DOC NYC PRO brought together a panel of producers and directors virtually Wednesday (Aug. 19) to reflect on the burgeoning field of documentary series.
The session was moderated by DOC NYC’s Caitlin Boyle (pictured, top left).
Panelists included Jyoti Sarda (bottom right), producer of ‘POV’s first miniseries And She Could be Next; Michele Josue (bottom left; Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine), director of Netflix five-parter Happy Jail; Rudy Valdez (center right; The Sentence), director of a forthcoming Netflix youth football series; Tyler Measom (center left; I Want My MTV, An Honest Liar, Sons of Perdition), of a forthcoming Netflix true crime series; and Nanette Burstein (top right), director of Hulu’s Hillary miniseries.
Among other topics, speakers discussed pivoting from feature-length directing to the series format and the process of pitching — and selling — a docuseries.
Here, Realscreen has compiled a few key takeaways from the session.
“A DEMAND FOR NON-SCRIPTED”
Boyle opened the discussion by asking panelists about the growing demand for docuseries as viewers across genres are “clamoring for content” that goes beyond the 90-minute feature structure.
“TV on DVD grew because people didn’t want to be restricted by the ads, and they wanted to skim through their favorite shows as much as they wanted,” Jyoti Sarda said. “Fast forward to when Netflix started streaming… It was even easier for people to go through the shows they really enjoyed.”
True crime documentaries in 2015 such as HBO’s The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst and Netflix’s Making A Murderer further fueled the desire for bingeworthy, episodic content, Sarda explained.
“Now, here we are, as people are sitting at home and it just feels like they’re hungering to dive deeper into stories,” she said. “Audiences seem to be moving towards the stories we want to be telling.”
Amid that burgeoning demand, documentary filmmakers are grappling with production shutdowns as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Rudy Valdez’s Netflix project first went on hiatus. When New York City moved into phase two of its re-opening, his team shot 16 interviews over a couple of days. The crew are now heading into post-production.
Conversely, for Tyler Measom’s under wraps Netflix project, the team completed 25 interviews in the month of February — “just in time” — allowing the series to move to editing and post-production.
Over the course of three weeks in July, filming started on recreations that had been postponed — the first large shoot of its kind for Netflix since the onset of the pandemic.
“It was very nerve-wracking,” Measom said. “We all got tested before and we were able to do these recreations. We had to shift a little bit. Rather than shooting on location we shot on sets and we did as much exterior as we could… Days took longer because there were checks everyday and safety meetings everyday and we couldn’t have as large a crew.”
“I think we’re going to see a lot smaller crews, even in the narrative world. And what I hope is that allows doc makers to kind of slide in and say, ‘Hell, I work with three people and I can do an entire feature with five people total’… In some ways, what we can do as doc makers is embrace this period as much as we can. There is a demand for non-scripted content… I think we’re going to see that more because productions are going to be smaller and archival productions are going to be more important.”
CREATING A BINGEWORTHY SERIES
Boyle asked the panelists about the differences in “conceptualizing, developing [and] producing a feature film” with a standard story arc for a 90-minute project, and making a story stretch across multiple episodes. “From the creative side, do you shift your storytelling tactics and strategies?”
Before Hillary, Nanette Burstein had largely worked on feature-length documentaries, though she had some experience creating series.
The Hillary Clinton project was sold to Hulu prior to Burstein’s involvement, based on a trove of archival footage. When Burstein got involved, the project was an “open book.”
“I chose to make it a film that wasn’t an election film, per se. But that was interwoven into the story, the ’16 election. I chose to make a much broader story; I wanted to tell her whole life story and link it to the arc of the women’s movement and our history of partisan politics… So I had a double timeline,” she said. “Before I went and shot a million interviews, including with her, I structured the film and I came up with a whole treatment of how I thought it would unfold, this idea. And I wrote it out. And I could just tell from the amount of story it was going to be a four-part series, which it did end up being.”
For Michele Josue, Happy Jail wasn’t pegged to a specific format.
“I think the story really needs to dictate the format and at that point I was just thinking this would be a really good feature portrait of this uniquely Filipino jail program. But when we started filming, the timing of it was such that we were capturing this jail in this real-time transition,” she said. “It just begged to be in a series format.”
Pitching and selling the project, however, presented challenges.
“With Happy Jail, we felt there was something bigger here and there would be a broader audience and that it was a really important story that needed to be shared, not just in the Philippines and the U.S. but globally. So we had our digital agent for Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine start pitching it to Netflix when we started shooting and those discussions stretched out for over a year,” Josue said. “Thankfully, eventually Netflix decided they officially wanted to come on board.”
Sarda, whose And She Could Be Next broadcast on ‘POV’ in June, echoed Josue, adding the platform, too, can dictate the format.
“Because ‘POV’ is obviously linear television, they have set formats, so they have to create a separate time slot for us,” Sarda said. “If we were talking to a streamer, then that would not have been an issue and who knows, we might have gone with four one-hours. We could have. So as much as the story might dictate the format, where your story ends up also plays a really big role in how you have to shape it.”
Valdez’s Netflix project was first conceived as a series. However, regardless of format or genre, he’s focused on finding the “nuance.”
“In the series format, what I’m finding is — at least with ours — we have this topline hook that gets you in. It’s about a youth football organization, but where I’m seeing the episodes break up and where I’m seeing the way that people want to continue watching is the nuance, the characters, the kids, the coaches, the community — all of these things you probably wouldn’t be able to dive into if it was a 80-minute feature,” he said.
“There’s a different format to telling a series, but to me the gathering of information is the same.”
BEING IN THE ROOM
While the pitching process may be anxiety-inducing for some, Measom offers a different perspective.
“I really like being in the room. I want to make sure when I pitch, that if they said no, it wasn’t on me. I did everything right, I prepared as well as I could. My package, my sizzle, the lookbook, everything is as good as it can be,” he said.
Still, filmmakers pitching a series before they’ve tackled the format could encounter some roadblocks. When Measom first pitched the series now underway at Netflix, the streamer (and “everyone else”) passed.
“What we then did is we pitched to production companies. A production company came on, they supported it, and then they brought in Joe Berlinger as an executive producer,” he said. “Then we took the same package, same directors, same sizzle, same subject to the same people and it was completely different. We then had offers and chances.”
As non-scripted gains more clout and revenue, more production companies are looking to board projects, Measom said. Ultimately, he explained “passion is key” when it comes to pitching.
“You have to drum up that passion and that has to come across when you’re sitting at a table because the fact of the matter is, when you’re sitting at a table at a pitch, they go in knowing they’re going to say ‘no.’ And you have to know that,” Measom said.
“One of the most important things is a sizzle in today’s world…. When you’re pitching, the person your pitching to, nine times outta 10 doesn’t have the power to say yes. They have to take your passion and pitch it up or pitch it to another group…. So whatever you can leave behind is better.”
For Burstein, the package depends on the project.
“Regardless, you do need a really good treatment… If you don’t have a sizzle, then you need to have a really strong track record and/or a production company or executive producer who has a really strong track record because it’s a lot of money they’re giving you and they have to have faith you can pull it off.”
She also advises knowing the “agenda” of a streamer or network.
“Each of these channels or streamers have a niche that they’re trying to do or that they favor — or maybe they have too much true crime so they don’t want to do true crime,” Burstein said. “All you can do is create the most passionate, attractive package possible.”
There’s other challenges, too, Boyle said, when “talking across the executive divide.”
“We hear a lot of ‘nos’ in this industry, especially when you don’t have an established record,” Valdez said, pointing to “what’s currently going on in the doc community where we’re really empowering a lot of diverse voices to come forward and share their experiences and share their films and share their filtration systems, basically…
“Along with that, one of the things that the streamers and the networks and the gatekeepers need to understand is that inherently, these different filtration systems are going to bring different lenses and different methods of telling stories… That’s only going to help us all in the long run.”