Nonfiction Producers and Directors Talk How to Make Docs Pop in Crowded Marketplace

Documentary features and docuseries have become some of the most popular and profitable content around — especially for streamers — but what makes a project rise above the sheer volume of nonfiction fare now flooding the marketplace? That’s the question on the minds of top doc producers, directors, dealmakers and distributors who, on the eve of the American Film Market, are all searching for the secret ingredients that will distinguish the next breakout nonfiction projects.

In the early 2000s, “March of the Penguins” and “Fahrenheit 9/11” proved that low-budget docs could approach or surpass $100 million at the box office, and pop stars like Justin Bieber, Michael Jackson and One Direction brought their audiences to movie theaters in big numbers. Then, just as doc revenue came back to Earth, streamers changed the game, paying big bucks for nonfiction content to gain subscribers. The price tags of “Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry” (sold by doc powerhouse Submarine Entertainment and Lighthouse Management to Apple TV Plus), and an untitled Rihanna doc (sold by Endeavor Content to Amazon) — each picked up for around $25 million in late 2019 — set a new standard for doc acquisitions. And the hits just keep on coming: a few months later, Disney acquired Peter Jackson’s “The Beatles: Get Back,” and in April, Netflix nabbed a multi-part Kanye West doc for a reported $30 million.

“There are two general categories of content that streamers are looking for: docs for subscriber acquisition, and for subscriber retention,” says Endeavor Content senior VP of documentary Kevin Iwashina. The seller/producer sold worldwide rights to the Broadway smash “Hamilton” to Disney for $75 million. “The former have the most value to streamers, because acquiring subscribers is very expensive. The latter are generally broad interest documentaries, like true crime or a current event, which presumably prevent subscribers from cancelling their service.”

More streamers are commissioning their own docs and doc series, making sales a bit tougher for indie producers. Yet Submarine co-founder Josh Braun has several aces up his sleeve — pending and completed sales of docs on Led Zeppelin, Martha Stewart, Magic Johnson and other big names. His sales and production outfit even managed to nab $12 million from Apple and A24 for a 2020 political coming-of-age film with no stars, “Boys State,” a record price for a Sundance doc.

“If you have access to great archival [material] and a story that can be told in a new way, or one that people don’t know, that’s going to get attention almost every time,” Braun says. “I also feel a personal story that’s told well and filled with surprises and thrills and a sort of innate, intense emotional truth — even if there’s no superstar — can work really well.” On the other hand, he notes, “it’s sometimes a struggle [to sell] ‘survey films,’ made about a topic with examples of a topic. There are obviously great films that do this, but perhaps because we’re living through such a weird time, people are relating to personal stories more.”

Iwashina thinks the commercialization of docs is leading consumers to “expect an experience similar to that of narrative content, with sympathetic characters and recognizable subjects. We’re seeing traditional storytelling devices being applied to nonfiction content. Some of the most successful docs are about individuals on a journey who have obstacles they overcome and are changed because of it, for better or for worse.”

Few doc directors have captured journeys as well as E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, whose 2018 doc “Free Solo” won an Oscar, several Emmys and a spot among the top 20 grossing docs of all time. They are on the way to repeating that success with their second National Geographic Documentary Films feature, “The Rescue,” chronicling how Thai boys were saved from a flooded cave in a story that gripped the world. “There are more resources going towards documentary films than ever, and well-crafted films still distinguish themselves from the rest,” Vasarhelyi says. “We have access to incredible people, whether it’s composers or editors or our mixer,” adds Chin. “When you’re surrounded by that much talent, there is a kind of synergy that happens.”

Jesse Moss, who co-helmed the Emmy-winning “Boys State,” helped raise LGBTQ+ visibility by producing the 2019 doc “Gay Chorus Deep South” and directing the Pete Buttigieg chronicle “Mayor Pete” (which premiered at the Chicago Intl. Film Festival and NewFest before its Nov. 12 Amazon Prime bow). Moss feels that what makes his new doc stand out is “the freedom we had to make a true, unscripted vérité film, and the access we had. I think access is currency in the marketplace.” Next up, he’s directing a “kind of coming-of-age story, an adventure and a tragedy. It’s an amazing story, and [getting] access is hard.”

But in this market, Iwashina says, it can be essential: “If you’re covering a major subject, do you have their consent or participation or, if it’s posthumous, the participation of their family or estate? What’s the new, exclusive piece of information you have in your doc that others don’t? Is it home videos or footage?”

For docmakers who assemble hundreds of hours of footage, the temptation to do a limited series and have a “Tiger King”-size success is real. Yet it may be counter-productive. “Some of the buyers tell us, ‘We’re kind of hoping for documentary [features], because it’s almost like a series gold rush,’” Braun says. “Every [filmmaker] wants to do them as a multi-part. They have dollar signs in their eyes, but a lot of the pitches just don’t sustain as a series. My best advice: if you say you have eight episodes, make sure you do. Most of the time it can be boiled down to three, and then it’s really good.”

One of the main reasons a film like “Boys State” can nab a $12 million deal is the promise of a spot in the awards race, something streamers and indie distribs crave. It’s the first motivating factor mentioned by Foothill Prods.’ Jamie Wolf and Nathalie Seaver, who exec produced the DGA-winner “The Truffle Hunters,” the Peabody-winner “Newtown” and Sundance honoree “Cusp.” “You look at a project and a topic with an eye towards, ‘Will this possibly win an award, because it’s so strategically focused and thoughtfully told as a story?’” says Seaver, whose drug addiction chronicle “Jacinta” just hit Hulu. “The quality is our grid,” Wolf adds. Buyers will be scouting for more quality contenders at DOC NYC, held Nov. 10-28 in Manhattan.

Ross Dinerstein, whose Camp-fire Studios produced the recent doc streaming hits “WeWork,” “Hysterical” and “Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults,” says that “the way to make a project stand out is making sure it’s relatable.” To that end, Campfire emphasized body image issues and unhealthy relationships in the HBO Max diet cult docuseries “The Way Down.”

Dinerstein says producers would also be smart to think of their target audience when choosing subject matter. In addition to looking for more diversity in front of and behind the camera, “most of the streamers are very focused on the female side of their audience, and true crime really resonates with them, so we look at that question: Is this going to be interesting to a female audience?” (He and Iwashina, who, respectively, exec produced and produced the 2011 doc “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” will have more to say at the Nov. 4 AFM virtual panel titled Producing Standout Documentary Features).
Focus Features president of production and acquisitions Kiska Higgs says her Uni specialty division has talked with partner outlets NBC, MSNBC, Sky, Peacock and Universal Pictures Content Group about becoming “a hub of sorts” for docs. “I need a better pitch, but at Focus, we just buy what we like,” she says with a laugh. With “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” the 2018 Mister Rogers film that earned $23 million and became the 14th highest grossing doc of all time, “you just felt like you wanted to share that experience of going back to your childhood with people in the theater.”

As new platforms like Discovery Plus and doc streaming services rely more on conventional commissioned content, IFC Films president Arianna Bocco looks for docs that are more distinctive. “[Andrea Arnold’s] ‘Cow’ plays like a narrative feature,” she says, “and I felt like it could stand apart from just being an issue-oriented documentary and have a presence in the arthouse marketplace that aligns with our brand.”

The perceived importance of a theatrical run has certainly lessened in recent years, but it varies depending on who you ask. “If our films are seen on a big screen, the backend is very different than if it goes straight to a streamer,” says Vasarhelyi, who notes that “Free Solo” earned more than $1.5 million at NYC’s Angelika Film Center alone. “I kind of feel like the pandemic changed all of it, and everyone should watch it any way they can, because that’s how movies succeed.” And Foothill’s Wolf agrees. “One of the things the pandemic established was the value of streaming, and that the old hierarchy of ‘theatrical first’ is kind of outdated,” she says.

This year, AFM will offer docs with personal takes on big subjects, like Endeavor Content’s “Year Zero,” a Kathryn Bigelow-exec produced docuseries about people affected by the pandemic around the globe, and Participant’s racially charged high school football doc “Messwood,” which premieres Nov. 14 at DOC NYC. “We have a track record of world-class filmmakers who are able to see around the corners of the most pressing issues of our time, going back to ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’ which changed the conversation about climate change,” says Participant’s VP, sales & distribution,
Rob Williams.

One person who wants to change what makes docs stand out in the marketplace is Vasarhelyi — by changing who films them and appears in them. Like her husband and “Rescue” co-director Chin, she’s of Asian descent, and notes the rare position they’re in. “There are more outlets than ever for documentaries, and there’s more money, but I would challenge people to look at who’s making that content. How do we make sure that filmmakers from different backgrounds have access to those resources? I want to hold the marketplace accountable, and see filmmakers help other filmmakers.”

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