3 Reasons It’s the Golden Age of the Documentary

 October 21, 2019

3 Reasons It’s the Golden Age of the Documentary

Documentary films and television shows are on the rise in production and popularity with some calling it the “Golden Age” of documentary filmmaking. In February 2019, NPR reported that Knock Down the House, which follows the campaigns of four female congressional candidates in 2018, broke Sundance Film Festival’s documentary sales record by reportedly selling to Netflix for $10 million and, in March 2019, Variety wrote that roughly 40% of the exhibitors at Hong Kong International Film & TV Market (FILMART) were involved in making documentary films.[1] 

So, why have documentaries risen to their most popular in 80 years? [2] Here are three reasons why:

1. Availability:

Some attribute the rise in popularity of the documentary to the availability of a wide range of documentaries on streaming platforms. These documentaries have started overcoming the stigma of being just an educational resource and are being produced to be more entertaining and readily available during peoples’ leisure hours. Now, the next Ken Burns documentary series can be streamed on the PBS app fitting into anyone’s schedule. The algorithms of streaming services will also recommend documentaries based on a viewer’s interest in fictional films and television entertainment matching them with a documentary they will already be interested in and entertained by. If you like Downton Abbey, why not watch a documentary about American heiresses just like Lady Grantham?  Do you love detective shows? The “True crime” genres are booming following the success of Netflix’s Making a Murderer with new content on all streaming services including HBO, releasing three new true crime stories I Love You, Now Die, Behind Closed Doors and Who Killed Garrett Phillips? in 2019.[3] 

2. Niche People:

The renewed popularity of bio-pic feature films like Bohemian Rapsody and On the Basis of Sex have caused increased production of documentaries focused on one historic or famous individual, with films like RBG earning $14 million at the box office and Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice hitting theatres last month with an 87% Rotten Tomatoes score. [4] “Rock-Doc” films and series, documentaries featuring famous music artists, have been particularly popular with series like Country Music, by Ken Burns, and Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men premiering in 2019. The increase in music sales and merchandise after a documentary’s release even has some celebrities producing documentaries about themselves as publicity, such as My Name is Lady Gaga.

3. Great Value:

Another advantage of documentary filmmaking is it can be cost effective compared to a full length feature film. Full length documentaries are being made affordably and bringing in two or more times the cost in revenue. With many documentaries being made for under $400 thousand, younger or independent filmmakers are able to afford to make a quality product without as much financial risk. However, with the rise in popularity of period series following Downton Abbey’s success, one of the forms of documentary now more popular are the drama/documentaries which are more costly than their counterparts. These are documentaries in which actors portray the characters with full scripts between the commentaries, not just the mute reenactments many older documentaries have. Netflix has even begun promoting documentaries like The Last Czars, listed as a political documentary but with half of the content played out as a scripted drama with lavish costumes and sets among the expert interviews, as if they were full television period dramas. Although Indiwire speculates that the flood of documentaries may mean diminishing returns for filmmakers, documentary production is still going strong as long as there is money to be made. [5] 

It’s because of these three reasons, (1) Availability; (2)Niche People; and (3) Great Value, that the documentary’s popularity is the highest in 80 years. With the rise in popularity of documentary movies and series like RBG, Free Solo and Blue Planet, it’s no wonder entertainment companies have upped their production of documentary content.[6] 

If you are developing a documentary film or series and have questions about creating an entity, clearance and copyright, or contract needs, contact our offices. We offer legal assistance from protecting your concept to distribution of a finished product. 

[1]  Joe Otterson, Documentary Producers On Boom in Medium: ‘People Are Starving for the Truth’, Variety (June 12, 2019, 6:15 PM),  https://variety.com/2019/tv/news/documentary-producers-variety-tv-summit-1203241547/, and Mandalit Del Barco, The Documentary Is In — And Enjoying — An ‘Undeniable Golden Age’, National Public Radio (Feb. 19, 2019, 5:07 PM), https://www.npr.org/2019/02/19/696036323/the-documentary-is-in-and-enjoying-an-undeniable-golden-age

[2]  Gabriel Falcon, The Golden Age of documentary filmmaking, CBS News (Mar. 3, 2019, 9:09 AM), https://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-golden-age-of-documentary-filmmaking/

[3]  Mike Hale, True Crime and the Satisfaction of the Unsolved Mystery, The New York Times (July 22, 2019) https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/22/arts/television/review-i-love-you-now-die-who-killed-garrett-phillips-hbo.html

[4]  Chris Payne, How Indies Are Boosting Their Music Through Docs & Biopics, Billboard (June 14, 2019) https://www.billboard.com/articles/business/record-labels/8515145/indie-films-music-biopic-doc-2019

[5]  Tom Brueggemann, Documentaries Are Now the Art-House Lifeline, But Even the Best See Limited Results, IndieWire (Aug. 29, 2019, 12:15 PM) https://www.indiewire.com/2019/08/documentaries-box-office-2019-market-collapse-streaming-1202169059/

[6]  Mandalit Del Barco, The Documentary Is In — And Enjoying — An ‘Undeniable Golden Age’, National Public Radio (Feb. 19, 2019, 5:07 PM), https://www.npr.org/2019/02/19/696036323/the-documentary-is-in-and-enjoying-an-undeniable-golden-age

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