Prior to the advent of streaming, documentaries had a reputation for being, as Jerry Seinfeld put it at the 2007 Oscars, “incredibly depressing.”
Politics, the environment, warfare, and the farming industry were all topics routinely explored by documentary filmmakers for several decades. But Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Apple, and Disney have effectively altered the nonfiction landscape by seeking out documentaries that have mass appeal, which has in turn helped them build their respective audiences. Netflix has a knack for determining what will appeal to viewers. “Tiger King,” “The Last Dance” and “The Tinder Swindler” were all released on the streaming service.
Given the ongoing worldwide pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, America’s school shooting crisis, the yearly uptick in extreme weather events, it’s not exactly a surprise that viewers are attracted to nonfiction content that isn’t didactic. It makes sense that factual features and series about celebrities, sports, and music are all the rage. Ironically so are true crime documentaries focused on serial murderers, fraudsters and crypto criminals.
Recent examples of docus absent of political and eco-related issues include Peter Jackson’s “The Beatles: Get Back,” Ryan White’s “Good Night Oppy” and Amanda Micheli’s “Halftime.”
“Anytime there’s been either a war or some form of depression or recession, people turn to Hollywood for entertainment,” says Imagine Documentaries co-head Justin Wilkes. “Because docs have become so mainstream over the last number of years, it only makes sense that people are looking to docs to be entertained or uplifted and feel better
Veteran documentary filmmaker Dawn Porter (“John Lewis: Good Trouble,” “Trapped”) has spent the past several years making films about various urgent issues including mental health, abortion and politics, but in 2020 the helmer decided she wanted a break.
“I, like many doc filmmakers, am a news addict, but I found myself needing to watch something else,” Porter says. “I needed to not have this constant terror about my fellow Americans being willing to descend into fascism.”
Not only did Porter want to watch upbeat content, but she also wanted to work on a project that was lighthearted. So, two years ago, she began filming MGM’s “Cirque Du Soleil: Without a Net,” a doc that chronicles the circus company’s move to reboot its flagship production, “O,” more than a year after an abrupt global shutdown.
“Everybody loved going to work every day,” says Porter. “How often does that happen in documentary? Part of the reason for that was the hard things that were going on with [Cirque Du Soleil] were business hard. They weren’t, ‘Oh my goodness, we are not going to make it’ hard. So, my crew and I could really just lose ourselves in their story. It was such a welcome relief.”
While streamers and networks alike aren’t clamoring to program factual fare that will leave audiences angry or petrified, they are still distributing docs that explore pressing social issues. But instead of those issues being thrown in viewers faces, subject matters including racism, political upheaval, and climate change are often sprinkled into many of today’s documentary features and series. More often than not, a celebrity is used to lure viewers into a story that has a few Debbie Downers to swallow.
Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down,” which grapples with the Constitution’s Second Amendment and Ron Howard’s “We Feed People,” about celebrity chef José Andrés and his nonprofit World Central Kitchen are two of several docus this year that used a celebrity lens to take a deep dive into hot button political issues.
“I would one hundred percent say and argue that ‘We Feed People’ is a social-issue film,” says Imagine Documentaries co-head Sara Bernstein. “It’s a story about the importance of food relief in the world, but the vehicle to get into that story is a recognizable personality and that’s Jose Andres, which is great for the project and great for the issue.”
Even docus solely focused on a celebrity such as Kathryn Ferguson’s “Nothing Compares,” about Sinead O’Connor, Derik Murray’s “Sidney,” about Sidney Poitier and Alek Keshishian’s “Selena Gomez: My Mind and Me,” about the star take on weighty subject matters including sexism, racism and mental health.
“So many of these platforms need to be able to cut through to the consumers,” says Wilkes. “So, to have a recognizable name that they can put on the side of a bus and a billboard is critical right now. That’s why you’re seeing these name brand docs coming out because when you can put The Beatles or Jose Andres on the side of bus, the marketing value of that is exponential.”
Chris Smith’s “Sr.,” about the life and career of Robert Downey Sr. and Sacha Jenkins’ “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues” are among the celebrity-driven docs vying for awards consideration this year.
Wilkes categorizes “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues,” which Imagine produced, as an upbeat title.
“It’s ultimately a film about issues of race,” he says. “But through those issues of race we are also able to paint a portrait of somebody who was genuinely an inspiring, happy person who created a lot of happiness in the world based on the music that he made.”
But not every documentary being produced these days features a recognizable face. Those that don’t often employ storytelling tactics to draw viewers including exquisite and unique imagery (“Fire of Love,” “All That Breathes”) and/or suspenseful, on-the-ground storytelling (“Navalny,” “Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom,” “Retrograde”.)
“The days of just, ‘Here’s a really big problem, audiences pay attention,’ are sort of gone,” says Porter, who is currently making a four-part docuseries about the Supreme Court for Showtime. “We, as documentary filmmakers, have to do more than that. We have to say we are going do something thoughtful that does not cause you to just throw up your hands in despair.”
One streaming executive who isn’t afraid of audience anguish is Sheila Nevins.
As the head of HBO Documentaries for 38 years, Nevins was influential in elevating the documentary form and bringing to light uncomfortable subjects including the rape of soldiers within the U.S. military and clerical sex abuse. Despite the shifting nonfiction landscape Nevins, currently the head of MTV Documentary Films, is still hunting for docus that are impactful, but not necessarily happy.
“The world is depressed,” says Nevins. “It would be nice to do a doc that was a musical. It would be nice to do something in which you feel like you’re going to wake up tomorrow and it might be a good day. But I don’t think docus serve that function right now.”
Ondi Timoner’s “Last Flight Home,” about her father’s decision to make use of California’s End of Life Option law and Patricia E. Gillespie’s “The Fire That Took Her,” about a woman doused in petrol and set on fire by her crazed ex-boyfriend are among the handful of feature docus MTV has qualified for Academy Awards consideration this year.
While “Last Flight Home” makes a case that all states should authorize end-of-life options, “The Fire That Took Her” wrestles with how the medical and legal systems have failed victims of domestic violence
“Depressing with a purpose can be happy,” says Nevins. “If the docu is about somebody that you didn’t accept before and you accept now, who lives a very sad life, but now you have empathy for him, I would say that’s a happy doc.”