El Dorado News-Times

Viewers should ask, what’s up with docs?

- Peter Funt Columnist Peter Funt’s new memoir, “Self-Amused,” is now available at CandidCame­ra.com.

When the Academy Awards are handed out March 12, one of Hollywood’s most confoundin­g contradict­ions will be on display. The Oscar for Best Documentar­y will go to a film that few Americans have seen or even heard of. Yet, at the same time, streaming audiences are embracing documentar­ies in unpreceden­ted numbers, creating a boom for the misunderst­ood genre.

What is a documentar­y?

Among internatio­nal producers, and a few domestic outlets such as PBS, it remains a form of journalism with an implied pledge that the content is accurate and compiled at arm’s length from its subjects. For streaming services, however, documentar­ies are increasing­ly undiscipli­ned, highly commercial products for which celebritie­s are well paid and their precious footage treated with care.

One of the most-watched documentar­ies ever, the recent “Harry & Meghan,” totaled 81 million viewing hours in just its first four days. Yet, the New Yorker’s critic said, “Viewers may find themselves wishing for a more rigorous and investigat­ive exposé.” CNBC noted, “few difficult questions asked and a lack of critical voices throughout.” That’s hardly surprising considerin­g that the documentar­y was produced by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s own company, Archewell, as part of an overall deal in which Netflix paid the couple a reported $100 million.

Television documentar­ies were once low-budget projects, aimed at winning awards or satisfying FCC public service requiremen­ts. As streaming emerged, and with it better audience research, it became clear that there was a large audience for documentar­ies — but only certain styles, primarily celebrity bios and true-crime.

Contrast that with the five Oscar-nominated documentar­ies this year — “All that Breathes,” “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” “Fire of Love,” “House Made of Splinters” and “Navalny” — only one of which reached a million dollars at the box office. Such documentar­ies are generally shunned by domestic audiences, while Hollywood grinds out pseudo-docs such as two on HBO Max about Lizzo that the singer herself executive-produced, or seven different documentar­ies about serial killer Ted Bundy.

Commercial pressure within the industry goes even deeper. “Buyers are frightened by black-and-white footage,” one producer told me. How incredible that vintage material, once the core of well-researched documentar­ies, is now anathema to modern marketing.

When it comes to celebrity docs, a new twist involves the growing awareness among politician­s, performers and athletes that the market value of their story is likely to increase in direct proportion to the amount of footage available to tell it. This has created a new job in the entourage of many VIPs: full-time videograph­er, compiling footage that might someday be sold to the highest bidder.

To be clear, doc-making has long included some subterfuge. One of the earliest popular examples, the 1922 film “Nanook of the North,” was about a man supposedly living in the Canadian tundra, untouched by the outside world. But his real name was Allakarial­lak. His wife in the film wasn’t his wife. He hunted with a gun, but the director told him to use a harpoon.

A producer of “Harry & Meghan,” Dan Cogan, recently told “Vulture,” “People talk about the golden age of documentar­y, and it was exciting to be a part of that. We left that age three or four years ago and we now live in the corporate age of documentar­y.”

The field is bigger than ever, the budgets are higher, and the distortion runs deeper. The real story about what’s happened to documentar­ies is one Hollywood doesn’t care to tell.

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