Across industries, documentaries are being elevated as premier content for a class of truth-seeking consumers.
Scroll through the recommended and promoted programming on any number of streaming platforms, and you’re sure to see a compelling lineup of documentary films and series. From Netflix’s acquisition of the Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana, to Hulu’s four-part bio-doc on Hillary Clinton—both of which premiered at Sundance Film Festival 2020—to AppleTV+’s upcoming Beastie Boys film, documentary programming has been gaining popularity among audiences—and earning bigger investments as a result. In December 2019, it was revealed that AppleTV+ will reportedly pay $25 million for the rights to a Billie Eilish documentary and Amazon is reportedly offering the same to Rihanna for exclusive access to her documentary.
CBS News aptly noted in a March, 2019 article that documentaries are moving away from their past reputation “of being cinematic spinach—films that were good for you,” towards something much more palatable.
“You were supposed to watch [documentaries], they would inform you, but you didn’t necessarily want to watch them as entertainment in and of themselves,” said Academy Award-winning film producer and director Dan Cogan. But, Cogan noted, this is changing: Impact Partners, where Cogan is executive director and cofounder, has produced or funded over a hundred documentaries, including the 2018 sensation Won’t You Be My Neighbor, and Icarus, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2018. “We are in a Golden Age of documentary filmmaking,” said Cogan. “There has never been as great storytelling in nonfiction film as there is today.”
From Big Tech to print journalism, a range of brands have all announced strong commitments to documentary programming over the past few months, highlighting a shift in the storytelling industries that merges reporting and entertainment. In an era where consumers value truth and transparency more than ever, documentaries and docu-series are gaining value as reputable sources that are as engaging as they are informative.
In January 2020, Apple hired former HBO CEO and chairman Richard Plepler to produce exclusive documentary, TV and film content for AppleTV+. Plepler, who helped launch shows like Game of Thrones and Big Little Lies, promises to bring cinematic showmanship and captivating storytelling to the platform.
The New York Times is investing in documentary content. The news outlet has two feature-length documentary films premiering at Sundance Film Festival this month, Some Kind of Heaven and Time. This move is an extension of the print publication’s recent pivot to audio and video content and marks a new breed of journalistic entertainment.
“I would get in trouble if I pulled our journalists off their jobs to make movies,” Kathleen Lingo, Editorial Director for Film and TV at the Times, told Variety. “The idea is to really have them be more there as a spirit guide. What I really want to do is pair filmmakers with journalists to supercharge the practice of documentary filmmaking.”
Comcast-owned Sky announced plans to launch a dedicated documentary channel in the spring of 2020, citing research showing that “documentaries are rising up the popularity stakes with Sky customers, [and] factual shows are now the second most popular genre after drama,” the brand said.
Platforms favored by and targeting gen Z viewers are also getting in on the action. In January 2020, YouTube announced plans to double its original content programming for the year, with a focus on documentaries. The first of these, a docuseries about Justin Bieber, debuted on January 27, 2020. And in May 2019, MTV launched a new documentary division led by Sheila Nevins, former president of HBO Documentary Films. “MTV has always been at the forefront of youth culture, and the generation that is growing up now will change the world in ways we can’t even imagine,” Nevins said in a statement. “I’m excited to join MTV with electrifying stories that explore the crises and commitments that young people face every day.”
With consumers responding most positively to brands that champion ethics and values, documentary content could serve as the latest form of branded thought leadership. Especially as the traditional print journalism model buckles—BBC just announced massive layoffs as part of a plan to reorganize the newsroom around a “story-led” approach—hard news and entertainment are merging, heroizing documentary content as an engaging and educational medium.
Main image of The Beatles: Eight Days a Week courtesy of Hulu