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Netflix Dives Deeper Into Documentaries, Nabbing Award-Winning ‘Virunga’

Netflix Dives Deeper Into Documentaries, Nabbing Award-Winning 'Virunga'

Netflix continues to push into the documentary world — in particular, issue-driven docs — with its latest acquisition, Orlando von Einsiedel’s acclaimed "Virunga," which follows a team of park rangers at the embattled Virunga National Park in the Demoratic Republic of Congo.

When it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, the film was nominated for the Best Documentary Feature prize. It went on to be named Audience Favorite at Hot Docs Film Festival and Best of Fest at AFI Docs. "Virunga" will premiere exclusively on Netflix in 2014.

READ MORE: 6 New Indies Streaming on Netflix Now Including ‘The Immigrant’

"Despite its non-fiction roots, ‘Virguna’ has the epic sweep of a classic good-versus-evil showdown, placing the petroleum conglomerate SOCO International in its cross-hairs as the story’s chief villain," wrote Eric Kohn in his review during Tribeca.

Late last year, Netflix acquired its first documentary, Jehane Noujaim’s "The Square," which was later nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and "Mitt," the documentary about Mitt Romney which premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

"Virunga" joins previously announced acquisitions "Mission Blue," "E-Team" and "Print the Legend" on Netflix’s upcoming slate of feature documentaries. 

"Combining compelling filmmaking with a captivating real-life subject, ‘Virunga’ will have viewers on the edge of their seats from its very first frame," said Lisa Nishimura, Netflix VP of Original Documentary and Comedy. "Orlando has crafted a film of rare and raw beauty, an artful and thought-provoking documentary that demands to be seen around the globe. ‘Virunga’ is a perfect fit for our Netflix original documentary slate."

Netflix has said it is committing $3 million to original content this year, and that it is particularly interested in issue-driven docs that drive international viewership.

For their part, documentary filmmakers appreciate the fact that there is another buyer in the market for non-fiction features — particularly at a time when it’s so challenging to distribute documentaries theatrically (and make a living as a documentary filmmaker).

There’s little downside for filmmakers, as Dave Piperni, president, Cargo Film & Releasing, told Indiewire via email today. "It’s all good! As a sales agent, it is one more buyer/platform for the marketplace and one that is known as an outlet for quality documentary films. Their fees are competitive and they are also flexible with content that has been previously licensed in the territory."

The only potential downside, veteran documentary filmmaker Doug Block ("112 Weddings") told Indiewire, is if the streaming giant "cuts back on the number of docs it picks up and carries in favor of focusing on just a few of the years’ more acclaimed docs….What makes Netflix special, aside from its popularity, is the power of its targeted recommendations. It’s the most likely way for a ‘smaller’ doc to be discovered, and sometimes the only way. But that means Netflix has to carry those less visible titles."

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While it’s great that these documentaries get exposure, one should ask how much compensation the filmmakers earn. From my experience, Netflix doesn’t pay much and if docs are available on Netflix it devalues market potential in other areas. Netflix may be good for viewers, but is it really good for documentary filmmakers?

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