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Navigating new trends in the global content business.

Is true crime immune to the industry downturn?

In the second of a two-part vox pop series we ask true crime producers whether the genre, having previously bucked the trend for declining cable subscriptions, is also immune to current commissioning downturns on both sides of the Atlantic.

My Lover, My Killer for Netflix from FirstLook TV

Derren Lawford, founder & CEO, Dare Pictures (UK)
Recent commissions – Queen of Crypto (Channel 4, Sky Deutschland)
There’s almost insatiable appetite for the traditional true crime series, delving into murders, however there’s also a desire for crime stories of different kinds, ones that challenge form and focus. There’s definitely a desire for true con as a sub-genre and for ‘murder plus’ or ‘crime plus’ stories where actually it’s the ‘plus’ that’s keeping new audiences engaged. At Dare we’re very much focused on stories that have the potential to implicitly or explicitly address wider societal issues and crime programming can be a compelling vehicle through which to do so. 

“It’s not immune. Less commissioning funding means fewer slots for everyone. However, if you’re a market leader in a robust genre like long-running, traditional true crime series or the genre du jour limited premium series, there are still opportunities in the market. I would say that now more than ever though it’s a global market, not merely a domestic one that producers need to be focusing on.

Exclusive access of the most extraordinary kind seems to be the minimum requirement. Then layered on top is going to be the narrative approach. The icing is having something completely brand new to say about a case or about how we see the world as a result.”

Lucy Middelboe, director of business, FirstLook TV (UK)
 Recent commissions – Red Flag (UKTV), My Lover My Killer (Channel 5, Netflix)
“True Crime content remains incredibly popular across multiple platforms from the traditional, TV & books, to the digital space where it is increasingly being self-published across FAST, YouTube and podcasts. This self-distributed content enables us to engage directly with the consumer, something most production companies haven’t done before. Through social media, YouTube and podcasts we can receive feedback directly from the consumer and adapt and tweak our content almost on a daily basis. Channels that previously saw YouTube, podcasts and socials as competition now recognise the additional promotion opportunities they bring. The more the brand is seen across multiple platforms the greater the awareness. In collaboration with A+E’s Crime & Investigation channel we recently produced a podcast series that we dropped alongside the #Dead2Me TV series increasing reach for the show.

“At the same time, we mustn’t allow the thirst for new content in the digital space to impact our standards and ethics. While great at self-regulation, we cannot rely on the public and social media to police our content. We must remain honest and respectful of the individuals whose stories we are telling. We cannot allow digital media to become the Wild West as it has in many other genres.

“The demand for true crime appears to remain strong across most platforms but saying it is immune would be naive. All genres are subject to the same commercial realities and we respect that. We keep focusing on what we do best, finding new ways to tell important stories respectfully and we try to arrive with funding solutions for our channels, streamers and international buyers. The brave women and men that come to us to tell their stories want to be heard and want people to listen and learn, it’s our job to help them find a platform.

“Understand the platforms, what they need and what they can afford. Work closely with channel execs and distributors to find the right projects for them and then have a great team to deliver engaging decks and sizzles.”

David Karabinas, CEO, Texas Crew Productions (US)
Recent commissions – Killer Relationship (Oxygen), How I Caught My Killer (HULU), Myth of the Zodiac Killer (Peacock), Exposed: Naked Crimes (ID/MAX)
“Limited series seem to be getting the most attention from the buyers these days, especially if there’s some sort of recognisable IP or a juicy pop-culture tie in. Everyone sees the success of something like Quiet on Set and they are looking for that next big story that combines crime and culture.

“Recently I had a buyer reach out to me who has never expressed interest in limited series before, and is not at all known for content even tangential to crime, and they were looking for a limited true crime series. When you dive into the metrics of what’s selling, that’s what’s selling. But it’s not easy to find these kinds of stories and it requires a lot of heavy lifting to get a project to a place where it’s viable. If you want to go out and pitch an adjudicated, repeatable, true-crime series you really just need to be able to demonstrate that there are a lot of cases that fit the conceit and have a great title. That’s often enough to at least get someone to want to take the plunge and develop it.

“With a limited though, you really have to have the access lined up and secured. Often you have to have interviews in the can to be able to demonstrate who the storytellers will be and you have to have the entire story arc fleshed out. That takes a lot of time and money and there’s still no guarantee anyone will bite. It’s a bigger risk and not every producer is willing, or able, to take it.

“There’s no question the market is tough all the way around. Less content is being bought and that ripples through every genre. I think what has helped keep the true-crime market stronger for producers is that there are a lot of buyers who want true-crime on their slate. It’s just a numbers game. Fewer shows may be getting commissioned, but there are still many buyers who are interested in the genre. As opposed to something like the automotive space or paranormal, which may only have two or three potential outlets, true-crime can find a home at probably a dozen. Now, all of them aren’t looking for the exact same thing, you have to be aware of the specific identities of each of these buyers. Oxygen makes a different show than ID and Hulu makes a different show than Netflix, but from a big picture standpoint there are a lot of buyers and that’s what has helped mitigate what has been a tough content market over the last couple of years.

“When we’re talking about a limited series it’s all about access. Who are the players that you can bring to the table? What are the assets and are they exclusive? Is there new information on the case that no one has ever heard or a voice that has never spoken? Beyond access there’s the story itself, is it big enough that it warrants two, three or four episodes? Are there twists and turns and do we have voices that an audience will want to listen to?

“When you think about the limited series that people remember like Making a Murderer, The Jinx, or even something like Tiger King they check all these boxes. On the other end of the spectrum, with a closed-ended adjudicated series it’s really about cases and titles. It sounds crazy, but a good title can sometimes be all you need to get a show into development. Then, if you can support it with evidence that there are plenty of cases to fill plenty of potential seasons you’ve got a really strong pitch on your hands.”

Kate Beal, founder and CEO, Woodcut Media (UK)
Recent Commissions – Murder at First Swipe, Murder in a Teacup, The London Underground Killer (all Prime Video)
There isn’t just one trend in true crime at the moment. Over the past few years the genre has matured into sub genres and there is a place in the market for all of these from premium singles, to three part box sets, to long running returnable series. The main trend is within the content. There is a desire to really focus on the victim to ensure their story is front and centre. The days of glamourising serial killers are well and truly over.

When it comes to true crime, the fact that it touches on many aspects of the human condition is one reason why it remains popular as a genre. It is also a way of telling stories filled with drama and emotion but on an unscripted budget. During these changing times within the industry true crime has become the ‘go to’ genre for those wanting to tell extraordinary human stories while being mindful of budget.

“I think the word trust is key… trust that you have the access, trust that you can deliver a premium documentary or series complied to the highest standards and trust that you will do justice to the story. Access is the key word at the moment and this can be difficult to achieve with the true crime boom. Access to an extraordinary story – key contributors and archive. Then you must combine that with a team who can deliver beyond the network’s expectation. It also helps to pitch the right person on the right day… sometimes luck really does make a difference.”

JC Mills, president and head of content, Cineflix Productions (Canada)
Recent commissions – Spring Break Murders
“The trends are somewhat unchanged in the last 12-18 months. Frauds, cults, access, stranger-than-fiction are all still areas that will get interest as mini-series or one-offs. In series, it’s about having an organising principle that is catchy, has a pop culture feel, and can run for a handful of seasons.

“In terms of broad buyer appeal, true crime gives you the most opportunity for a sale. However, since the genre has caught fire, there’s a great deal of competition for stories, access, IP, etc, which makes it tough for crime producers. We’re used to competing with each other for stories. What separates Cineflix from the pack is that we can produce the unscripted/documentary version and the scripted version as we have several movies in development at Lifetime and are also in the market with scripted series. The other element that separates us from my true crime producers is that we have an extremely strong team at Cineflix Rights that helps us generate pre-sales in the UK, Australia, etc. It’s meaningful if I’m having a conversation with a US broadcaster/platform and I say “I’m sold in the UK, Australia, etc.” It’s one of the only pieces of leverage the producers have left. Otherwise, you’re at the mercy of the networks.

“Access. Access. Access…oh, and IP. If you are looking to tell a story in the mini-series or feature docu format, it is essential you have the people at the centre of the story. Just having the sister’s ex-husband’s roommate isn’t going to cut it! My development team is probably tired of my saying, ‘If you don’t have the person/people at the centre of the story, then don’t bother,’ but it’s the truth.”