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What Does Netflix’s Investment in Documentaries Mean for Filmmakers?

What Does Netflix's Investment in Documentaries Mean for Filmmakers?

Last week, Netflix announced it had pacted with Leonardo DiCaprio and his production company to produce a documentary feature and a documentary series to premiere exclusively on the streaming service.

READ MORE: Netflix Dives Deep into Documentaries, Nabbing “Virunga”

The DiCaprio deal is yet another high-profile push into the documentary world for Netflix, which first signaled its intention to dive into original documentaries in late 2013 with 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.

In 2014, Netflix nabbed “Virunga,” which was later nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature (and scored DiCaprio as a key partner), as well as other high quality documentaries, including “Mission Blue,” “E-Team” and “Print the Legend.” At the time, Netflix said it was investing $3 billion in original content and was focusing on issue-driven docs that drive international viewership.

Late in 2014, Netflix announced it would produce Liz Garbus’ “What Happened, Nina Simone?,” marking the first time that the streaming service got involved with a documentary project at an early stage. The film premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

The introduction of another buyer — and one with deep pockets and a P&A budget — has been encouraging to the documentary community,  particularly when it’s so challenging to distribute documentaries theatrically (and make a living as a documentary filmmaker). 

READ MORE: Make a Movie, Change the World: What It’s Like to Work at Impact Partners

“I think that Netflix has added a huge amount, as a major new buyer both at the high level of big films and big prices and at the smaller level of a lot of smaller films and smaller prices but still great deals for films,” Dan Cogan, executive director and co-founder of Impact Partners (and Liz Garbus’ husband) told Indiewire earlier this year. “They’ve added a huge amount to the marketplace. It’s great to have another buyer with the pockets they have, the taste they have, and with the reach they have. It’s a huge resource for filmmakers.”

Not only is Netflix building a strong documentary brand which filmmakers hope stands for an emblem of quality, but filmmakers say that the streaming services fees are competitive (though nobody was willing to disclose specific numbers).

“Any company that is giving money to documentary filmmakers — either so they can make a new documentary or to put it towards the next doc — is a positive. There are not a lot of companies that finance documentaries upfront,” Douglas Tirola, documentary director (“Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead,” which recently premiered at Sundance) and president of the New York-based production company 4th Row Films, told Indiewire. “”For ‘Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead,’ we were lucky enough to be working with History Films which is part of A&E Networks, one of the few companies helping filmmakers get their documentaries made with upfront financing. The fact that Netflix is acquiring films means there’s a chance that documentary directors will make their money back or put it towards their next project.”

Another upside of Netflix’s entry into the marketplace is that it’s demystifying documentaries for people who were previously turned off by the notion of a nonfiction film. “People who have never watched a documentary in their life are watching them on Netflix,” Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos recently boasted during the UBS 42nd Annual Global Media and Communications Conference.

“I’m hearing from so many people not in the film industry, ‘Oh, I never watch documentaries,’ but now, thanks to Netflix, you don’t have to make that decision to go to the theater, for instance, to see a documentary. It’s not as much of a commitment,” said Cogan.

READ MORE: How ‘Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead’ Director Pulled Off a Documentary About The National Lampoon

Despite all of the promising aspects of Netflix’s entrance into the
nonfiction world, there are still some in the industry who remain
skeptical of the company’s longterm prospects. Last year, veteran
documentary filmmaker Doug Block (“112 Weddings”) expressed some concern
in an interview with Indiewire around the possibility that the
streaming giant could cut back on the number of documentaries it
acquires in favor of big-name issue-documentaries. “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,” said Block.

There are also critics who complain about Netflix’s lack of transparency. Since the streaming service doesn’t reveal viewership numbers, filmmakers, producers and sales agents have a hard time knowing how to price their content (and understanding their audience).

READ MORE: Deal With It, Netflix: Nielsen Will Measure Online TV Viewing

And one indie
distributor who spoke on condition of anonymity said the only downside
is that during an exclusive license, you lose the ability to license to
other platforms. Even so, he said, “Netflix has brought revenue back into
the doc world so the positives outweigh the negatives.”

The company is not only forking over big bucks for high profile award-winning documentaries like “Virunga,” but also buying second window rights, giving old documentaries new life.

For instance, Dawn Porter’s “Gideon Army” premiered on HBO, which had the first window rights, but now the documentary is gaining more audiences on Netflix. Porter is encouraged by Netflix’s savvy business sense and good taste. “They’re paying good money for films like ‘E-Team’ and ‘The Square.’ They’re supporting really good films about really big topics that have international appeal,” she said. “That’s a positive development because documentary directors are always being told there’s such a limited market for those types of stories. Netflix’s entry into the arena and what they’re paying for those types of docs says that’s just not the case.”

READ MORE: Netflix vs. HBO: In the Battle of Programming Giants, Who Wins?

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