Once upon a time, asking audiences to watch a documentary was like asking them to do their homework or eat their broccoli — sure, it’d be good for ’em, but they probably wouldn’t have a ton of fun doing it.
Early docs were often weighed down by heavy topics (a lot of war content) and dry, straightforward presentations (think newsreels). Eventually, filmmakers began introducing cinematic touches and more dynamism to documentary storytelling, though progress was slow. In 1922, “Nanook of the North,” the first feature doc, incorporated staged and fictionalized elements. The Sixties brought direct cinema and cinema verité, the fly-on-the-wall style of the Maysles brothers, Robert Drew, D.A. Pennebaker, and so many others. In the Eighties and Nineties, cable expanded documentary’s reach to wider audiences, and in the early 2000s films like “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “March of the Penguins,” and “An Inconvenient Truth” became legitimate box-office breakthroughs. Still, the genre on the whole remained something of a stepchild within the larger Hollywood family … until now.
With the advent of streaming — and the influx of funding that’s come with it — documentary features and series today have become as ubiquitous, and as prestigious, as premium scripted fare. The category is a cornerstone of the business model for outlets like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and YouTube, opening doors for fresh voices as well as veteran filmmakers to produce more, and more wide-ranging, work than ever before. From docs about warring big-cat lovers (“Tiger King”) to beleaguered pop stars (“Framing Britney Spears”) to corporate implosions (“WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Million Unicorn”), viewers can find virtually any kind of nonfiction story they could ever want, whenever they want it.
“Streaming has been the game changer,” says Morgan Neville, who won the feature documentary Oscar for his close-up on professional backup singers, “20 Feet From Stardom,” in 2014, and most recently directed “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain.” “As somebody who has been getting documentaries funded for the last 28 years, the last eight years have been night and day.”
Netflix has had documentaries in its sights since it first began creating original content in 2013. The streamer’s first major doc acquisition was “The Square,” about the 2011 Arab Spring revolution in Egypt. The film brought Netflix its first Academy Award nomination in 2014.
“We’ve always believed in the form,” says Lisa Nishimura, Netflix’s vice president of independent film and documentary features. “Documentarians now have equal access to an audience that historically was reserved for other formats. The biggest challenge, really, was that the distribution mechanism [in the past] was deeply fragmented and inconsistent. That created an environment where potential audiences that would love these stories faced hurdles to engage [with them].”
With more buyers in the marketplace on the development side, the money available to filmmakers for budgets and license fees ballooned. That significant jump in paydays gave a number of documentarians the safety net they needed to continue to innovate.
“When I was starting out, it was like you either had a sugar daddy who was helping you finance your films or you were making films in addition to your real job,” says two-time Academy Award nominee Liz Garbus, a 20- year industry veteran who directed Netflix’s first commissioned original documentary, 2015’s “What Happened, Miss Simone?” “Now people know that they [can] make documentary filmmaking a career. They can start out as an assistant, become an associate producer, and then get out into the field. The whole industry has become really mature.”
Director Joe Berlinger’s first feature doc, “Brother’s Keeper,” was released in 1992 on PBS. “Back then, if you didn’t sell your feature-length documentary to HBO or PBS, you weren’t selling your documentary,” Berlinger says. “Those were the only games in town, and it was not a profitable business. I made commercials to stay afloat.”
Of course, streamers wouldn’t be backing this movement if the eyeballs weren’t there to support it. The fact is, the last several years have proved that audiences are as hungry for non-fiction content as they are for scripted dramas, comedies, biopics, and the rest — and finally, Hollywood is making those stories accessible.
“For the first time ever with documentaries you have distribution at scale,” says Bryn Mooser, founder of nonfiction film and television studio XTR. “Now, every single day, because of streaming, documentaries have the same distribution as Hollywood blockbusters.”
Carolyn Bernstein, National Geographic’s executive vice president of global scripted content and documentary films, is behind many prominent documentaries, including the 2019 Oscar winner “Free Solo,” about rock climber Alex Honnold, and the upcoming “Fauci,” directed by John Hoffman and Janet Tobias. She believes the form has finally escaped the stigma of being educational at the expense of entertaining.
“People aren’t making a distinction anymore between docs and narrative storytelling,” she says. “Great stories are great stories.”
Vinnie Malhotra, Showtime’s executive vice president of nonfiction programming, agrees: “A few years ago, the conversation was, ‘Is this the golden age of documentary?’ But I think what was trying to be conveyed was that documentary had taken on a different aura and energy. It wasn’t so much the old-school [idea] of illuminating audiences on a social issue. As filmmakers evolved the craft, the stories started to evolve. It was a much-needed shot in the arm to the genre that grew the audience exponentially.”
Michael Kantor, executive producer of PBS’ “American Masters” franchise, believes that one driving force is a yearning for honesty. “People are desperate for the truth,” Kantor says. “There is a distrust of the media that’s been cultivated in the last few years, and the documentary film produced by an independent producer, who’s not aligned with some big corporation, is seen as speaking truth to power.”
But the boom is not without its complications. Some industry stalwarts warn that the trend could compromise the very integrity that audiences prize.
Because where money goes, leverage follows. Lois Vossen, executive producer of PBS’ long-running documentary showcase “Independent Lens,” notes that documentaries “have now become a commodity, and that is both good and bad.
“The journalistic rigor is something that’s being questioned,” Vossen continues. “Who has control of the documentary? People with money now are influencing content. Characters are influencing the content. Executive producers who own footage are influencing the content. So, it’s an exciting time, but it’s also a really interesting time in terms of the heart of what documentary is.”
And, in a world where the almighty algorithm rules, creativity and originality might be at risk. Data-driven streamers can track exactly who’s watching what — which, in turn, could narrow the field of opportunity for filmmakers, as bottom-line-minded executives lean into what they know works.
Currently, it seems, what works is true crime. During the pandemic lockdown, audiences couldn’t get enough of grisly tales such as Netflix’s “Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez,” about the New England Patriots tight end convicted of murder, and “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez,” about the brutal death of an eight-year-old California boy at the hands of his caretakers.
“Providers of programming, going way back to studios, are always trying to find formulas that are surefire and will work over and over and over again,” notes Alex Gibney, director of 2008’s Oscar-winning “Taxi to the Dark Side.” “Netflix and other platforms say, ‘It works with our algorithm.’ Like they are trying to scientifically measure exactly what kinds of programs are going to work for people. Within that context, true crime seems to connect directly to the id.”
“It’s a murder and true-crime boom,” says Sheila Nevins, head of MTV documentary films. “Social docs that nudge the world and try to make you love the have-nots and improve the environment — those have probably not increased in the last decade. What’s been discovered is the lust of murder, the everydayness of murder. There’s something about your neighbor cutting off the head of her husband that’s particularly enticing.”
Bloodlust aside, it’s a fertile time industrywide, keeping filmmakers busier than ever. Veteran documentarian Sam Pollard released a five-part docuseries (“Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children”) in 2020 and a feature in January (“MLK/FBI”); he’s set to release three more docs this year, including “Citizen Ashe,” about tennis legend Arthur Ashe. “There’s so much work out there,” Pollard says, “it’s hard to find the editors.”
Director Dawn Porter has been on a roll with commissions, too. She released two films last year, Focus Features’ “The Way I See It,” about former White House photographer Pete Souza, and Magnolia Pictures’ “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” about the late civil-rights activist. As exciting a moment as it is, she, like Pollard, acknowledges another potential downside to what overall is a positive trend: All the work that’s being drummed up may be going to the same people over and over, those with proven track records for success — who are often those who come from greater privilege. This leaves filmmakers from a wider array of racial and ethnic backgrounds behind.
“The challenge for our industry right now,” says Porter of the documentary boom, “is to make sure that it’s a tide that lifts all boats.”
With more money and awards at stake, business pressures on documentaries have grown. And that bears watching, industry veterans caution.
“Over the last few years, I’ve heard people says the golden age of documentaries has turned into the corporate age of documentaries,” says Toronto International Film Festival Documentary programmer, Thom Powers. “That’s a good skeptical lens to apply because that is a force in what shapes our storytelling now that we’ve got to pay close attention to.”
The form has become so intertwined with the awards circuit that some documentary filmmakers – and the companies backing them – have been double-dipping with Oscar and Emmy campaigns in recent years. Earlier this year, the TV Academy changed its rules to close that loophole; the rule goes into effect in 2022.
“If you want to understand the business side of these companies, when it comes to the value of documentaries, all you have to do is look at Oscar campaigns,” says “Fauci” co-director John Hoffman. “Why would they be spending the kind of money that’s clearly being spent if documentaries weren’t important to them and their business model. You really need to credit Sheila Nevins for really helping to shape corporate understanding of how documentaries can be brand defining.”
It’s a heady change for veteran documentary filmmakers. “Thirty years ago, when out for a job, I was advised not use the word documentary,” Gibney notes.
Entertainment lawyer Michael Donaldson recalls internal discussions at the International Documentary Association, where he served as a board member, in the early eighties.
“One of the things that was discussed frequently at meetings was finding another name for documentaries,” Donaldson says. “The word had such a negative impression.”
While the doc market has “exploded” to include many different formats and topics, getting nonfiction political films distributed can still be challenging – especially for emerging filmmakers.
“It’s not surprising that in documentary, like in other industries, the opportunities may flow first to those with long track records,” Garbus says. “But it’s incumbent upon those of us who do have opportunities to lift up others. Especially those who have historically not been afforded those opportunities.”
A version of this story appeared in TruthSeekers, a joint project of Variety and Rolling Stone.