The documentary explosion is now the market for documentaries: Analysis

Increased budgets, fewer buyers, and stricter mandates for commercial films meant times were tough for more challenging original stories.

When “Summer of Soul” sold for $15 million at the 2021 pandemic-virtual Sundance Film Festival, we saw the peak of the documentary boom. Questlove’s debut was a Sundance record, but not alone; Other Sundance docs like “Fire of Love” and “Flee” sold in the high seven figures.

Today’s Sundance 2023 premiere, “It’s Only Life After All,” whose subjects include the Indigo Girls performing at the festival’s Opening Night fundraiser, has yet to find a buyer. Ditto “Going Varsity in Mariachi,” “The Disappearance of Shere Hite,” or Doug Liman’s Brett Kavanaugh’s “Justice.”

Sundance also had documentaries with distribution, such as Hulu’s “Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields,” Amazon’s “Judy Blume Forever” and Apple’s “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie.” But if you’re looking for documentaries that aren’t based on high-level IP, or concepts that can’t be broken down into compelling, cliffhanger episodes — well, that’s a real-world problem.

Last fall, CNN Films ceased to commission documentaries or series. Layoffs at Showtime in February saw the unscripted team trimmed and brought under MTV Entertainment Studios. Warner Bros. Discovery last August cut up the unscripted section of HBO Max Led by Jennifer O’Connell and Rebecca Quinn. An insider confirms that there are currently no original documentaries in the works for either HBO Max or Discovery+.

“Our industry feels the loss when we lose great partners like CNN Films,” said Bryn Mooser, CEO of documentary film company XTR. “We are not only losing a customer, but also a supporter and, in some cases, a platform. It was a time when we put our heads down to focus on how we really think about the films we support. This is sometimes a difficult path for documentary filmmakers trying to tell stories that change the world or change culture. We have to fight harder to get these in front of people than we did two years ago.”

HBO Documentary Films is known to plan years in advance, but multiple sources say the slate is “empty” until 2025, leaving little room for acquisitions or other deals. Netflix still has documentary executives, but the exit of longtime Netflix executive Lisa Nishimura seemed like a bellwether.

The layoffs at Disney will hold back Nat Geo, as will anything Bob Iger decides to do with Hulu. One sales agent told IndieWire that he’s heard many companies are holding off on acquisitions until at least the summer, and expects the backlog of unsold films at Sundance and SXSW to clear out only this fall.

"Little Richard: I am everything"

“Little Richard: I Am Everything”

Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

A few Sundance documentaries have found buyers, such as “The Deepest Breath” (Netflix, ahead of premiere), “The Eternal Memory” (MTV Documentary Films) and “Little Richard: I Am Everything” (Magnolia Films, which acquired it as of today in addition to the theatrical rights, CNN Films). However, sources complain that the market only wants titles that are off the headlines or are truly “commercial”.

“It’s so unclear and everyone just says ‘commercial! trade! trade!’ For example, what does this really mean?” said a documentary talent manager who asked not to be named.

“Documentaries must tell a story that would otherwise not be told, or bring to light a story, issue and characters that would otherwise be unlikely to be told,” the manager continued. “That doesn’t mean ‘WeWork’ (documents) can’t exist. Only up-and-coming filmmakers and stories that give you a snapshot into a world you might not otherwise get into, something that hasn’t made the headlines, should also make room. I think that’s where the divide lies. It just seems that trade is equal to what we as a society already know.”

Studios prefer to work on documentaries in-house over finished films, but the manager added that even financiers and investors appear to be more risk-averse.

“Going to Sundance and getting a huge payday from a documentary — that doesn’t exist anymore,” the manager said. “(Financiers) are also looking at their bottom line and saying, ‘Well, these streamers aren’t buying, and this is our way of getting our money back. Can we really support these stories and filmmakers? Or should we pull back completely?’”

There is a documentary sector that is doing well, thank you: true crime and reality-based documentaries. “You can’t call a true crime series like something about Navalny,” said MTV Documentary Films head Sheila Nevins, a former HBO veteran who knows better than anyone how cyclical the documentary world can be.

“It is not entirely correct to say that the document market is shrinking,” he added. “The document market, in its traditional, pure way, was structured differently and was about different things. Now everything falls under the umbrella. Then suddenly there were too many. I mean, why would a true crime do better than an environmental doc? I mean, let’s be real. Something about climate change is not going to go as well as Dahmer.”

Paulina Urrutia and Augusto Góngora star in Maite Alberdi's Eternal Memory, an official selection for the 2023 Sundance Film Festival World Documentary Competition.  Courtesy of the Sundance Institute.  All photos are copyrighted and may only be used by the press for news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs.  Photographs must be credited to the photographer and/or “Courtesy of Sundance Institute”.  Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photographs is strictly prohibited.

The MTV documentaries “The Eternal Memory”

Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

With the boom in documentaries, budgets have boomed. Films that were made for less than $1 million have crept up to budgets of $2 million or more, and much of that money has gone into an emerging documentary production infrastructure.

One filmmaker said that archiving costs have skyrocketed as libraries have realized their value, and any music-themed film is earmarked for huge licensing fees. More documentaries in the works meant an increased demand for top editing talent, who were becoming more and more expensive. The audience’s expectations regarding the appearance of quality documentaries also increased, which meant more expensive graphics and effects.

“It’s the golden age of documentaries, we’ve done a lot of great work,” said Jenifer Westphal, documentary funder and producer Wavelength. “But the budget may have grown too high. Maybe not everyone is a doc. Maybe there are stories that need to be told, but they need to be told differently.”

For him, it was a soul-searching that sounds a lot like XTR’s. “We had to step back and pivot and get really smart and lean and thoughtful about, ‘What are we going to do next? Can a company that invests in high-volume independent feature documents remain sustainable?

Westphal’s conclusion: “No, not now. So as a company, we need to stay sustainable so that we can eventually get back to investing in big-issue papers.” That’s a message you often have to deliver to aspiring documentary filmmakers looking for $2 million budgets in hopes of festival paydays.

“That’s what I always tell filmmakers. “What’s your plan?” What do you want to happen? Because here is the landscape. I can’t yell at HBO or Netflix and tell them to buy documentaries. That is impossible. So what’s another way we can watch your movie?” Westphal said. “I think the doc industry needs first-time filmmakers. You’re not a documentary unless you’ve made a doc, and they have to understand that the big blitz has passed.”

Wavelength is turning to branded content and narrative features. They also tend to take an international perspective—both for projects that may attract distribution outside the United States and in locations with tax breaks and other production incentives. XTR leans on the company’s streaming platform and FAST Documentary+ channel.

Another producer muses that the buyer lull is the moment to start documentary production — so when streamers and networks realize they need content another 18 months from now, they’ll be ready for the opportunity. The pendulum can swing back even faster if the writer’s strike favors unwritten content.

Not all is gloomy. In addition to “Little Richard: I Am Everything,” Magnolia bought a black-and-white doc about transgender sex workers called “Kokomo City” at Sundance. Amazon recently struck a first-look deal with Imagine Entertainment that includes non-fiction films.

Hulu recently announced that it will consist of three original documentaries: “Freakniks: The Wildest Party Never Told, “Queenmaker: The Making of An It Girl” and “The Jewel Thief.” Smaller, newer players such as Peacock, Roku, Tubi, Fox Nation and Starz have also seen increased activity. Looking for the next “Navalnij”? Probably not. But you can never be sure.

“It’s up to us to make sure that we’re being smart in the moment and paying attention to getting our movies in front of those people,” Mooser said. “The opportunity has not changed. The market may have changed, but it will come back.

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