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Beyond ‘Making a Murderer’: The Challenge Facing Documentary Mini-Series [Reality Checks]

Beyond ‘Making a Murderer’: The Challenge Facing Documentary Mini-Series [Reality Checks]

“O.J.: Made in America”

READ MORE: Springboard: Why It Took Filmmakers Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi a Decade to Finish ‘Making a Murderer’

Who would have thought in today’s insta-vine-tweet culture that multi-hour nonfiction juggernauts would so dominate the cultural discourse? 

From HBO’s 279-minute “The Jinx” to Netflix’s ten-hour “Making a Murderer” to ESPN’s upcoming 7 1/2 -hour “OJ: Made in America” (screening in its entirety this Saturday at the Tribeca Film Festival), American documentaries aren’t just getting better; it appears they’re getting bigger. 

But despite the acclaim and attention these projects have received, they’re also difficult to produce and an even greater challenge to get green-lit and picked up for broadcast. You’d think dozens of such projects would be in the pipeline, but neither HBO, nor Netflix, nor ESPN have anything of similar scale actively in the works.

“I don’t know that it’s a trend,” HBO Documentary Films president Sheila Nevins recently told Indiewire. “The chance of finding one of those again is very difficult.”

For one, not many stories can withstand the timespan, according to Nevins. “’The Jinx’ wasn’t going to be a certain length, ” she said. “It just spilled out that way, and demanded that length, but I don’t know if every story can carry that.”
For another, the entertainment industry has been reluctant to take on long-form nonfiction. “Making a Murderer” filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos admitted, via email, that the “the hardest thing” they encountered was “the media landscape was not interested in a narrative documentary series. For years we continued on our own to make the series that we envisioned with the faith that if we got it far enough along someone would have to recognize the value of what we were up to.”

The Long Build

Certainly, the running-times of the projects may sound daunting — for filmmakers and audiences. “If I’m looking through a festival catalogue, and I see a running time of 463 minutes,” said “OJ: Made in America” director Ezra Edelman, “I’d say, ‘Get the fuck out of here.'”

Edelman, who had previously directed episodes of ESPN’s “30 for 30” series” as well as an HBO doc on Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, said he wouldn’t want to make such a project again. “The form itself and the process was a bear,” he said. “It was a blessing and a curse, a privilege and a burden.”

Though many of Edelman’s challenges are familiar to documentary-makers, such as getting access to key individuals and finding a way to shed new light on a familiar topic, he also noted the responsibilities inherent in building such a long story. “You have to do it all well to justify doing it at that length,” he said. “Imagine you have a four-story house, and if you don’t have the material to build the floors, then the whole thing just collapses.”

Also consider the process of rough-cut screening seven hours or even 10 hours of continuous content (spacing it out over days? good lunch breaks?). Or figuring out how exactly to make a story compelling for such a long duration (“I didn’t want to make a miniseries,” Edelman said, “I wanted to make one long movie.”)

Fortunately, for Edelman, he had an encouraging team of executives, who didn’t flinch when the filmmaker wanted to expand the project from five hours to over seven hours once he started to see how it would all fit together. 

Connor Schell, senior vice president of ESPN Films and Original Content, said taking on such a large project “didn’t feel like a risk,” he said. “It felt like an evolution. That might sound bizarre, but we felt like we had a good notion of what we wanted to create, as the next logical step for ’30 for 30,’ and what Ezra was capable of, because he had such a smart perspective on what he wanted to do.” 

According to Schell, the seven-plus hours of programming time were never a hindrance for the broadcaster. “We sat down with [ESPN Inc. President] John Skipper and he could not have been more supportive,’ said Schell.

Commercial vs. Public TV

But mainstream television backing of such large and sophisticated nonfiction projects is rare. 
“One of the frustrations with television is that the financial imperatives are so large,” said Marc Smerling, producer of “The Jinx” and “Catfish,” “that there is a danger of pandering to an audience or becoming sensationalistic.”

While Smerling praised HBO as an “amazing partner,” he also revealed that “The Jinx” was largely privately funded. “Without the private funding that was available,” he said, “it may never have happened.”

For a project that takes 4-5 years to make, Smerling is doubtful that commercial TV is the best fit. “If you’re getting into something like ‘The Jinx,’ you’re starting a venture where you don’t know where it’s going to end. It’s hard to go to a broadcaster and say, ‘I want to explore something and it’s going to go somewhere,'” he continued. “They have to bet on the filmmaker.”

When pitching the project around to broadcasters, Smerling and director Andrew Jarecki showed the rough cut of the first episode, and “we got a lot of empty stares,” said Smerling. “They didn’t understand what it was, and we kept getting pushed to the Reality TV departments.”

After the long haul of “The Jinx,” Smerling is now working in the world of podcasts (home of the popular “Serial”), which he said is a better platform for the extended doc-series. “Research and storytelling can be explored in a podcast,” he said. “It’s much more welcome to the slow burn.”

Public television, Smerling argued, with its dedication more to public service, also remains a more viable place for extended nonfiction series.

“That’s certainly been our experience,” said Lynn Novick, producer of Ken Burns’s 10-part series “Jazz,” the 9-part epic “Baseball” and their upcoming 6-years-in-the-making 18-hour project “Vietnam.” 

“We have been fortunate to have PBS as a platform,” added Novick. “We don’t see any other venue where it would have been possible, in terms of the scale and the creative freedom to open up a topic.”

However, Novick indicated that while PBS is their main backer, they also raise money from other sources. And despite the extended lengths of their projects — sometimes doubling in size from their originally intended length — she said it might only increase their budget 10-20% due to additional staff (not production) costs.

HBO’s Sheila Nevins agreed that budget wasn’t as much of an issue. In fact, she said it could be cheaper to fill programming slots with a long series than different individual projects. But while she said production companies might be angling to make a 12-hour series for their bottom line, she is not seeing a new wave of filmmakers coming to HBO with docu-miniseries. “The artistes still want to make a feature-length documentary,” she said.

The Next Episodic Epic

Still, there appears to be an appetite for such extended nonfiction. “With ‘Serial,’ ‘Making a Murderer’ and the others, it shows that there is a serous audience for complicated stories that take a long time to tell,” said Lynn Novick. “I think it’s dangerous to underestimate the audience.”

Some talent agencies and broadcasters appear to be trying to capitalize on the current interest in long-form storytelling. 

Just last week, Showtime announced the upcoming launch of “ALL ACCESS: Quest for the Stanley Cup,” a new nonfiction series which will follow the final three best-of-seven-games series in the National Hockey League. While the show isn’t exactly akin to “The Jinx” or “OJ: Made in America,” as it’s strictly a sports series being crafted as the NHL season unfolds, Showtime Sports executive vice president Stephen Espinoza argued that it will be similar because it’s “colored with authentic, real-life emotions and reactions to events…. playing out in real time” with “unknown results” and “a level of suspense.”

ESPN’s Schell said that the network is also interested in following up “OJ: Made in America” with another epic-length “30 for 30.” “I absolutely think we’ll do more in this space,” he said. “If we have a great filmmaker who is passionate and we have a story that merits that kind of treatment? 100%, we’d love to do this again. But story and filmmaker are first.”

However, “Making a Murderer” filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos noted, “there are still inherent obstacles to funding such ambitious projects,” because they “require many years of production with unpredictable timelines and a fair amount of financial risk. While it is too early to know whether companies will develop business models that can support this kind of filmmaking, we are hopeful that the industry will see the value in long-from non-fiction storytelling.”

Indeed, Marc Smerling said he’s been getting phone calls to produce projects in the same vein as “The Jinx.” “But my first question is, ‘How much time do you have?’ And they’ll say, ‘End of the year.’ And I say, ‘That’s not enough time.'”

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