The golden age of drama has shifted to a golden era for documentaries. Across every platform, nonfiction storytelling has never been in higher demand.
“We are in a golden age of documentary filmmaking,” says Dan Coogan, producer of the 2018 Best Documentary Oscar winner Icarus. “There has never been as great storytelling in nonfiction film as there is today.”
That’s great news for docu-filmmakers who are seeing the checkbooks open in stark contrast to decades of funding struggles with demand fueled by streamers.
The sub-genre of natural history was arguably the first to benefit from streaming platform interest. Blue-chip shows the caliber of Sir David Attenborough fronted The Blue Planet are expensive enterprises years in the making and consequently the preserve of specialists at the BBC Natural History Unit, Discovery and National Geographic.
Competition among streaming platforms including Disney+ (home of Nat Geo) and Discovery+ means wildlife docs have never been in higher demand.
Netflix’s My Octopus Teacher, about an eight-limbed creature and her human companion, won the Oscar for best documentary this year. The film became a sleeper hit, earning a Directors Guild of America nomination, then an Oscar nod, a BAFTA award and was named top documentary at the Producers Guild of America Awards.
“Audiences have reappraised the documentary genre,” says Lia Devlin, head of distribution at Altitude Films, whose slate includes David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet. She told Variety, “They are treated very much now as feature films and a solid entertainment format.”
Joe Berlinger, who has directed Metallica: Some Kind of Monster and Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, says that until Netflix doc filmmakers had spent decades knocking on the door of the entertainment industry to no avail.
One reason for the change in fortunes is that doc makers are adopting techniques from scripted movies. “Scripted filmmakers and unscripted filmmakers, for the last couple of decades, have been borrowing ideas from each other and therefore, the documentary has become much more creative,” Berlinger said.
Look no further than this year’s Awards darling Nomadland for evidence of the intertwining of fact with fiction. Chloe Zhao could have told the story of America’s roving RV community as a straight documentary but felt she could get to the heart of the matter by blending a narrative with professional actors. There’s little doubt the story has reached a far wider audience as a result — and is overwhelming evidence of the audience’s appetite for true-life stories.
Similarly, David France’s Welcome to Chechnya, about the horrific experience of the LGBTQ community in Chechnya, used VFX techniques more commonly associated with Marvel blockbusters to keep the identity of its witnesses secret and retaining the integrity of their accounts. It was the first ever documentary longlisted for an Academy Award for visual effects.
For documentary makers, there is a realization that it is possible to make money out of feature docs, partly because of the growing number of platforms. “People are coming into the market because there are more sources of funding,” reckons Mandy Chang, commissioning editor for BBC Storyville, in Variety. “It is just about understanding how to tap into it.”
Sundance is no longer just a venue for studios to snap up indie features. Festivals like this are a showcase for docs too. Time, Garrett Bradley’s film about Sibil Fox Richardson fighting for the release from prison of her husband, was acquired by Amazon Studios after Sundance and went on to make the Oscars’ documentary feature shortlist.
Docs picked up by studios benefit from marketing punch and the right story can breakout virally. The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears stoked a wave of international publicity and awareness for its exclusive run on FX and Hulu.
That said, the biggest feature tentpoles dwarf the takings of documentary films at the box office. Avatar, Avengers: Infinity War, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Black Panther top out around $1 billion each in box office revenue. The top unscripted film released in cinemas is Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 at $119 million with March of the Penguins second at $77 million (per Box Office Mojo), although the profit margin on budget to box office is likely to be in the docu’s favor.
The eye-opening $25 million check reportedly paid by Apple TV+, for Billie Eilish – The World’s a Little Blurry, is an anomaly. This fee went to Eilish herself while the production by Eilish’s record label Interscope had an estimated budget between $1 million and $2 million.