Edinburgh ’19: Unpacking the golden age of “mega docs”

The ever-growing documentary film boom has been well underway for some time now, with last summer seeing projects such as Three Identical Strangers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and RBG ...
August 22, 2019

The ever-growing documentary film boom has been well underway for some time now, with last summer seeing projects such as Three Identical Strangers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and RBG dominating the box office (and headlines) and more recent titles including Free Solo, Knock Down the HouseApollo 11 and Netflix and Hulu’s competing Fyre Festival docs generating their own buzz.

The 2019 Edinburgh TV Festival kicked off Tuesday (Aug. 21), and one of the day’s first panels, “The Making of a Mega Doc,” tackled the wave of heavy-hitting documentary films that mark an on-going “golden age” of the genre.

The event brought together some of the talent behind recent doc mega-hits — films registering in the mainstream and generating revenue and sometimes international discussions.

Chairing the panel was Chris Curtis, editor of Broadcast. Joining Curtis were Channel 4 deputy editor Nevine Mabro, EP of Waad Al-Khateab’s For Sama; Amos Pictures founder Dan Reed, director and producer of the controversial and buzz-generating two part HBO/C4 Michael Jackson doc Leaving Neverland; Danny Gabai, head of Vice Studios U.S. and EVP of Vice Media, whose recent credits include the feature docs Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened and Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond, both for Netflix; and Simon Chinn and Poppy Dixon, part of the team behind Harvey Weinstein doc Untouchable.

The elephant in the room with any such discussion is always Netflix, and the panelists tackled it head-on at the outset. The global streamer has been widely seen as, for better or worse, a disruptor in many sectors of the entertainment industry. With docs, the panelists broadly agreed that Netflix has had a positive overall impact.

“Netflix has been at the vanguard, in terms of SVODs, of acquiring and now financing feature docs in a way that they haven’t been before by a single entity,” said Chinn.

That has had a trickle-down effect, and emboldened competitors in the space. Cable nets and the theatrical market have historically not shied away from docs, but there seems to be a shift in scale now. “It’s not as though something brand new is happening, but what is happening is that Netflix has created competition that didn’t exist before,” Chinn continued. “We’re only going to see more and more aggressive competition in the SVOD market. And equally a lot of the big cable channels, particularly the ones that are associated with new SVODs, like HBO for example, have to produce more content now. They’ve got a mandate to produce more content to compete with Netflix, fundamentally.”

While it may be tempting to look at how audience tastes have changed or how the quality and nature of the content may have evolved, a common refrain during the panel was how new platforms and delivery models have made it easier to provide what viewers want.

“Netflix has created this market for documentaries that’s just exponentially larger than what previously existed in that space, but in a lot of ways it also revealed that there is this audience for documentaries that’s even larger than anybody realized,” said Gabai. “And it’s not that Netflix suddenly decided they just really like documentaries, and they want to commission a lot of them. I think early on when they decided to acquire, they realized that documentaries were performing exceedingly well on the service.”

That epiphany on the part of Netflix is very much a part of the SVOD model, of course. “One of the major effects of the ‘Netflix-ization’ of content is that people watch a lot more, and people can make their choices of what content they’re watching based on time in the day,” said Gabai, who didn’t suggest that the material needed to be showy to compete, but rather that it needed to find its audience through the more democratic model of offering a library, to be accessed on demand at a flat monthly fee.

Another related point is that producers have more room and creative latitude to tell big stories under this model. “If in 2012-2013, I’d gone to a commissioner and said, ‘okay, we’re going to do a four-hour film, and it’s interviews,’ I don’t think that conversation would have lasted more than three minutes,” said Reed, referring to his own two-part Michael Jackson doc.

The old rule books just don’t seem to work anymore – at least not all the time. “There’s all this talk about people having short attention spans now, and there’s Quibi, and there’s YouTube, and there’s all these very short-form platforms, and to give credit to the viewers in all of this, people are wanting four hours,” said Dixon, building on Reed’s premise. “People flock to that.”

Yes, docs need compelling characters. Yes, they benefit from name recognition. Yes, borrowing the language of scripted hits helps. All of this is true, said the panelists, but the cause of the mega doc boom seems more to do with getting the content — long and ambitious as it may be — to its audience than tweaking the filmmaking formula.

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