The future of documentary cinema is bright, but it remains risky

The production of non-fiction involves risks that streamers are unwilling to take, while the commodification of truth presents risks to the independent soul of documentary cinema.

IndieWire celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. To mark the occasion, we’re releasing a series of essays on the future of everything we cover.

Remember when documentaries were deeply honorable but commercially unsustainable? “Knock Down the House” broke Sundance records in 2019 when Netflix bought it for $ 10 million; Apple and A24 broke that record the following year with the $ 12 million acquisition of “Boys State”. Apple paid $ 25 million for “Billie Eilish: The World’s A Bit of a Blur,” while studios like Concordia, Participant, Radical and XTR are pumping millions into the non-fiction genre.

Today everyone loves documentaries. Streamers are hailed as breathing new life into the genre. However, the streaming industry isn’t all about speaking the truth to power, as documentaries often do; streamers amass followers and create shareholder value.

So what does this mean for the future of documentaries? If the risk-averse, franchise-dominated film industry is one example, we should expect more documentaries about famous people, or salacious topics, or proven property expansions. Or, all of the above, like the critically-criticized second season of “Tiger King”.

It is also a future in which documentary cinema is normal for a generation shaped by the creation of confessionals on social media. Compared to the early digital natives, the younger ones who grew up in the Instagram age have the luxury of taking these technologies for granted, giving them an intuitive relationship with the tools of filmmaking.

“The fact that we have a generation of visual natives accustomed to telling stories – and their own stories – in this way, has just raised the bar completely,” said Carrie Lozano, director of the documentary program at the Sundance Institute who previously taught at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. “Their visual acuity is incredible. You don’t have to teach them to be filmmakers the same way we used to teach people to do it.

We are a long way from the first documentary boom. In 1994 and 1995, Fine Line Features acquired “Hoop Dreams” and Sony Pictures Classics purchased “Crumb” at Sundance – rare exceptions in an independent market driven by fictional narratives.

Three decades later, documentaries dominate Sundance’s acquisitions driven by the public’s appetite for real-life stories – but that wouldn’t happen without streaming. In 2019, non-fiction films made up less than one percent of box office receipts. By comparison, documentaries and docuseries made up 16% of Netflix’s original list in 2021. On HBO Max, it was 18% and around a quarter for Amazon Prime Video and Disney +, according to analysis firm Diesel. Labs.

Streamers use non-fictional, unscripted titles to strive for relevance and engagement through quality (HBO’s Emmy nominated “Allen v. Farrow”), salacious virality (the pandemic frenzy of “Love Island On Hulu) or the subject (Hulu to Hillary Clinton, Netflix to Taylor Swift, and Apple TV + to Billie Eilish).

“Billie Eilish: the world is a bit hazy”

The booths featured both the New Yorker and the National Enquirer; likewise, the golden age of documentary cinema delivers both inquiry and excitement to pop culture.

Sometimes it’s both: “Framing Britney Spears,” produced by The New York Times for Hulu, succumbed to public fascination with the singer’s guardianship while raising major questions about the handling of her case by the singer. legal system ; “Controlling Britney Spears” aired shortly thereafter. The streamer got his must-see television, and a judge ended Spears’ tutelage.

Bryn Mooser, CEO of non-fiction studio XTR, says audiences’ appetite for real life is a boon for those focused on creating quality, respected, and innovative material. “A whole new entertainment vertical has opened. It’s more like gambling to me, ”he said. “Here are hundreds of millions of people who want to watch more of this kind of cinema.”

Dependence on independence

In 2005 Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos started working on what would become “Making a Murderer”. After eight years of failing to gain the attention of legacy networks, Netflix executives saw the potential of the project for real crime. He debuted in 2015 as a success. “The Staircase,” with a production and distribution history stretching back to 2004, became another Netflix hit in 2018.

Since then, Hollywood’s biggest entertainment studio has taken on a more direct role in producing documentaries with sequels to their own hits, like “Tiger King” and “Wild Wild Country,” but non-fiction often demands unique access, perspective and patience – none of which aligns with production chain tactics. This kind of risk belongs to the world of independent cinema, and it is likely to remain so.

“Streamers aren’t going to take the risk,” said Kevin Iwashina, documentary manager for Endeavor Content. “They’re not necessarily going to live with a movie for five years and then make it happen. They’d rather pay that average seven-digit or low eight-digit number for something someone else has risked. They need to preserve their capital for things they know they can deliver in a limited amount of time.

Since CEO Jenifer Westphal founded non-fiction studio Wavelength in 2015, she has supported more than 60 films, including “Knock Down the House” and “Athlete A”. “We love this development space,” Westphal said. “People call it high risk – it absolutely is.”

“Cusp”

Sundance

Wavelength got on board early on with Isabel Bethencourt and Isabel Bethencourt and Parker Hill’s feature debut, “Cusp,” a portrait of teenagers in a small town in Texas. He won the Special Jury Prize for Emerging Filmmakers 2021 at Sundance; Showtime purchased the worldwide rights and premiered on Thanksgiving weekend, with some theater dates also in the mix.

“It takes a lot of time, a lot of patience and a lot of experience to get these films to where they need to go,” said Wavelength President Joe Plummer. “We have really doubled the strategy of supporting filmmakers.”

Premium non-fiction vs trash TV

Responding to the rise of truth-adjacent formats like reality TV, those working in the documentary ecosystem have started to distinguish their work from “premium non-fiction”. The term began to appear in the trades in 2018 and has become a shorthand to signify ethics and craftsmanship. It’s even codified in the company’s master key at Discovery, which offers a “portfolio of premium non-fiction, lifestyle, sports and children’s content brands.”

This portfolio contains the TLC shows “90 Day Fiance” and “Sister Wives”, but the first acquisition for Discovery + was the premiere of SXSW 2021 “Introducing, Selma Blair”. The acclaimed film describes Blair’s experience living with multiple sclerosis and satisfies Discovery’s fixation with medical phenomena without the operating nuances of “1000-Lb.” Sisters. “

“They know this is content that can appeal to everyone,” said Iwashina, who portrayed the film. “They cleverly saw this as a way to declare that they were in the premium space business.”

Those who regard their work as a bonus say there is something to be learned from those close to them. “We borrowed a lot from our team,” said Mooser. “I think the idea that all documentaries have to take years and years and cost all that money to make is also an old convention. Reality TV people, information people know how to turn stories fast.

More sales, less records

Netflix bought Robert Greene’s Catholic sexual abuse documentary “Procession” from Telluride this year, but the studio has a limited appetite for bold film acquisitions. Filmmakers with “riskier” documentaries – the genre of films that have defined the format for decades – are less likely to be bought by major streamers. They are more likely to be adopted by some of the same small outlets that shaped the original documentary market, or their modern counterparts.

Wavelength sold “Feels Good Man,” a film about Pepe the Frog creator Matt Furie, to ITVS for the long-running PBS series “Independent Lens.” Studio’s short film “The Foursome”, shot in Iowa and focused on golf, found audiences on a PGA Tour YouTube channel and will be released by Iowa PBS early next year.

“The fear is, ‘Well, there won’t be a place for independent voices, this will all be owned by Disney and Netflix,” Westphal said. “To us, it’s not like ‘Oh, my gosh, we didn’t sell it to Netflix, so we’re never going to see it anywhere.’ We celebrate all the platforms our films end up on. ”

FAYA DAYI, 2021. © Janus Films / Courtesy Everett Collection

“Faya Dayi”

Courtesy of Everett Collection

XTR sold “Mucho Mucho Amor” to Netflix. “Faya Dayi” went to mainstay doc Janus Films and “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” went to Utopia Distribution, which placed the film on the Topic streaming service. Kino Lorber, who has his own online marketplace Kino Now, has made deals with more than 20 streaming services ranging from Sundance Now to young Curia. “Every week a new SVOD hits,” said Richard Lorber, President and CEO of Kino Lorber. “We don’t give away our content. “

Facts as a commodity

With the documentary boom came the idea that non-fiction has an endless capacity for gripping storytelling. But that carries a risk.

“There is a danger that we are so addicted to history,” said Tabitha Jackson, director of the Sundance Film Festival. “Particularly the kind of Western three-act story structure with conflict and resolution, and a hero – often a him – who wants something he can’t have: how is he going to get it?” That’s what many keepers mean by story… the beautiful diversity and richness of the non-fiction form is reduced and all turned into this kind of story. Non-fiction is wearing fiction or TV clothes and attracting that audience because it’s so satisfying.

Wherever there are cameras – and they are everywhere – there is an opportunity to make money and shape the way people understand the world. Even if documentaries look more like blockbusters, festivals and other nonprofits will be key to keeping them honest.

“I wish that when viewers engage in a work or a movie, they’re like, ‘What is this?’,” Jackson said. “And part of what might give you an idea of ​​what it is is who did it. It’s not what you explicitly think of when you watch it – but who did, who funded it, what perspectives does the creator have is essential to answering this fundamental question of what it is.

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