The Weinstein Co., after shepherding one of reality TV’s first breakout series, Project Runway, along with several successful theatrical documentaries, now wants to move deeper into fact-based TV content.
“A lot of our films started as true stories,” noted David Glasser, the company’s COO, during a Sunday panel at the Produced By conference titled, “New Opportunities in Non-Fiction: Docs, Limited Series & Alternative Programming.”
As the company turned more attention toward unscripted, “What we saw was that the landscape started to change and there was the ability to extend the traditional documentary into four and six and even eight hours,” continued Glasser. “You can really dive into a story.”
Material tends to find its way to the Weinstein Co. from all over, he asserted. “We have an overall deal with Jay Z (Shawn Carter). He came to our office and said, ‘I want to do a documentary on this young man.’ We said ‘OK, but we didn’t see it as a theatrical documentary.’ We said, ‘Let’s do it over six hours, where we could tell a deeper story.’”
The documentary was about the case of Kalief Browder, a 16-year-old boy who was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack and sent to Rikers Island, where he spent the better part of three years in solitary confinement because his family didn’t have the $3,000 necessary to bail him out. He later committed suicide.
More recently, Weinstein announced a documentary with Jay Z about Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old boy infamously gunned down in Florida by a vigilante.
Each project is a “journey,” said Glasser, because unlike a scripted project, the story can change with events and as material develops. “As you get the interviews,” said Glasser, “this big road map comes together as you see where it is going.”
A group of documentarians on the panel with Glasser told similar stories of spending years creating stories that changed with events.
Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi, co-founders of Synthesis Films, spent over a decade making the series Making A Murder for Netflix. Over that period their project developed as the medium expanded. “We wouldn’t have been able to take our viewers on a journey with our characters before,” said Demos. “We had to wait for that to evolve.”
With the proliferation of new distribution platforms, that time seems to have arrived.
“Over the last couple years the non-fiction genre has become a lot more interesting,” said panel moderator Bert Marcus. “The non-fiction genre is booming. It’s robust. It’s a really exciting time especially for long-form documentaries. And alternative programming is huge right now.”
“The thing is these structures can be very different because story telling can take any form,” said Angus Wall of Rock Paper Scissors Entertainment, whose documentaries include the multi-part Five Came Back and feature-length 13th, both for Netflix. “So it’s about defining those. That’s the fun for me.”
It is also sometimes a frustration.
“You constantly have to be on your toes,” said Glasser. “You can set a blueprint, but from where we start to where we end up, it’s night and day.”