TV, streaming services poised to usher in new Golden Era for documentaries

For the past several decades, most documentary filmmakers have worn their poverty as a badge of honor. These filmmakers broke away from government-produced newsreels to create observational, fiercely independent cinema. In the process, they cobbled together film funding from a multitude of grants and loans, while seeking some type of limited distribution through the film festival circuit.

The funding for 1994’s Hoop Dreams, arguably the most critically acclaimed documentary ever made, came from the National Endowment for the Arts and PBS, among others. Given its humble beginnings, the film was considered a success, grossing $11.8 million at the box office. For perspective, that year’s highest grossing film, Disney’s The Lion King, brought in $330 million. Hoops Dreams’ box office performance that year fell somewhere between the Australian cult classic, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and the failed Christopher Lloyd vehicle, Camp Nowhere.

Still, Hoop Dreams took in nearly 1,700 percent of its modest production budget of $700,000; for the sake of comparison, The Lion King brought in a very respectable 733 percent of its production budget that year. Funding by grants, rather than investors, eliminated a good deal of financial risk for the makers of Hoop Dreams. This type of funding also allowed them the unrestricted freedom to spend five years shooting hundreds of hours of film—something unimaginable within the studio system. Still, without the marketing muscle of Disney or another major studio, the movie’s reach was limited.

The highest-grossing documentary release of all time, Michael Moore’s 2004’s Fahrenheit 9/11 was actually financed by indie-studio Miramax, predecessor to The Weinstein Company, for $6 million. It grossed approximately $120 million at the box office, or 2,000 percent of its budget. For further perspective, however, it was only the seventeenth-highest-grossing film that year, falling between 50 First Dates and Dodgeball.

At the time of Fahrenheit 9/11’s release, Disney owned Miramax.  Despite the film’s ostensible ties to the world’s greatest movie marketing machine, its relationship with the studio was a hostile one. Disney’s then-CEO Michael Eisner went to war with Miramax’s then-co-chair Harvey Weinstein, in an attempt to block the controversial film’s release. Weinstein was only permitted to release Fahrenheit 9/11 after repaying the production costs out of pocket and agreeing to donate most of the film’s proceeds to charity.

Theatrically released documentaries have historically been limited in scope. While many were released as passion or prestige projects, they didn’t offer much financial incentive to studios. Recently, however, documentaries produced for television or for video-on-demand services have seen a new groundswell of support.

Perhaps because of the ever-growing demand for unscripted programming, prestige networks like HBO have invested enormous financial resources into long-form documentary programming. In turn, award-winning, water-cooler hits like 2015’s The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst have encouraged other networks to finance and distribute documentary content.

No award has better demonstrated the growing influence of TV documentaries than the most recent Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, which went to the ESPN miniseries, O.J.: Made in America. The film enjoyed a limited theatrical release in New York and Los Angeles in May 2016 (necessary to qualify for the Academy Awards) before airing on ESPN just weeks later. The press and social media debated: was it actually a TV show or a film? The Netflix-distributed documentary, 13th, a contender for the same award, opened the New York Film Festival mere days before its release on Netflix.

Netflix is particularly well-regarded among filmmakers for providing competitive funding and giving creatives carte blanche.  At first glance, its film financing appears to offer many of the creative advantages of grants, along with a captive platform of 104 million paid subscribers. One should be cautiously optimistic about that number, however, given the sheer volume of Netflix content competing for viewers’ attention.  That said, VOD and TV alike offer an opportunity to reach new global audiences well beyond those who frequent indie theaters in major metropolitan areas.

An increased interest in documentaries by the likes of HBO and Netflix has been paralleled by increasing grants from non-profit organizations, as well as corporations like Gucci and American Express.  Some of the early pioneers of cinéma vérité may be rolling in their graves.

While the corporate sponsorship of documentaries is not without controversy, many filmmakers have extoled these companies for the type of opportunities that they provide. It is also important to remember that for every Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock, there are hundreds of other documentary filmmakers who often have no choice but to finance their work using maxed-out credit cards, personal loans, Kickstarter and duct tape.

The role that corporate sponsorships and television networks—many of which are entirely funded by advertisers—should play in documentary production is certainly debatable. Nevertheless, documentary filmmakers today have unprecedented access to film financing and the rapt attention of global audiences. Whether that attention lasts remains to be seen.

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