Netflix’s documentary play: Is it good for filmmaking?


In the days since we first told you that Netflix was getting into the documentary game with the Egyptian nonfiction film “The Square,” we’ve heard from people across the entertainment spectrum about the wisdom of the move.

Netflix devotees like the idea of more choice on the service (the company, of course, already carries plenty of documentaries, but this puts it front and center and gives it skin in the game). Competitors worry about being outbid (“The Square” price is said to be in the solid six figures). Film fans, with some reservations, generally like the idea of another original outlet for docs.

And filmmakers?

They have complicated feelings. A new player is almost always good in their books. But that doesn’t mean they’re worry-free — or that the advantages they see are the obvious ones.


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We caught up with a number of decorated documentarians in the past few days. (My colleague Dawn Chmielewski talked to another, Morgan Spurlock — you can check out her interview over at our Company Town blog.)

Alex Gibney, the Oscar winner about to bring out “The Armstrong Lie,” says he thinks that because docs need to target a more specialized kind of film fan. Netflix could help pull it off. And if it does that, it will allow for a different kind of movie.

“Their distribution mechanism is predicated on the idea of communities of interest, and that strikes me as a very valuable thing,” he said. “It’s people who are passionate about a particular subject, meaning your film doesn’t have to play to the lowest common denominator.”

Netflix’s involvement can also pay off in other creative-oriented ways. Andrew Jarecki, Oscar-nominated director of “Capturing the Friedmans,” said that the company’s penchant for producing and streaming serialized content will reap rewards here. After all, unlike most narrative filmmakers, documentarians often have many hours of their story that they can’t fit into a traditional feature.

The Netflix platform could thus allow for a more expansive, fluid type of documentary, he said.

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“Netflix has an established track record of being able to sustain interest so that people are missing half days of work because they stayed up all night watching five or six episodes of a show. Why can’t we do that with documentary?” Jarecki said.

“It’s really kind of an accident that films have to be an hour and a half or two hours,” he continued. “When we first made ‘Capturing the Friedmans,’ we had a 5 hour and 40 minute rough cut. And nobody walked out and or said ‘turn it off.’ Something like that you could serialize on a site like Netflix, which I think is very exciting.”

It remains to be seen, of course, whether people will embrace serialized viewing with documentaries as they have with scripted episodes. But the opportunity would certainly be there for the right film. (An example Jarecki cited is ‘The Staircase,” the long-form multi-part crime doc of about a decade ago that he speculated could well inspire Netflix-style binge-viewing if it came out today.)

Jarecki also said the specialized nature of Netflix provided another advantage.
“It’s an antidote to the big problem of marketing movies. You’re taking a full-page ad for $100,000 and have no idea how many of the people seeing it have plans to go to the movies, let alone to seeing a documentary,” he said. “What Netflix is doing is concentrating the audience. You’re getting an audience passionate about films.”

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Netflix hasn’t said how it will promote these documentaries, though its algorithms of course do target, with varying degrees of success, those who’ve watched similar movies before.

Still, one filmmaker we talked to, who requested anonymity so as not to upset a potential partner, did express concern about what it would mean for rights. Netflix is a bit of a closed system, insistent on controlling many rights and somewhat ambivalent about the theatrical experience. It tends to want to control as much of the film’s life cycle, in as many venues, as possible. But documentarians, particularly activist ones, are accustomed to getting their film out on as many platforms as they can. Allowing a film to exist entirely within one company’s digital universe — especially one coy about viewership numbers — is a little unsettling.

Gibney, though, says those worries may be overstated., Mostly that’s because, it’s not like the alternative—or at least one alternative—has necessarily been better.

“Distributors are perfectly happy for a film to break even,” the director said, adding that even movies that raked in a lot at the box office didn’t necessarily become profitable for him personally, thanks in large part to unfavorable splits. “The nature of the theatrical deal has never been good for independent filmmakers.”

Times staff writer John Horn contributed to this report


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