Streaming has not only changed the way we produce and consume TV, but, to hear our Meet the Experts: Documentary panelists tell it, the entire documentary field in general. In the past decade, as more platforms emerged, more documentaries have been made, becoming addictive viewing for fans (see: “Tiger King”) and legitimizing the genre as a form of entertainment.
“I’ve seen a huge change. I’ve been making documentaries for 25 years [and] it was a struggle. There were very few outlets and it wasn’t because there wasn’t an audience — it was just a question of how to reach that audience,” “Hillary’s” Nanette Burstein told Gold Derby (watch above). “So streaming was the answer. And it was the unexpected answer and it really changed the marketplace. I think there is, as we’ve seen, a hunger from audiences to see real stories, amazing stories and amazing filmmakers out there that can bring it to them. It’s changed the game. People see it now as a real way — it’s a real commerce. And you can have an idea and not think, ‘Oh my God, how do I actually get this made or financed or sold and seen?’ I didn’t actually expect that to happen in my lifetime, but it has, so it’s wonderful.”
Reginald Hudlin, who helmed Netflix’s “The Black Godfather,” agrees, pointing to his kids who don’t see a difference between documentaries and narrative films. “I think streaming has revolutionized the relationship of the documentaries with the audience,” he said. “My kids don’t put documentaries in that medicine box. They are seen as now a legitimate part of entertainment, like, ‘What do you want to watch?’ ‘I heard about this good documentary.’ ‘Oh, tell me about it!’ ‘Oh!’ It’s great.”
What’s also changed is the documentary series format, as more and more networks are willing to commit more runway to a project versus just a film. “I know with myself and ‘McMillions,’ in the past, that would’ve been a 90-minute film,” James Hernandez stated. “It would’ve been great, but to be able to dive into the motivations behind why people do things, it just would not have been able to been shown on a broader scale. It would’ve been far more, almost sensationalized, where with this or any of our projects, you start to look at the depth of why people are doing the things they do, which inherently are some of the reasons why TV shows have been popular in the first place.”
More importantly, no matter the length, audiences are clearly showing up for documentaries and keeping the conversation going for what could be weeks. “I made a show called ‘The Keepers’ for Netflix in 2017 and I think it was my fifth or sixth documentary that I had made, but it was my first series, and the popularity of that show compared to some of the films that I had made before, which were for great distributors and by documentary standards had done well, blew it out of the water,” “Visible: Out on Television’s” Ryan White shared. “And I think we’re seeing that every year. There’s a handful of series that take the country by storm, and it’s proving that audiences are willing to sit down for five, six, seven hours of documentary content.”
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