At first, director Alex Gibney wholeheartedly embraced the influx of energy — and money — the streamers have increasingly pumped into the documentary space over the past decade. Selling to the growing platforms eager to bulk up their content libraries struck the Oscar-winning director of Taxi to the Dark Side and Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief as a creative windfall — a larger market for the kind of filmmaker-driven films that had previously found some success at the box office and HBO. His company, Jigsaw, could produce unique, entertaining titles in a traditionally underfunded field, told in stylistically distinct ways, and receive “greater monetary reward” to boot.
But then, a red flag: Gibney started to get notes from the streamers “that tried to scientifically rationalize the process,” he says: “‘Our algorithm states that by minute 10 you should do X, Y or Z.’” In the meantime, he admits, his company attempted to industrialize its production process to meet the streamers’ demand. “Both us as a production company and then soon the streamers themselves were trying to reintroduce formulas,” Gibney says. “And suddenly we realized that that was the road to perdition.”
While the streamers’ appetite for documentary content has created a new golden age for nonfiction filmmaking, it’s come with transformations that many find worrying: Doc subjects are being paid, timelines are getting scrunched, and the line between premium nonfiction and reality television is blurring. Two camps have emerged, one that has welcomed the resources, reach and riches, the other fearful of a Faustian bargain with the powerful platforms.
“I think most people who got into documentary 20 years ago got into it because they loved this particular type of storytelling and they didn’t think about it as a commercial endeavor,” says Dan Cogan, CEO of production company Story Syndicate (Britney vs Spears, Fauci), one of 50 insiders who spoke for this story. “And now I think it is an accepted part of mainstream entertainment, and so it’s a path just like any other commercial path for people who want to make a living in entertainment.”
According to Parrot Analytics, the number of original streaming documentaries has increased about 77 percent between January 2019 and July 2022, while U.S. “demand” (a metric based on factors including social media and peer-to-peer file sharing) has shot up nearly 186 percent. In 2021, an analysis from data solutions company Diesel Labs found that documentaries and docuseries accounted for 19 percent of Netflix’s catalog, 16 percent of Amazon’s and 34 percent of Disney+’s (home to the doc-heavy National Geographic brand). As demand has ballooned, top doc filmmakers who previously put out a single project every year or two now oversee slates of films and series, and production procedures have changed in the process.
“My fundamental rule for editing used to be, before I even talk about structure, I want to screen every frame of footage,” says filmmaker Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills; Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes). “In today’s fast-paced, highly compressed editing schedule, not only do I not look at all the footage, but the editors working on my shows often don’t look at all the footage.”
According to labor group the Alliance of Documentary Editors, an ideal edit schedule for a traditional documentary is about a month per 10 minutes of finished work, or nine months for a 90-minute film; editors who spoke for this story report recently being asked to complete films in five to six months. Several doc producers have introduced the role of “story editor” or “story producer,” a job commonly found in reality television but not traditionally in documentary — which some believe is intended to save time and help edits hit particular story beats.
Other reality television techniques are creeping into the field, such as “frankenbiting,” or the practice of editing different parts of dialogue together. Documentary editors often edit out “ums” or “ahs” for clarity purposes, but multiple sources say that in some cases — still rare — subjects’ words can be pieced together to punch up dialogue or help facilitate a story arc. “Frankenbiting is part of the process of editing to a certain degree, but what I’m talking about is something where the reality of what we’re seeing onscreen is often a fun house mirror version of reality,” says one veteran documentary editor. “For me, the most concerning is the fact that I’m seeing this at companies that are run by veteran documentary filmmakers who should know better.” Artificial intelligence is also, somewhat controversially, helping docs to re-create voices, or at least their likenesses. Morgan Neville’s Roadrunner had an AI model of Anthony Bourdain’s voice speak words he had written in email, while Andrew Rossi’s The Andy Warhol Diaries used an AI-actor hybrid to foster the illusion that the artist was reading his own diaries.
With a cutthroat level of competition for access to hot stories and subjects — since September 2021 there have been competing docs on the Boeing 737 Max jet, the Gamestop meme stock mania and marketing company LuLaRoe — many filmmakers use whatever leverage they can for access. Paying sources, considered unethical in journalism, is increasingly accepted. Potential subjects understand the competition for zeitgeisty narratives and sometimes demand payment. For celebrity docs, in-demand names can command fees from $100,000 to several million dollars, plus backend, says one knowledgeable source. XTR head of film Kathryn Everett, who is currently producing a doc on Diane Warren, believes that subjects should profit from participation in their own stories. “There is a fairness in it in terms of actually paying artists for their involvement and what they’re worth that historically has seemed antithetical to journalistic ethics. But those rules don’t apply anymore — once it becomes a moneymaking thing, all those things have to go out the window.”
Other filmmakers say that paying reduces the risk of exploitation, especially when there are power or financial imbalances between subjects and potential producers. One such example is the National Geographic doc The Territory, which follows the Uru-eu-wau-wau Indigenous community in Brazil, who are also producers. Director Alex Pritz says that they were given the titles because the community was integral to production, including camerawork; the Uru-eu-wau-wau community also received “equal portions of the backend profit” from the sale of the film.
Though his company does compensate historical advisers (who may also occasionally appear on camera), PBS stalwart and The U.S. and the Holocaust director Ken Burns has a “hard-and-fast rule” not to pay for interviews. But even he made an exception on 1994’s Baseball, which covered the Negro Leagues. “Many of the surviving Negro League players were indigent. And I really just felt there was a huge power imbalance in appropriating their story, if you will, without giving them something that would make their lives easier,” he says.
A less charitable and more controversial case of plunking down for access arose in 2019, when The Ringer reported that Fyre Fest organizer Billy McFarland was paid an undisclosed sum to participate in and license materials for Fyre Fraud, the Hulu doc about the ordeal. McFarland served nearly four years in federal prison for his role in the failed music festival. Meanwhile, Netflix’s competing doc, Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, was co-produced by two companies that also worked on the festival fiasco, Jerry Media and Matte Projects.
“How do you convince sources to deal with you and not other people? It can be a tricky issue, particularly if you don’t pay sources, which Jigsaw does not,” says Gibney. Instead, he says, he tries to “appeal to the idealism of subjects” and argue that viewers will trust their testimony more if there’s no fee involved, an approach that he says works, “sometimes.”
“Having those firsthand primary sources are key. Having exclusive access is key,” notes Belisa Balaban, Hulu’s documentary chief, of considerations for non-fiction projects. “Now it doesn’t always work out that way, [where] you know in advance that you have that.”
Insiders say that, of the big buyers, HBO and CNN Films are still “militaristic” (in the words of one source) about refusing to pay subjects for access. According to Lisa Callif, a partner at Donaldson Callif Perez who has worked on projects like Free Solo and Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, CNN Films’ scruples recently killed a deal for a doc where a subject had certain approvals. A CNN spokesperson confirms that “paying sources is against CNN’s news standards.” Even at outlets that maintain rules around payments for interviews, there are workarounds, where subjects and sources will receive payment to license archival materials, which indirectly acts as payment for participation.
Involving subjects (or an entity close to them) as producers, which was the case on several recent celebrity docs, including The Last Dance, an Emmy winner and ratings juggernaut about Michael Jordan, and This Is Paris with Paris Hilton, is another ethical gray area.
The production arm of Billie Eilish’s record label, Interscope, produced the 2021 doc Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry, while the banner of Demi Lovato’s manager, Scooter Braun, produced her 2021 YouTube Originals docu-series Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil. An upcoming Apple doc on Selena Gomez is produced by Interscope Films, as well as Gomez’s management company, Lighthouse Management & Media. In May, the Elton John documentary Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, which lists John’s husband, filmmaker David Furnish, as a co-director, sold in a deal to Disney+ for over $30 million.
When subjects are producers, they generally have at least some creative input — even if final-cut approval remains rare. Still, platforms are increasingly open to high-profile subjects wielding influence behind the scenes, says Callif. “I would say five years ago, certainly 10 years ago, most outlets would not pick up a film if the subject had any sort of editorial control.” With the rise in demand for celebrity documentaries, she says, “now it’s very much accepted.”
In 2020, The Wall Street Journal reported that Burns said he would “never, never, never, never” agree to allowing a subject’s production company to be involved in a project, citing The Last Dance as an example. Burns says he was not complaining about The Last Dance, specifically, but “was startled by the circumstances and the fact that I was seeing more and more of it. And I’ve continued to see more and more of it.” (The Last Dance‘s director told The Athletic Jordan didn’t have a production company; Jordan business associates were EPs on the film and gave notes, as did Jordan, but not final cut notes.)
Patricia Aufderheide, a professor at American University who has studied documentary ethics for more than a decade, notes a real reluctance by filmmakers to talk about the subject publicly. Aufderheide says she has to conduct panels and workshops under a “code of silence”: “People would say, ‘Yeah, I will be on that panel, but not if it’s publicized and only if everybody in the audience is told they’re not going to be able to talk about it afterward.’ ” People worried, Aufderheide explains, that others would judge their practices or that they would be seen as judging others they might want to do business with in the future.
Prior to the streaming age, documentary features had been seen as the charity cases of the entertainment industry; fodder for classrooms, public access and, at their most lucrative, cable. “Agents couldn’t care less, unions didn’t care about documentaries, distributors really didn’t care about documentaries. It was an avocation,” says Berlinger. Nonfiction filmmaking had more crossover with academia and investigative journalism than the studio system. When she began working in the field in the 1970s, MTV Documentary Films executive producer Sheila Nevins, who programmed a broad range of titles in her multi-decade tenure as the doyenne of documentaries at HBO, says, “We made docs about sophisticated things, about World War II, different eras in American history, the sinking of the Lusitania and Hitler’s last days.” At this time, documentary features were nearly always independently financed through a patchwork of grants, funds and personal capital, meaning that one documentary could take years to make solely because of financing holdups.
The Sundance Film Festival became the first major festival to offer nonfiction programming that received equal billing with its narrative counterparts and stood a chance of receiving theatrical distribution. Berlinger took his first doc feature, Brother’s Keeper, to the festival in 1992, where it won an Audience Award. “Lindsay Law, who was the executive producer, asked [Harvey Weinstein], ‘Do you want to distribute this film?’ He said, ‘Sorry, I already gave at the office.’ That was the attitude toward docs back then.”
Despite a new class of doc filmmakers experimenting with the genre and finding occasional commercial success in the theatrical and home video space, like with Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line (1988), which grossed $1.2 million domestically, or Michael Moore’s Roger & Me (1989), which took in $6.7 million in the U.S., documentary remained marginal in Hollywood well into the new millennium.
Then came streaming. The nonfiction boom is inextricable from Netflix’s own rise.
Netflix’s nascent nonfiction division, initially just two people — Lisa Nishimura, now the streamer’s vp independent film and documentary features, and Adam Del Deo, vp original documentary series — shook up the space, focusing on episodic content with a cinematic bent. In 2015, the same year the third season of House of Cards was released, Netflix released Making a Murderer, a twisty true-crime saga, and Chef’s Table, a docuseries examining the backstories of acclaimed chefs. Graphics studio Elastic, which worked on Game of Thrones and True Detective, was brought on for Murderer, its first nonfiction project. Chef’s Table, from Jiro Dreams of Sushi helmer David Gelb, took its inspiration more from In the Mood for Love auteur Wong Kar-wai than from the fluorescent-lit comparable programming of the Food Network. Particularly notable to Nishimura and Del Deo was how the industry took notice. Nishimura says, “We started taking pitches and everybody would describe their project as ‘The Chef’s Table of …’ ” Doc features and docuseries — from Wild Wild Country to Icarus to Tiger King — are now a staple of the streamer.
While Netflix has a half-decade lead, competing platforms made nonfiction foundational to their slates. The first original released by Apple TV+ was nature doc The Elephant Queen in November 2019. One month later, they were closing a landmark deal for the Billie Eilish documentary, with a price tag of $25 million. “If you’re going to have any kind of reassurance that going to those levels [of price] are not going to be something you’ll regret, it is by having a huge topic, having incredible archival material that no one’s seen, and having a top director,” says Submarine’s Josh Braun, who was behind both the massive eight-figures deals for both the Billie Eilish and Elton John documentaries.
HBO Max’s first festival acquisition was Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick’s On the Record, which was picked up in February 2020, three months before the platform’s launch. Records for doc acquisitions at Sundance keep coming: In 2019, Knock Down the House set a record when it went to Netflix for $10 million; in 2020, Boys State sold to Apple and A24 for $12 million; and in 2021, Searchlight Pictures and Hulu’s purchase of Summer of Soul bested that.
“There really was a reset in terms of the market rate for high-end nonfiction stories,” says Cinetic’s John Sloss, who handled the deals for Knock Down the House and Summer of Soul.
“If you have a name and a reputation and a track record in the business, they’re all coming to us saying, ‘What have you got?’ ” says director Roger Ross Williams (High on the Hog). The boom has also boosted the need for so-called below-the-line filmmaking talent. Finding good editors who are available for projects has become a “blood sport,” says Cogan.
And what does streaming get in return? “Even at the highest end, yeah, on a cost-per-minute basis, [nonfiction] is far cheaper than the vast majority of scripted or narrative content,” says Maggie Pisacane, who co-runs WME’s doc group.
While streamers keep viewership numbers stubbornly out of reach, docs have been more readily called out in quarterly earnings reports and proven their worth in the limited metrics available. In 2022, a nonfiction title has been in Netflix’s Top 10 in the U.S. every week save for one. During its first-quarter financial report, the service touted that doc feature The Tinder Swindler racked up 166 million viewing hours in its first 28 days on the platform. (By comparison, big-budgeted Netflix franchise features The Old Guard and Army of the Dead earned 186 million and 187 million in that same time frame.)
As the form has exploded, the kind of projects that are in vogue has shifted, with distributors looking for broad appeal and, ideally, a built-in fan base — the doc equivalent of a superhero tentpole. Consequently, celebrity stories, sports narratives and true crime are perpetually in demand. “I was hearing for a while there that places were really interested in films that had to do with religious cults, cold case murders and anything to do with a celebrity,” said filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite (Blackfish, The Grab) speaking ahead of the Toronto International Film Festival. Docuseries are at a premium because of the format’s ability to keep viewers engaged on a platform longer. For filmmakers, docuseries also have their financial perks. “Look at it this way: You have a story, you can tell it in two hours, you make X dollars; you tell it in six hours, you make XXX dollars,” explains Nevins.
Competition has also hypercharged the documentary awards season. “Five years ago, you had to find your own way if you were lucky enough to get an Academy Award nomination. Now you arrive in a fancy SUV and you’ve spent half a year flying around campaigning for that film,” says Williams, who just finished his tenure on the Academy’s Board of Governors, representing the documentary branch. For Netflix, documentaries have been their stronghold in the awards race: The company’s first Oscar came in 2017 with doc short The White Helmets, and it has earned three best doc feature statuettes even while the top narrative award has remained out of reach.
Films backed by moneyed studios and streamers can afford months-long campaigns, including entry into influential screenings and festivals. Even the International Documentary Association, a nonprofit that hosts an influential screening series, charges up to $15,000 for entry. The fee, says IDA executive director Rick Pérez, “supports the elevation of films that don’t have major distributors, that don’t have budgets for awards season.” Other awards season screening series can cost as much as three times that amount. Williams describes the spending as “a bit out of control.” He adds, “It’s a conversation that we are in the middle of — in the doc branch of the Academy and in the industry.”
For audiences, nonfiction “went from the artisanal espresso shop in Italy to Starbucks. It became something aspirational but accessible,” notes Kevin Iwashina, the Jiro Dreams of Sushi producer who is now head of documentary at Fifth Season (formerly Endeavor Content). In order to appease this demand, a new cohort of nonfiction companies has emerged.
XTR, founded in 2019, is one of them. The company behind Apple TV+’s They Call Me Magic and the Oscar-nominated MTV Doc Films title Ascension previously worked out of an office space on Sunset Boulevard with a slate of eight projects that it helped to finance, largely through finishing funds. XTR now occupies a $10 million Echo Park studio complex, with a slate of 40 projects it either produced or financed heading for release in 2022 on platforms including Apple TV+, National Geographic and Netflix. The company is a fixture at Sundance, Tribeca and SXSW, throwing intimidatingly hip parties that have drawn Darren Aronofsky, Mark Burnett and Jaden Smith.
Big money is now pouring into doc production. XTR was established by early investors that included Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia and TV legend Norman Lear. In 2020, multibillionaire Laurene Powell Jobs backed Concordia Studio, the company of An Inconvenient Truth filmmaker Davis Guggenheim. Producer Peter Chernin included a nonfiction arm as a part of his $800 million new content studio, The North Road Company, while New Regency, the narrative powerhouse behind films like Bohemian Rhapsody and The Revenant, has started a nonfiction co-venture.
“There are definitely more equity financiers in this space,” says UTA Independent Film Group’s Rena Ronson. For longtime financiers that have worked in narrative features, Ronson estimates, “I would say 9 out of 10 of those want to be in the documentary investment space, as well.”
Earlier this year, Sony Pictures Television purchased a majority stake in nonfiction specialist Industrial Media, valuing the company at $350 million. Sony Pictures Television co-president of nonfiction entertainment Aaron Saidman, who oversees an eclectic portfolio that includes both the production company of former The New York Times Presents showrunner Mary Robertson as well as 90 Day Fiancé producer Sharp Entertainment, says he tries not to draw a line between reality television and documentary titles. “I think there are very sophisticated, highbrow reality shows getting made. And I think there are some very commercial, easy-to-engage-with documentary features,” he says. “They’re not made like reality TV shows, but they’re not necessarily issue-oriented, they’re more populist and they serve a wider audience.”
Top execs note that audiences have now come to expect a certain caliber of doc filmmaking, from the camerawork to the scores and VFX, driving up costs. RadicalMedia (Blackpink: Light Up the Sky; Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich) specializes in “cine-docs,” highly produced nonfiction fare containing scenes that are fully scripted and produced with the “same directors, scale and production value” as narrative film, says RadicalMedia president of entertainment Dave Sirulnick. Even archival documentaries like Summer of Soul and They Shall Not Grow Old require extensive and expensive picture and sound restoration. Elsewhere, increased buy-in from talent agencies, which previously repped nonfiction directors if they sought to jump to narrative features, means that hard bargains and the associated costs of dealmaking increase price tags.
The tight labor market, along with flush nonfiction companies, has resulted in greater leverage for those who work in the field, says Writers Guild of America East executive director Lowell Peterson. (WGA East represents writer-producers at Gibney’s Jigsaw Productions, Vox Entertainment and Vice, among others.) And while unions are still the exception in the field, several worker advocacy groups have emerged in the past few years, seeking to implement labor standards. Since it formed in 2016, the Documentary Producers Alliance (DPA) has published guidelines for documentary crediting and for film financing, and one of its committees is now at work on a set of recommendations for making doc producing a more sustainable career. Two years later, the Alliance of Documentary Editors (ADE) formed and is now exploring unionizing documentary editors, most of whom aren’t represented by a union (some belong to IATSE’s Motion Picture Editors Guild, but most doc projects aren’t made under a union contract).
Several execs, financiers and producers say that growth in the space is having a positive effect on diversity, with a lowering of systemic barriers for underrepresented filmmakers. But the reality is complicated. “It’s starting to get there, but I don’t think that there’s an overabundance or, necessarily, parity yet,” says Freeform vp alternative development Jihan Robinson, who works across Disney’s Onyx Collective, launched to foster the work of creatives of color and was responsible for the acquisition of Oscar winner Summer of Soul. After George Floyd was murdered in the spring of 2020, says Williams, “we all know the demand went sky high for Black content from all the buyers.” He said, “Now I feel like that’s waning. As a Black creator, I feel that they’re like, ‘OK, your time is up. You got a little window to tell your story, and now we’re moving on.’ ”
American University’s Center for Media & Social Impact is set to soon release a study, “The Lens Reflected,” examining the diversity of nonfiction subjects and filmmakers in the streaming age. Though CMSI can’t yet publish its full results, working group member Sonya Childress, the co-director of intermediary and funder Color Congress, says that the study found there is a “deep investment” in creating access points for diverse filmmakers. But it also found that across more than 1,200 documentary titles distributed between 2014 and 2020 on streaming, cable and public television, 78 percent were directed by white helmers, and 66 percent by individuals who identify as male. “There are incredible stories being told by BIPOC and women-identifying directors in this documentary era, but numbers like this show that there is clearly a structural breakdown in the pipeline between development, production, and final distribution,” lead researcher Caty Borum Chattoo, CMSI’s executive director, said in a statement.
XTR CEO Bryn Mooser says the scene’s newcomers are fostering a more inclusive field by creating lasting, lucrative businesses: “We’re trying to build something that can allow for a better, more equitable, more exciting, more interesting future of the entertainment industry when it comes to documentary — one that is not locked in academia or philanthropy or the children of industrialists who have a whim to go make a documentary.”
How long the doc boom time will last is an open question. Parrot Analytics has found that documentaries’ share of overall demand for streaming original content in the U.S. is, so far, slightly lower in 2022 (accounting for 10.1 percent of streaming original content demand) than it was in 2021 (10.4 percent). Berlinger questions what rising costs could entail for the historically inexpensive nonfiction area: “Is it going to mean a diminished appetite for this amount of unscripted content? So, in other words, are we pricing ourselves out of the market?”
As nonfiction has become a larger part of streamer strategies, fortunes will now ebb and flow with those of the wider entertainment industry, like the recent downturn for Netflix stock and Warner Bros. Discovery’s cost-cutting — HBO Max, after mass layoffs in the nonfiction division, will no longer be acquiring or commissioning original projects, with future documentary film content now managed by HBO proper’s docs team. (Current HBO Max projects that are in production will be completed on a case-by-case basis.) Still: “Even if Netflix trims down their $17 billion [overall] budget, you can still make a lot of docs with $1 billion,” says Mooser.
Whatever happens, some in the field are preoccupied by questions of whether the soul of documentary filmmaking will remain intact when the dust settles. Gibney says his company has recalibrated and is again focusing on groundbreaking, custom-made projects. “I hope that in the future, documentarians, and I include myself in this, will continue to resist the straitjacket of formulas and find ways to do interesting work.” He adds, “In other words, my concern for the future is freedom of expression. And the only way to push back on that is to be prepared to do it for less money.”
Reality Booms: A Timeline of Documentary Ascension
Sheila Nevins joins HBO, kicking off an influential multi-decade tenure — she joined MTV in 2019 — launching projects both serious (4 Little Girls, Private Violence) and titillating (Taxicab Confessions, Real Sex).
The Sundance Film Festival premieres Hoop Dreams, which goes on to become a surprise commercial success, with $11.8 million in box office worldwide. Sundance has emerged as a key platform for docs, long showcasing them on equal footing with scripted films.
Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 becomes the highest-grossing feature-length documentary ever at that time, grossing $222.4 million worldwide. (Rights were acquired by Bob and Harvey Weinstein after then-Miramax parent Disney refused to distribute.)
The Square is Netflix’s first significant acquisition for its original doc initiative. It goes on to win the Oscar.
Netflix debuts both Making a Murderer and Chef’s Table, which will define the streamer’s approach to documentaries.
At the domestic box office, RBG earns over $14 million, Three Identical Strangers takes in over $12 million and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? earns nearly $23 million. Oscar winner Free Solo earns $17.5 million, supercharged by Imax viewing.
The Obamas’ Netflix-based Higher Ground releases American Factory, a doc about a shuttered former General Motors factory in Ohio reopened by a Chinese manufacturer. It wins the Oscar.
The COVID-19 pandemic halts narrative production, but documentary work continues thanks to less regulation, nimbler production and Zoom. Documentary’s share of U.S. demand for streaming originals more than doubles between 2019 and 2020.
Besting Billie Eilish doc The World’s a Little Blurry, acquired by Apple TV+ in 2019 for $25 million, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road: The Final Elton John Performances and the Years That Made His Legend sells to Disney+ for more than $30 million.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.