Networks and audiences get real about documentaries

Adriene Hill Oct 5, 2015

Pardon the generalization, but it wasn’t long ago that you could walk into a theater showing a documentary and the seats would be filled mainly with academics and old people. The same was true for documentaries on TV and video.

Not anymore.

Docs have entered a kind of golden age, especially on TV. On any given night, you can browse through hundreds of choices on cable, VOD and on streaming services like Netflix and Amazon. And that stereotypical viewer? Gone, too.

“The documentary audience is as diverse as it is for our series programming,” said David Nevins, CEO of Showtime Networks, the subscription-cable home to shows like “Ray Donovan,” “The Affair” and “Homeland.” 

Nevins said Showtime has upped its production and acquisition budgets for docs this year. 

In just the next couple months, for instance, the network will air “The Spymasters,” an inside look at the CIA; “Prophet’s Prey,” about the life of polygamist and convicted sex offender Warren Jeffs; and “Listen to Me Marlon,” about Marlon Brando.

Nevins said he looks for docs that will get attention, break news and help enhance the network’s reputation as an important contributor to the broader cultural conversation. 

“I’m trying to create a sense of a club that people want to be part of,” he said. “And documentaries have been a very effective way of doing that.”

Showtime isn’t alone in realizing that. Successful films like, “Blackfish” on CNN and series like “The Jinx” on HBO, are pulling in viewers and fueling interest in documentaries and documentary-style storytelling. 

Back in 2005, 97 documentaries were released in theaters. So far this year, 115 documentaries have made their screen debuts. The number of docs on television is also climbing. 

It doesn’t hurt that docs are relatively cheap to make. Mitchell Block produces documentaries and teaches at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. He said even an “extraordinary” hourlong documentary can cost “a fifth of what a TV hour costs.” As for a two-hour, feature-length doc, he said “you’re looking at anywhere from a $100,000 to several million dollars.”

That’s still peanuts by Hollywood movie standards.

With more people watching documentaries, more studios and foundations funding them, and more docs in theaters and online, you might think documentary filmmakers are spending their days sipping champagne and driving Teslas.

“Not a lot of people are getting rich,” said Michael Lumpkin, who directs the American Film Institute’s documentary festival. But, he says, documentaries are getting more attention and, in turn, more respect. 

“Documentaries are now, in a number of instances, competing with fiction films and winning prizes,” he said, adding that they’re not just making gains “in the documentary category but in the best film of the festival category.” Lumpkin thinks it won’t be too long before a documentary film will be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars.

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