‘Crime, Food, Music, Sports’: Documentary Biz Thinks Broad Amid Cuts

The days of elastic budgets are over. The documentary arena is feeling the great contraction in the volume of content ordered by the largest networks and streamers as the entertainment industry reckons with its spending binge of the past decade.

The high-end nonfiction and documentary production community benefited enormously from the spike in demand for episodic series and evergreen films. In recent months, filmmakers, producers and buyers say strictures have tightened on producers to deliver highly accessible, easily promotable documentary content.

“Crime, food, music sports”: that’s how director and cinematographer Nicola Marsh describes the hot subject areas for docu makers in the present writers strike-disrupted marketplace.

Despite the momentarily sluggishness, spending on nonfiction and documentary content by the largest platforms is only poised to grow. These genres are too important to offset scripted programs and fill out a service with a varied content menu to keep subscribers in the tent.

The ability to have documentary titles showcased alongside top movies and TV shows on Netflix and other streamers has been a game-changing development. Documentary veterans see it as a leveling of the playing field for docu features that until not too long ago were generally restricted to arthouse theaters in major cities or Netflix’s red envelopes. Being readily available and promoted via recommendation engines on Disney+ and Nat Geo, Max, Amazon, Peacock, Paramount+ and Apple TV+ brings attention to compelling docs that could never get the same marketing and promotional push as Spider-Man and Boba Fett and their ilk.

“We have seen a complete evolution of documentaries as an important part of the industry eco-system,” says Sara Bernstein, the 14-year HBO veteran who has headed Imagine Documentaries since 2018. “Similar to HBO’s model over the years, documentaries are not the central point of the offering but they provided an important service to HBO viewers. We saw that explode.”

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Imagine Documentaries rode the wave of demand and frothy dealmaking as Bernstein and Imagine president Justin Wilkes built the division from scratch. Recent projects include Showtime’s David Johanssen bio and concert pic “Personality Crisis: One Night Only,” Amazon Prime Video’s “Judy Blume Forever,” MGM+’s true crimer “Murph the Surf,” Netflix’s “The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari” and Disney+’s “We Feed People,” featuring humanitarian chef Jose Andres and his World Central Kitchen relief project. Imagine was perfectly situated to handle a burst of nonfiction production with its status as a sizable independent with the ability to finance and steer projects from development through post production.

“We saw rising budgets and lot of competition. It was a great moment for companies like ours to be able to create a successful, profitable businesses but still manage to do engaging and important programming,” Bernstein says. “Now what we’re seeing is a contraction. We’ve certainly lost some key partners like CNN Films. It remains to be seen if budgets will be at the same level going forward.”

Imagine Documentaries’ 2023 feature “Judy Blume Forever”
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Given the border-crossing reach of the largest streamers, there’s now a huge premium on series and films that can travel well outside the U.S. It also doesn’t hurt to have a built-in fan base for the subject matter — one reason why music and sports-themed documentaries have proliferated.

Yes, there is teeth-gnashing in documentary circles that the focus has narrowed to big, broad commercial topics. “There’s less interest in the singular story of the fisherman in North Carolina who found someone’s wedding ring,” Marsh says. “The extinction of a certain kind of butterfly may be a most important thing but nobody wants to make that documentary.”

Nevertheless, the expansion of platforms and real estate devoted to high-end documentary content is only poised to expand.

“The marketplace for docs is worse than it was one year ago but much better than it was 10 years ago,” says Marsh, a seasoned documentary and reality TV DP who earned strong reviews earlier this year as co-director of Showtime’s “The 12th Victim.” The four-part docuseries, which premiered in February, re-examines the culture-shaking, Eisenhower-era story of Nebraska youths — 19-year-old Charlie Starkweather and his 14-year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate — who went on a murder spree in 1958.

Documentarians have grumbled of late that the mania for true crime is overshadowing other worthy efforts, particularly on social issues, climate and social justice related-topics. Marsh, who is juggling multiple docu projects on the heels of “12th Victim,” says the challenge of filmmakers at present is to tell substantial stories through the lens of pop culture and SEO-friendly stories. True crime offers such a universally popular and compelling storytelling genre that it’s impossible to ignore.

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Marsh found Fugate’s story fascinating and under-explored in all the reams of material produced on Starkweather, who was executed via electric chair in 1959. The teenage girl was seen in the moment of the killings as a monster but has since been reconsidered by scholars and criminologists to have been a clear victim of Starkweather’s brutality.

No director wants to go through cut-and-paste details about famous serial killers. But revisiting history’s treatment of Fugate as a springboard for commenting on the status of women in mid-20th century America, as well as class and criminal justice biases, was intriguing to Marsh.

“Our point of view has shifted so dramatically over the last 60 years,” Marsh says. “Things we thought were OK — a 14-year-old dating a 19-year-old or putting a 14-year-old in prison — we no longer think are OK. When crime happens in the moment, it engenders such an amoral panic about the culture spiraling out of control that it is very difficult to tweeze that apart and create just [legal] rulings.”

And from a storytelling engine perspective, crime pays.

“Crime starts out from the point where somebody is dead or not dead, somebody either killed them or didn’t kill them. That’s happening. It’s not an internal story,” Marsh observes. “It’s a very binary paradigm as the justice system is inherently binary. You’re not guilty a little bit. You’re either guilty or not guilty, dead or not dead.”

From Britney Spears to Brooke Shields, Michael J. Fox to Dan Rather, Michael Jordan to Muhammad Ali, revisiting history and pop culture icons through a contemporary lens is as strong a genre as true crime. That reflects the need for subjects that are instantly recognizable to viewers as they peruse titles served up by recommendation engines. Celebrity bios are low-hanging fruit in this equation.

“We have to be very strategic in how we develop these projects,” Bernstein says. “There’s too much at stake in terms of gaining an audience for documentary programming now. It’s more of a financial commitment for these platforms. What’s hardest right now are issue-driven projects. It’s harder to get audiences to pay attention to those subjects.”

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“The Volcano,” Imagine’s 2022 Netflix feature doc from director Rory Kennedy about dramatic rescue missions initiated after a deadly volcanic eruption in New Zealand in 2019, was treated as a real-life thriller with a dash of real-life inspiration on top.

“We always have to think how can we amplify an issue, how can we eventize a story like ‘The Volcano,’ “ Bernstein says. “On some level it’s a disaster movie, but it’s an incredible story of te triumph of the human spirt and surivival. It’s about real people but it’s not about people anyone has ever heard of before. We had to produce that in a way that would resonate with an audience and break through.”

Marsh, who has DP credits ranging from 2013’s Oscar-winning “20 Feet From Stardom” to Bravo’s “Vanderpump Rules” and “Below Deck,” feels “the tension in docs over the need for celebrity- and star-driven [projects] with enough reach to be watched in Brazil and Canada.” But as she shifts her focus to documentary helming, she sees plenty of opportunity to deliver meaningful work.

“Documentaries are fundamentally about the embodiment of an idea. You’re always trying to find a person to embody the idea,” Marsh says. “There’s a danger that the need for such a big audience can dilute the potency of documentaries about ideas. I want to make docs that say something interesting inside of a commercial wrapper that will draw people in.”

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