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Netflix and Amazon Aren’t Buying Documentaries, But the Non-Fiction Market Is Booming Anyway

The digital disruptors aren't buying documentaries the way they were a year ago, but that doesn't mean the marketplace has gone stagnant.

“United Skates”

Documentaries are hotter than ever, but their production and distribution is in constant flux. In 2017, major companies were shelling out huge dollars to acquire documentaries, dramatically shifting the scales for the budgets and value of nonfiction. Then everything changed at Sundance 2018, when contrary to expectations, Netflix and Amazon deescalated the marketplace they had super-sized a year before.

At the Park City festival, Netflix acquired a single doc, “Shirkers”; Amazon hasn’t acquired a completed documentary since Matthew Heineman’s “City of Ghosts” from 2017. “It’s like night and day,” said one documentary producer. While Amazon’s strategy remains unclear, Netflix has refocused its resources on producing documentaries in-house.

Both companies declined to comment for this article. But it’s clear that their recent absence from the market has had impact — deals have taken longer to close and the price-tags have been reduced.

“We’re having to educate producers and financiers not to expect the bigger deals of two years ago,” said Josh Braun of Submarine Entertainment, who is entering the Tribeca Film Festival this week with seven documentaries up for sale. “There are still seven-figure deals,” he said, “but with the SVOD platforms buying less, it’s not always as competitive.”

But that’s not to say that documentaries are losing their heat. On the contrary, the appetite for documentaries is growing, with major players turning to the nonfiction space in larger numbers.

“The documentary film and series market is experiencing a revival,” said Blumhouse Television co-president Marci Wiseman. “It’s becoming general, not specialty entertainment.”

Blumhouse’s Tribeca premiere “Bathtubs Over Broadway,” an amusing look at the secret history of corporate “industrial musicals,” is one of many new documentaries trying to capitalize on what Wiseman called “exciting opportunities in the TV space.”

“We are having conversations with buyers who were never interested in docs before,” she said.

What’s Hot in Docs?

Such excitement around nonfiction, however, is putting increased pressure on documentary filmmakers to make their projects commercial “character-driven narratives or very high concept,” according to Endeavor Content agent Kevin Iwashina, who is also representing several new documentaries at the Tribeca Film Festival, including ones about professional surfers and Air Jordan sneakers. “One can no longer focus on just an ‘issue,’” he said.

Many of the buzzed-about new films, arriving at festivals like Tribeca and Hot Docs, appear to offer some combination of the two. For example, Iwashina is also representing “United Skates,” Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown’s equally kinetic and stirring look at roller-skating culture in the African American community—and their fight to retain it, despite economic and racist policies working against them.

Veteran sales agent John Sloss’ Cinetic Media has eight new documentaries up for acquisition at Tribeca, including “American Meme,” an easily-pitchable profile of online influencers, which, according to Sloss, is “very commercial,” as well as potential breakout “Roll Red Roll,” a compelling true-crime story of rape and social media in a small football town, which eventually spirals into a major international event and iconic story for the #MeToo movement.

“Roll Red Roll” producer Jessica Devaney, who is also a producer on two other documentaries premiering at Tribeca and Hot Docs that combine the personal and the political (“The Feeling of Being Watched” and “Call Her Ganda”), agrees there’s “a tremendous amount of pressure” and “negotiating expectations” right now. But Devaney is confident that her doc slate taps into the current cultural moment—where audiences are responding to stories made by and about under-represented groups (like “Black Panther” or “Strong Island”).

According to Iwashina, “premium documentaries” have the unique ability to satisfy the public’s need right now for both entertainment and knowledge: to “allow us to escape as well as to make us think,” he said.

This rise in the social currency of documentaries is also what’s driving Netflix and other streamers and broadcasters to ramp up their own funding and production of nonfiction content.

“The marketplace is growing which is increasing demand,” said Iwashina. “Distributors understand they have to participate in the process as early as possible.”

A film still from THE RACHEL DIVIDE. Courtesy of Netflix.

“The Rachel Divide”

At Tribeca, for instance, Netflix will unveil its own documentary slate, Laura Brownson’s “The Rachel Divide,” Kirby Dick’s “The Bleeding Edge,” and Dawn Porter’s docu-series “Bobby Kennedy for President,” while other major small-screen companies are also following suit: CNN Films has this year’s opening night film, “Love, Gilda,” a poignant chronicle of comedienne Gilda Radner’s career, while Showtime has Liz Garbus’ closing night docu-series, “The Fourth Estate.” Other familiar players include A&E Indie (“No Greater Law,” about a Christian sect) and HBO (“Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland”), as well as newcomer Hulu (“Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie”).

Hulu is also frequently mentioned as a viable new distribution outlet. The company’s presence also helps drive distribution sales due to its output deals with such theatrical distributors as Magnolia Pictures and Neon, who’ve remained committed to docs.

No Longer a Skewed Market

Indeed, with more small-screen companies going into production, a range of theatrical distributors have continued to stake a claim on completed documentaries for sale. “In terms of acquisitions, the current situation may give the traditional distributors an advantage, at least in the short term,” said Braun.

According to Oscilloscope Laboratories president Dan Berger, “because of players like Amazon and Netflix stepping back, it skews the whole market. But I think it’s in a good way, because the pool of films is a little more open. At Sundance this year, it enabled us to get films [documentaries ‘On Her Shoulders’ and ‘The King’] that we may not have otherwise had access to.”

However, theatrical distributors are in a tricky situation, because the theatrical market for documentaries hasn’t been as robust as in the past. “For some reason, there’s a hesitancy in the moviegoing marketplace to see docs in movie theaters,” said Sloss, “but there doesn’t seem to be hesitancy in watching them at home.”

In fact, this time next year, the overall documentary marketplace could shift back to streamers in a big way. Nascent digital platforms such as Apple, Facebook, and YouTube Red are all currently in the mix, say sales agents, and are likely to emerge in a larger way in the coming months.

And, as Sloss noted, “Netflix is still very much in the doc business.”

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