RGR Collection/Alamy Stock Photo

The Business of Documentary Films

Suddenly, They’re Cool
by andrew l. yarrow

andrew yarrow is a former New York Times reporter who is producing his first documentary, which is based on his book about the history and influence of LOOK magazine.

Published July 5, 2024


In January 2021, at the depths of the Covid-19 pandemic, 50-year-old drummer, songwriter and first-time filmmaker Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s documentary Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) premiered at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival.

The documentary, which drew on footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, not only won top honors at Sundance but also landed what may have been the biggest-ever documentary sale — $15 million from Searchlight Pictures and Hulu.

For America’s thousands of professional and aspiring documentary filmmakers, this is the dream outcome: awards, public recognition and a mega-dollar streaming deal with a guaranteed audience in the millions. Of course, in a field where most practitioners need a day job to survive, most docs are low-budget, money-losing passion projects that may make it onto the filmmaker’s YouTube channel or be screened in a church basement or public library.

While the business of movies, including documentaries, has always had a winner-take-all quality, the late 2010s are widely seen as a golden age for documentaries. “The audience for documentaries expanded with the streaming boom,” explains Sky Sitney, the director and co-founder of the DC/Dox film festival in Washington, DC. “When docs were no longer tethered to brick-and-mortar theaters, they no longer had to compete with Hollywood films.”

Blasts from the Past

Although the first National Geographic TV documentary aired on NBC in 1958, and documentaries date as far back as Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North in 1922, they have largely played to niche audiences. “Once upon a time, asking audiences to watch a documentary was like asking them to do their homework or eat their broccoli,” Addie Morfoot wrote in Variety. For most of the past century, the idea of a documentary conjured up images of luxuriant nature movies, classroom or museum educational shorts, or earnest political-advocacy films. In some ways, they were to Hollywood blockbusters as poetry was to pulp fiction — a bit highbrow and, dare one say it, a tad boring to most people.

Sure, there were rare theatrical and television breakouts. Think Woodstock (1970), Ken Burns’s The Civil War (1990), Michael Moore films including Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) and Al Gore’ An Inconvenient Truth(2006). And since Netflix began producing documentaries in 2013 (with The Square, about the Arab Spring), Amazon, Hulu and the other big streamers have produced or acquired countless others. Millions who might never have gone to a documentary film festival or who rarely watched PBS productions like “American Masters” discovered the medium. Documentaries became … dare I say it, cool!

Docs reached a zenith during the pandemic, when streamers, cable networks like CNN and HBO, media giants like Paramount and Disney, and venerable producers like public television and National Geographic went full throttle. In 2020 alone, Netflix featured documentaries ranging from Crip Camp about disabled teens, to My Octopus Teacher about the relationship between a man and a cephalopod, to biopics about Beyoncé and the Latin American astrologist Walter Mercado.

What’s in a Name

Although the textbook definition of a documentary is an audio-visual work that tells the story of real-life people, events or issues, defining what is and isn’t a doc can be murky. This makes it difficult to say how large the industry is, whether in terms of revenues, audience size, or numbers of productions and practitioners.

One report estimated revenues at $11.7 billion in 2023, projecting it to grow to $16 billion by 2030. But the figure included questionable subgenres like “horror” and “romance” documentaries, as well as educational films aimed at young children. And it undoubtedly excluded the many docs produced largely with sweat equity that may be shown once at a local film festival before sinking into oblivion. 

Docu-dramas, which have become popular in recent years, are also rooted in real events but, like historical fiction, are a hybrid, neither pure documentary nor fiction.

“Many people see docs as a partner to journalism,” Sitney offers. By this categorization, documentaries are akin to feature stories or nonfiction books, examining aspects of society, culture, politics, nature or history. Some strive for objectivity, others express points of view with varying degrees of subtlety or stridency. Occasionally, documentaries like Bowling for Columbine, Fast Food Nation and An Inconvenient Truth are not only commercially successful but change public debate and influence government policy.

Some historians call historical films a subset of nonacademic “public history.” IMAX science movies like The Living Sea that are screened in museums and films geared to classrooms are certainly forms of documentary, but are they better classified as “educational” films? Like documentaries, reality TV is unscripted and based on real people, but few would classify episodes of Real Housewives of New Jersey as documentaries. Docu-dramas, which have become popular in recent years, are also rooted in real events but, like historical fiction, are a hybrid, neither pure documentary nor fiction.

Two especially popular subgenres that purists would not consider documentaries are biopics (as in biographical picture) and true crime. Both have long existed, but they have climbed a step or three during the streaming era. Biopics generally focus on the lives of celebrities like Britney Spears or Elvis and draw good audiences. In 2018, biopics about children’s-TV icon Mr. Rogers and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, were box-office hits by documentary standards. Ken Burns’s 16-hour series on country music, which first aired in 2019, averaged 6.8 million viewers per episode on PBS.

True crime covers the waterfront of serial killers, drug kingpins and stalkers. A 2022 poll found that half of Americans are true-crime fans, with one-third captured by series like Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence, Evil Genius and The Ashley Madison Affair about philandering spouses. According to SlateIQ, an analytics firm, audiences for docs are fairly evenly distributed by gender and age, with men predictably skewing toward those related to sports, action and history, and women leaning toward romance, mystery and crime.

True crime, biopics and docuseries are flourishing, but the market for new issue-oriented, historical and edgy documentaries has cooled off in the past two or three years. CNN cut back its commissions of outside films, HBO Max cut its nonscripted division and layoffs at other streamers have had a chilling impact. “The same thing that led to growth is now causing a bit of a crisis,” Sitney says. “Many streamers are developing content in-house, with fewer acquisitions from independent filmmakers.”

“To say that the documentary market is contracting is not quite right,” adds MTV Documentary Films head Sheila Nevins. “Something about climate change is not going to do as well as Dahmer.” As a result, many documentary makers are turning to new forms of distribution like advertising-based video-on-demandservices — YouTube, Tubi, the Roku Channel and Pluto TV. According to Brian Newman, whose firm Sub-Genre Media handles such deals, brands including REI, Starbucks, Red Bull and even Kleenex are funding documentaries. And documentary film festivals are proliferating, going beyond Doc NYC and Doc LA to smaller venues around the country. 

• • •

Even if the market isn’t quite as frothy as it was in 2021, documentaries still have many more avenues for distribution and considerably larger audiences than they did a dozen years ago. Forecasts of their extinction, it seems, were, at very least, premature.

main topic: Media