Since 2016, Netflix has scored seven Oscar nominations in the documentary short category. This year the streaming service has four short docs on the Oscar shortlist: “Audible,” “Camp Confidential,” “Lead Me Home” and “Three Songs for Benazir.”
“I do think there is an element of prestige that’s certainly attractive for many platforms,” says Ryan Chanatry, general manager of Topic, First Look Media’s video streaming service.
In 2018, Topic received their first nom in the Oscar short doc category for “Edith + Eddie.” While the streamer’s most recent short “Meltdown in Dixie” did not make this Academy Award shortlist, one nonfiction short from Topic’s sister company Field of Vision did: “The Facility,” which aired on MSNBC Films.
In addition to prestige, Chanatry says adaptation draws platforms to short content.
“A lot of the work does move on to become a full documentary or something scripted. It’s a great proof of concept opportunity for filmmakers.”
But Chanatry is quick to also note that short docs are appealing to many platforms including Topic because they “highlight important and critical issues.”
POV Shorts producer Opal H. Bennett agrees.
“PBS is coming at it from the broadcast perspective and being like, ‘We have these bits of time in the schedule that we want to be able to fill with engaging, educating and well-crafted content,’” says Bennett. “That’s where doc shorts fit the bill.”
Although the marketplace for nonfiction shorts has become more competitive, Bennett says POV Shorts will not be a part of any bidding wars.
“There might be a title that I’m interested in, but if Disney Plus or Netflix is also interested then I just say, ‘Go with God,’ and go with the next title because we don’t have $45,000 or $60,000 to pay for a doc short.”
That said, Bennett doesn’t think that Oscar glory is the sole reason Netflix is interested in nonfiction short form content.
“The more altruistic lens on Netflix is that they are perhaps building a pipeline. Because for the most part, short filmmakers are folks who are beginning their career or maybe emerging.”
Like HBO, PBS, the company behind POV Shorts, has been distributing short-form nonfiction content for decades. Launched in 2018, POV Shorts has received two Oscar nominations for its short docs. Together with the New Yorker, POV Shorts distributed two films that made this season’s short doc shortlist: “Aguilas” and “A Broken House.”
“We play nice with the digital-only distributors like the New Yorker and the New York Times Op-Docs,” Bennett says. “From our standpoint, it’s greater exposure and a broader audience for the filmmakers. It also means multiple license fees for the same title, which for a short documentary filmmaker is a big deal.”
Arguably short-form nonfiction content fits most naturally on news outlet sites, which could be why so many print giants have embraced the format.
“Short documentaries for the New Yorker makes sense because we’re able to dive deeper into a story,” says Soo-Jeong Kang, executive director of programming and development for the New Yorker. “It definitely serves our subscribers. It’s a new way for them to experience the New Yorker storytelling.”
To date, the New Yorker Studios has garnered three Oscar noms for its short doc content. Shorts serve not only subscribers, but are also a way to reach new audiences and “help us meet our revenue growth goals,” Kang says.
Time Studios — the television and film production division of Time — launched in 2020 and has generated more than $70 million in revenue. The production company is behind 2021 doc shorts including “From Devil’s Breath”’ and “Snowy.”
“Our focus is how do you make the most impact in the world with our storytelling,” says Time Studios president Ian Orefice. “I think the awards conversation is definitely a part of that broader strategy.”
One reason awards are part of the broader strategy is because trophies increase viewership.
“People watch [shorts] when they hear about them, but do they watch them when they are born? No,” Nevins says. “How are people going to hear about a short doc? People are only going to hear about it if it wins awards. So that’s why the award became important.”
When she relocated to MTV in May 2019, Nevins began acquiring nonfiction features as well as shorts In 2021 she garnered the network’s first Oscar nomination in 15 years for the short “St. Louis Superman,” the story of Black rapper and activist Bruce Franks, who was inspired to run for office by the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. Last year MTV Documentary Films nabbed another Oscar nom in the short doc category for “Hunger Ward” and this year Nevins has two films — “Coded: The Hidden Love of J.C. Leyendecker” and “Lynching Postcards: “Token of a Great Day” — on the shortlist.
“Everybody in the docu business grew up watching the Academy Awards,” Nevins says. “They never thought they’d be able to go up there and get one, but now they have a shot with a short.”