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Theme Festival - True Crime and Investigation

Digital Campaign

Is true crime escaping the industry downturn?


Having bucked the trend for declining cable audiences, the ever-buzzy true crime genre seems to have developed a level of immunity to the ailments afflicting the US and UK businesses.


Sara Kozak spent 17 years commissioning non-fiction content in the US, so is better placed than most to declare: “We’re fucked.”

Upon launching her new consultancy, Hudson House Media, the experienced executive told C21: “I wish I had some clever mantra on how to survive the current crappy situation that many fine creatives find themselves in right now, but I don’t. So I asked a renowned documentarian, one of the finest filmmakers I know, for his take. He was succinct: ‘We’re fucked.’


Evil Lives Here

“Actually, he went on at some length regarding the fuckery of the present state of the media landscape, but it still boiled down to those two words. You can be a superb documentarian, but if your name isn’t Gibney, Morris, Kennedy or Jarecki, and you desperately want to make an impactful social injustice doc that frees an innocent man or woman from prison or exposes an international human trafficking scandal, go for it – but man, it’s going to be tough.


“It was so devastating to hear the news about Participant Media. If they can’t make it, is it tits-up for everyone?”


However, for most of those 17 years, Kozak was commissioning true crime content and is therefore well aware this is a genre that has often zigged while the industry has zagged.


Kozak led non-fiction content for Investigation Discovery (ID) and streaming platform Max, latterly as senior VP and head of production at Warner Bros Discovery. She and her team helmed series including Evil Lives Here, House of Hammer, The Curious Case of Natalia Grace and Jared From Subway: Catching A Monster.


When all the industry hand wringing and despair was over cord-cutting and declining cable subscriptions, ID actually brought in more viewers. Elsewhere, Netflix placed large bets initially on what was then a new type of serialised true crime in Making a Murderer, and later stranger-than-fiction limited series like Don’t Fck With Cats and Tinder Swindler.


Don’t Fuck With Cats

Kozak sees the potential for true crime to buck the trend of doom and gloom in the industry once again. “Getting a commission on either side of the Atlantic has never been tougher, but believe me, there’s still plenty being commissioned. I know a very clever developer who got the thumbs up for six series in the space of a month. I kid you not. So why shouldn’t you be the one to deliver?” she says.


“Of course, there’s a lot that’s still attractive in producing a series that can run and run for years on linear and/or streaming, but right now everyone is horny as hell for supercharged limited series of 3×60’ or 4×60’ that will blow up the internet as soon as they’re announced or the press trailer hits social media.”


“Given that marketing and comms budgets have been slashed universally, a shock doc that can generate its own explosive, viral publicity – most especially with the younger demos that ad sales adore – is a Wonka-like golden ticket.


“You know the chances of deep researching your way to that elusive stratospheric hit are slim, like catching lightning in a bottle. Here’s how to increase your chances: start by digging into the slates of every network and streamer that has doc strands and find out what’s been successful in the past year or two. You won’t get ratings or analytics unless you’re attached at the hip to someone in network research, but if it’s been a hit, fear not – they’ll crow about it with press releases.”


Next, you should look for stories that are akin to what’s worked for channel and streamers before – but avoid being derivative, Kozak adds.


Fallen Idols

“The more bonkers, jaw-dropping and unique, the better chance you have of hitting a home run. You will increase your chances a hundredfold if you’ve signed up the all-important chief protagonist tightly. And while this might sound ridiculously obvious, for God’s sake please spend time coming up with a cracking good title. Unless you’re damn certain that first idea was the best, keep working that monkey till you have ‘the one.’ I swear, a brilliant title will do a disproportionate amount of heavy lifting for you.”


Back at WBD, Jason Sarlanis, president of TNT, TBS, TruTV, ID and HLN, linear and streaming, is having to tackle not only the economic situation being faced by every other linear broadcaster in the world but also the lasting effects of the mega-merger between Discovery and WarnerMedia in 2022. There have been many tales of axed shows, movies written off for tax benefits and long periods of commissioning hiatus, but in true crime it’s full steam ahead, he says.


“The disruption and change in the industry is still the constant. You can’t read the trades any day without hearing a piece of information that feels relatively seismic, both in terrifying ways and really optimistic ways. In that sea of uncertainty, one thing has become clear for us at WBD is that the investigatory true crime genre resonates with viewers. So, regardless of platform or changes in the industry, we’re investing in that genre. We believe we do it better than our competitors and have the ability to scale it,” Sarlanis says.


“In general, the number of hours has fallen slightly from the heyday of five or six years ago. In the last two years we’ve invested more and added more capital allocation to the true crime and investigation genre. What that looks like has broadened significantly as the audience’s appetite has changed and the definition of what a true crime show is has evolved.”


For producers looking to take advantage of that, Salarnis has advice about what gets his commissioning team excited.


Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV

“When you look back at the heyday of basic cable, a true crime show meant a murder mystery of the week,” he says. “What we’ve come to embrace is [while] that’s very much a part of what true crime is, it’s one part of a much bigger tapestry. Our tentpole events – most recently Quiet On Set and Fallen Idols: Nick & Aaron Carter, or our work with Channel 4 and All3Media on Spacey Unmasked – sit nicely alongside murder mystery anthologies, large and important doc events, the action genre, what you call in the UK ‘bluelight’ – which is having a massive resurgence – found-footage shows, psychological explanations that are more cerebral analysis of the people committing crime… There’s room for all of that, not to mention scandal and love cons. True crime is almost its own medium more than a genre.


“What we have learned from the viewer is that no rules apply. The type of self-contained hours with a resolution at the end that used to be our staple are still really important to us. Some of the shows we do in that vein are getting a massive resurgence. On The Case With Paula Zahn is a stalwart for us and has been part of the network foundation for well over 350 episodes and is up year over year by 25%.


“To see that kind of rebound proves that type of show is critical to the viewer. That said, ambiguity, shows from different perspectives, shows that arc out over multiple episodes, perhaps more snackable in nature, are all on trend. One of our big success stories was Late Night Lock Up, which bounces around the country and world looking at the crazy crimes committed after the sun goes down. There’s room for multiple sub-genres.”


Budgets range from the “low hundred-thousands to millions,” but Sarlanis says: “We’ve been empowered by our company to match the market on whatever kind of programme we feel confident in. The challenge is our more recent success has emboldened the competition; there are at least 17 buyers aggressively going after the same projects as us. In a world where the underlying IP is public domain stories it’s very hard to have a competitive edge.”


In Europe, Dan Korn, VP of programming at A+E Networks EMEA, is also happy to provide work to true crime producers on his Crime+Investigation (C+I) network despite the economic headwinds.


Jared from Subway: Catching a Monster

“We’re in a very good position, investing more in original content than ever before, both in terms of volume of hours and number of series, and also the breadth and diversity of content,” he says. “We’re commissioning a lot for us. It’s never going to compete with a terrestrial slate, but on C+I we’re looking for four original series a year – one per quarter – plus doing specials and boxsets like Murders at Little Bridge Farm.


“What’s exciting is not just the range but the quality of storytelling. In those shorter boxsets, like Little Bridge Farm or Body in a Suitcase before that, they’re high-quality documentary making in the true crime space. There’s that shorter, more discreet special of two or three parts, then the longer talent-led series like Will Mellor in Cops Gone Bad, which was the follow-up to Cops Who Kill from Avalon. That’s gone well for us and talent, relatable front-men and -women to bring an audience, is important for us.


“We’re not sheltered from the problems and challenges but it’s fair to say there’s been careful cost-management. We’ve been incredibly well supported by our partners Sky and Virgin, and it’s relative. If you start from a relatively low base, then your incremental increase can be significant without making a huge dent in the cost base. It is relative but it’s a source of great pride that we continue to invest in fantastic original content and have good relations with suppliers.


“The challenge comes when there is obviously a huge indie production sector out there and when Channel 4 is not commissioning it has a much bigger effect than our incremental uplift. It’s about seeing the landscape overall. While there is doom and gloom we are trying to keep our end up. Understandably, it’s a pressurised time for suppliers but there are a lot of great films being made and an opportunity out there, though I appreciate the opportunity needs to be targeted more selectively than it has in past years.”


Korn’s commissions fit predominantly into those two distinct forms: a two- or three-part ‘boxset’ limited series on a particular crime, or the longer-run returnable series of eight or nine episodes a time that are often fronted by talent like Mellor or Dermot Murnaghan. Like Sarlanis, he too is branching out from the ‘murder of the week’ that has been a staple of these channels for so long.


On the Case With Paula Zahn

“It is often a murder,” Korn admits. “The challenge we have is white collar crime. When the method is out of sight or a conman trick, that’s where somehow it doesn’t feel quite as tangible as the more serious level of crime. Clearly the success of Tinder Swindler and Don’t Fck With Cats opens a whole area.


“One interesting thing for us is a foray into shortform content – a different string to our bow that allows us to experiment in different areas. Phoenix TV made Cut To The Crime fronted by a barber using the barber’s chair as a confessional. People came for a haircut and talked about how they’d been hit by true crime, [be they] a victim, a reformed criminal or somebody closely associated. That’s a great forum for trying out formats. That’s an opportunity. It doesn’t have to be murder and we are actively looking at different sorts of crime and programming.”


So is this bleeding through into tangible results for an embattled indie production sector in the UK and US?


Woodcut Media is one of the UK’s most prolific true crime producers, with shows including the recently announced London Underground Killer for Amazon Prime Video.


Woodcut CEO Kate Beal says: “When it comes to True Crime, the fact 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.


“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 to beyond the network’s expectation. It also helps to pitch the right person on the right day. Sometimes luck really does make a difference.”


Lucy Middleboe was recently appointed head of business at Will Hanrahan’s UK indie FirstLookTV, which has achieved its first ever commission from UKTV in the true crime space.


Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV

“Red Flag is currently premiering on UKTV. Unusually for true crime, the channel wanted the series to focus on survivor stories. Due to the nature of the genre we rarely get to hear from victims and the team were in awe of their bravery as they described their horrific experiences in the hope of saving others from similar situations,” says Middleboe.


“The demand for true crime appears to remain strong across most platforms but saying it is immune [from the economic situation] 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. [You need to] 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.”


Harry Smith, head of development at Screendog, is one of the lucky ones to have got a commission away at UK terrestrial Channel 4, which is currently having a torrid time with the collapse of the ad market and is putting episodes of some of its biggest shows, like Eight Out of Ten Cats Does Countdown, on the shelf. It’s perhaps not surprising that Screendog’s success was in the true crime genre, with its hybrid factual/drama format The Jury: Murder Trial, where two juries are put together to watch the re-enactment of a real court case before each considering their verdicts.


“Everything is tough at the moment but there is reason to believe the genre can weather the storm. Just recently Channel 4 had hits with The Push: Murder On The Cliff, To Catch a Copper and our own series The Jury: Murder Trial,” Smith points out. “Simply put, there will always be an appetite for true crime – but there’s definitely still room for innovation in terms of how these stories are told, and finding those innovative tweaks to the genre is probably a good way for producers to inoculate themselves against the difficult times the industry is facing.


“Stories must sustain multiple episodes and a USP or strong point of difference is more important than ever before. It’s no longer enough to have a great story, you’ve also got to have an original way of telling it. The genre is saturated, so those projects with a unique storytelling device are the ones that seem to be getting most traction. The Jury: Murder Trial offered a unique angle on crime by approaching it through the eyes of jurors. Perhaps it chimed with audiences because, whenever we consume crime content, we are also trying to work out the truth – just like a jury. We hope to return with a new series based around a gripping, relatable and socially relevant case soon.”


The Curious Case Of Natalia Grace

And what of the situation in the US? Nancy Glass, CEO of Glass Entertainment Group, which makes Betrayal for ABC/Hulu, Murder in the 21st for A&E and Bitconned for Netflix, among others, says: “It is tough out there for everyone right now. But the audience for true crime seems to be growing because it’s a topic that gets to viewers both emotionally and intellectually. You are telling stories that are true, and nothing is as fascinating or as unpredictable as reality. When you have a rich story to tell, commissioners will buy and viewers will find you.


“There are two things that seem to be working. The first is a story no one knows with lots of unexpected twists and turns. The other is IP – you can sell a re-examination of a well-known crime if you have something exclusive or can present it in a new way. For example, we were able to sell a Jeffrey Dahmer doc because we had the only interview with him. On The Jury Speaks, we revisited major cases from the point of view of the jury and learned that they didn’t see things the way people thought they did.”


Ari Mark, co-founder of Ample Entertainment, which has Murder in the Heartland and Death by Fame on its slate, says he has four series yet to be announced in the true crime space with Netflix, Hulu and Max.


“We all know things are tough, regardless of what genre you work in,” he says. “Fewer commissions is bad for all of us. But like I’ve said many times before, we are filmmakers, we are documentarians, we are scrappy producers. We are used to being uncomfortable, and out of that discomfort we can, and will, force great things into the world. True crime certainly isn’t immune, but it is a very reliable genre that promises something that no other genre really can – stakes. Crime is about life and death and the stories being told do matter. Audiences and commissioners understand that.


“The best way to get a true crime series commissioned is to get unprecedented access to a person, story or department and then work with strong developers to create pitch materials that succinctly highlight exactly why that access matters.”


David Karabinas, CEO of Texas Crew Productions, which is behind Oxygen’s Killer Relationship and Hulu’s How I Caught My Killer, adds: “There’s no question that the market is tough all around. Less content is being bought and that ripples through every genre. 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.


Cops Who Kill With Will Mellor

“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 to ID and Hulu makes a different show to 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.”


So while total immunity from the problems afflicting the industry may be a bit of a stretch, it is clear that in true crime, perhaps more than any other unscripted genre at the moment, there are enough buyers and they are commissioning content.


The challenge, of course, is then finding the story or IP that nobody else has that you can build your series around amidst the white-hot competition of a starving production community.