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Viewpoints from the frontline of content.

It’s not just TV

By Adam Webb 19-02-2018

For the non-fiction community, HBO Documentary Film’s annual Sundance party last month was the place to be.

Major directors such as Alex Gibney, Lucy Walker and Ondi Timoner rubbed shoulders with up-and-comers and many of the established filmmakers who were to be launching non-fiction titles, including seven HBO docs, in Park City over the coming week.

But one major figure was notably absent from proceedings.

December’s departure of Sheila Nevins as head of HBO Documentary Films marked a landmark moment in the global documentary industry.

Over 38 years, Nevins has wielded tremendous influence – perhaps more than any other figure in North America – in sculpting the modern landscape for short-, mid- and feature-length documentary films and series, from Born into Brothels, Going Clear and When the Levees Broke to series such as The Jinx and the Paradise Lost trilogy.

On the awards front, the list of accolades accrued by the more than 1,000 docs she oversaw during her tenure is simply mind-boggling. She has steered HBO works to 26 Oscars and 42 Peabody Awards, and has personally won 32 Primetime Emmys and 35 News and Documentary Emmys – more than any other person.

Sheila Nevins

But her departure is as clear a marker as any of the turning point the global documentary industry finds itself in, as regional terrestrial and cable players – helmed for the longest time by powerful, individualistic gatekeepers – take second place to monolithic, algorithm-driven streaming giants.

To be clear, it is not just the departure of Nevins that has led to this moment. In the autumn of 2016, Nick Fraser announced his departure from BBC Storyville, the UK’s most important feature documentary strand, having built it from the ground over 17 years.

And in Denmark, Mette Hoffman Meyer soon after retired as the head of docs for DRTV, the country’s non-fiction-heavy public broadcaster. Their departures, alongside the retirement of long-serving execs such as Iikka Vehkalahti at YLE in Finland and, after three decades on the festival side, IDFA founder Ally Derks mark a sea-change in the doc world.

These are commissioners who, for decades in many cases, controlled the ebb and flow of the global documentary industry. A hard pass from them could be crushing, while a tap on the shoulder would be career building.

But if there is one thing that each has in common, it is that the rise of global streamers has seriously damaged their monopolies. They have watched as such platforms have gone from being minor irritations to denting competitors to crushing behemoths.

HBO had to up its spending on dramas such as Big Little Lies

These platforms arrive without the long-standing arrangements, cozy friendships and glad-handing tradition that have long been the hallmark of the broadcast business. Their commissions are cool, calculating and often talent-driven.

Although the company had an unusually quiet Sundance on the acquisitions front, Netflix in particular has developed an appetite for docs in just a few short years that few could have imagined.

From testing the waters in 2013 with the acquisition of Jehane Nejane’s Egyptian revolution doc The Square, to sweeping up huge swathes of the year’s biggest docs and series, the streaming giant now dominates the doc sector and is first port of call on most producers’ pitch-list. Notably, The Big N leads the running at this year’s Oscars, with two nominations for Best Documentary Feature (Icarus and Strong Island) and one for Best Documentary Short Subject (Heroin(e)).

And it isn’t just Netflix upsetting the apple cart. YouTube’s US$3.5m deal with Morgan Spurlock may have collapsed owing to the filmmaker’s unexpected sexual misconduct essay, but prior to that, the fact the UGC platform was prepared to spend such a massive amount for a non-fiction feature came as a both a shock and a statement of intent to non-fiction rivals. Amazon, too, has made clear its intentions, prompting headlines in 2017 with a US$2m Sundance deal for Matt Heineman’s Syrian documentary City of Ghosts.

Even Apple is getting in on the game. While it didn’t make the Oscars this year, it is noteworthy that the iPhone manufacturer qualified two original documentaries – the record exec doc Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives and Puff Daddy’s Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A Bad Boy Story – for Academy Awards consideration.

Netflix’s Oscar-nominated doc Icarus

The time, effort and cost required to qualify for eligibility is not inconsiderable. How long until it, too, becomes a major non-fiction force?

Meanwhile, on the short and mid-length doc front, the arrival of new players such as The New York Times Op-Docs, The New Yorker, Guardian Docs and Field of Vision mean of a host of new platforms for non-fiction works 40 minutes and under. Viewers’ appetites for such works – increasingly consumed via smartphone or tablet on a morning commute to work – continue to grow.

Just as HBO has had to up its game on with scripted drama, spending big on shows such as Westworld, Big Little Lies and Game of Thrones, it must also up its game on the non-fiction front if it is to remain a major player. Gone are the days when it could just take whatever documentary it wanted and leave the scraps for public television.

In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, HBO president of programming Casey Bloys argued that HBO will remain competitive by treating its talent, and its programming, better than its competitors. “If you have 50 kids, you’re not going to every soccer game,” Bloys said, in a thinly veiled dig at Netflix. “We go to every soccer game, and we’re the snack parents at every soccer game. That’s how we treat our talent.”

There is some truth to this logic. Privately, some doc filmmakers have complained to C21 that their work has been buried in the Netflix graveyard, watching with envy as other titles on the service are afforded full-page advertisements and 50ft billboards on Sunset Strip.

Nancy Abraham

But doc makers also need money, and most, given the choice between doubling their licence fee or having a cheerleader on the sideline paying them compliments, will opt for the former. At the end of the day, money talks.

One final reflection. As she leaves HBO with her swimming pool full of trophies, there are four other major achievements that Nevins must be proud of. In a still male-dominated industry, she has mentored four brilliant female commissioners to follow in her wake: senior VPs Nancy Abraham, Sara Bernstein, Jackie Glover and Lisa Heller.

Abraham and Heller have now been promoted to executive VPs of HBO Documentary and Family programming, but as they take the reins from Nevins, the scale of the challenge ahead of them will be considerable.

Once, a US producer’s only hope for serious prestige docs was HBO and PBS. But it’s not just TV, anymore. It’s Amazon, Netflix, YouTube, Facebook, Apple, CNN Films, Showtime, Starz, Nat Geo Films and A&E IndieFilms. And for documentarians, that’s a whole world of opportunity.

today's correspondent

Adam Webb Canadian bureau chief C21 Media

Adam is the Canadian bureau chief for C21Media. He is also the writer, producer and director of the HBO film Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah. Adam re-joined C21Media in August 2015, having previously served as the company's factual editor for three years from 2008 to 2011. He spent four years as the associate editor of Realscreen magazine, covering the global business of documentaries from 2011 to 2015.

As a British journalist based in Toronto, he is a regular at most major documentary, film and TV industry festivals and markets, including Mipcom, Sundance, Natpe and TIFF, and frequently chairs panel sessions and Q&As with filmmakers and execs at events such as Hot Docs, IDFA and Sheffield Doc/Fest.