documentaries film netflix

Is Netflix Responsible for the Golden Age of Documentaries?

Documentaries have always been put in a box. The educational format of the genre created a bit of a stigma surrounding them and they were thus never considered to be profitable. The days of documentaries being depicted as nerdy and boring, however, seem to be long gone. So what changed? In a Variety article titled “Filmmakers Attribute Growing Demand for Documentaries to Streaming Sites,” Eli Countryman makes her conclusion right in the title, as she summarizes the FYC Fest documentary roundtable, where documentarists discuss this phenomenon and the nature of modern documentary filmmaking. 

The documentary panel in the roundtable conversation included: Garret Bradley, Amanda McBaine, Ron Howard, Bryan Fogel, David France, and Nicole Newnham and was hosted by Variety’s Matt Donnelly. The article begins by acknowledging the “expanding market” for documentaries and docuseries and the panelists fairly quickly attribute much of the rising demand to better accessibility. It is widely known that streaming platforms and most notably Netflix drastically changed the landscape, trends, and demand of cinema, and it certainly influenced documentary filmmaking as well. The panelists point out that in previous decades documentaries were targeted to a very niche audience. Newnham explained that streaming created an outlet for both documentarists and the audiences that had been previously hard to come by, and that, in turn, heavily increased the demand. Because of the wider availability, people are gaining awareness of this art form and are realizing that they enjoy it.

The panelists remain generally positive about this era for documentary filmmaking and the increase in demand from streaming platforms, as the whole point of a documentary is generally for a large number of people to see it. Higher demand also increases funding, which means, as the host Matt Donelly informally points out, that documentarists don’t have to “die” over getting funding for their projects. Higher funding arguably causes an increase in the overall quality of the documentary itself, as filmmakers can afford more crew, transport, and better equipment, and thus create work that is comparable to high-budget fiction films and therefore attracts more watchers.

Bradley argues that people are naturally drawn to documentaries, as “so much of filmmaking, regardless of the genre, is about us understanding ourselves as human beings and as a culture,” and that documentaries explore that in a more direct way. Audiences today are hungry for more original content, and documentaries offer an endless variety of topics previously unspoken about. Arguably the artistic form of the genre has evolved as well. So many documentaries are, in their core, stories that we can relate to and are therefore told in a dramatic, often intense manner.

More and more people are pushing for various social or environmental causes, and through the large number of documentary content being produced, they can appreciate the art form more. Documentarists are equally becoming more conscious of their directing style and topic approach. Regarding her film dealing with disability, Newnham explained how important it was to work with James Lebrecht, who lives with a disability himself, to tell a story that would cater to all sorts of audiences and tell the truth. The panelists dove into the question of “who is allowed to tell the story” while sharing their experiences and David France enthusiastically pointed out the trust that has been built over the years between documentarists and the audience. It is important to remember, however, that documentaries are never unbiased, and the truth that is presented should always be taken as one’s perspective.

Interestingly, Newhman described the challenges she faced during the editing process, as they attempted to steer away from archetypal tragic stories we associate with disability. She drew attention to how conditioned our brains are to view a stereotypical story in a certain way. This further demonstrates how documentaries, like any other genre, are narratives and are influenced by the filmmakers, the editing, the music, and the overall stylistic choices. McBaine mentioned the challenges she faced with her own bias when creating her political documentary and how vital it was for her to try to remain objective. “You have people who are talking politics that offend me to my core,” she said. “But you listen. You might learn something about your own politics, but also your own assumptions, and your own expectations.” As she was talking about her approach to documentaries as a filmmaker, this philosophy can undeniably be applied to the audiences as well. 

Not every aspect of today’s documentary filmmaking seems to be positive, however, and the panelists agree that being tied to streaming platforms can have its drawbacks, especially when dealing with controversial topics. Bryan Fogal mentioned that although there is currently a high demand for documentaries, there is a conflict within the filmmaking world. According to him, there is a “fight between what people should be allowed to see and human rights vs. business interests and what they are gonna allow people to see,” clearly referring to either streaming platforms or production companies.

There seems to be a fear when taking on topics political in nature, as the subjects discussed and often heavily critiqued may be affiliated with the production houses. This is important to consider as nowadays many streaming platforms, such as Netflix or HBO create their own content, which means they simultaneously hold control over both production and distribution. This is an aspect of filmmaking that does not seem to be talked about as vocally and needs to be addressed. It also further highlights the fact that documentaries can never be fully biased, as streaming platforms focus mainly on marketability. 

Still, documentarists are excited about the so-far steady increase in demand of their work that streaming platforms create and the new opportunities within the industry that present. Besides the platforms themselves, it is also important to consider the higher availability of equipment. Whereas blockbusters and most fiction cinema require high-quality equipment, it is not always essential to documentary filmmaking. With more and more access to affordable cameras, phones, and various gadgets as well archival footage and the ability to conduct interviews over several communication technologies (Zoom, Skype, etc.), seemingly anyone can create a documentary. Although higher demand caused by streaming platforms also raises quality expectations of the films, it means that more people can be introduced to documentary filmmaking and get their start in this genre. It remains to be seen how long documentaries will remain trendy and whether the high demand will eventually run out, but for now, it seems that we truly are in a golden age of documentaries.