Viewers should ask, what’s up with docs?
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.