Netflix’s The Tinder Swindler director Felicity Morris has said the documentary market is going to contract and warned filmmakers against “chasing the next viral story that everyone is talking about.”
Speaking at the Berlinale Series Market, Morris and other European documentarians questioned whether the golden age of premium docs is coming to an end as buyers – especially the streamers – become more risk averse.
“We are hearing things are going to contract although there is definitely still an appetite for the best stories being told in the best way,” added Morris, who also produced Netflix’s Don’t F**k with Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer and is working on the same streamer’s All American Nightmare.
“I hope creativity will prevail and there might be a bit more risk taking in the stories that get commissioned but there will of course still be a plethora of shows for people to watch,” she added.
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Benji Bergmann, who runs Netflix’s Oscar-nominated Camp Confidential producer Babka Productions, said the lack of sales at the recent Sundance is proof “we are in a bit of a tricky moment,” adding: “There is a feeling of contraction in the market but the sky isn’t falling.”
While the market shrinks, Bergmann stressed that buyers are looking for “big names that have marketing value,” which they are happy to “throw a little bit more money at.”
With that in mind, Georg Tschurtschenthaler, the CCO of Gebrueder Beetz Filmproduktion, criticized the likes of Netflix’s Prince Harry and Meghan Markle doc Harry & Meghan for a lack of objectivity.
“I have an issue with Harry & Meghan because it’s talking about them but of course you can see they have editorial control,” he added. “That is tricky because we need to be credible and keep our journalistic distance. It is a line we should not cross.”
Bergmann said shows like Harry & Meghan and Disney’s Welcome to Wrexham from Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney are “almost a different genre.”
“It’s tricky to compare them to what we would traditionally see as a doc but there is definitely a place for them in the market and we can enjoy watching them,” added Bergmann.
The streamers are ordering less but public broadcasters are still strong in the game, agreed the panelists on the Quo Vadis Docu Series? panel.
Morris said the likes of the BBC and Channel 4 have “big ambitions to do the projects that garner big audiences along with quieter, observational pieces,” while praising Sky’s impact in the documentaries game.
Along with Harry & Meghan, The Tinder Swindler is one of Netflix’s most watched documentaries of all time but Morris stressed that, when the team found the story of women who been left shy of thousands of euros by con artist Simon Leviev, they did not realize it would be such a commercial success.
“The film was told from three women’s perspectives who didn’t speak English as a first language and we didn’t interview the perpetrator,” she added. “In that sense we feel buoyed by the fact you can find these lesser known stories and break through to a global audience.
With that in mind, Morris warned filmmakers not to rush to make shows about the next viral story.
“I try and steer clear of whatever comes through in my newsletters as the IP has probably already gone,” she added. “I think it’s about being a bit more creative rather than chasing the viral story that has hit the news and everyone is talking about.”
Tschurtschenthaler said the plethora of docs on stories such as the 1972 Munich massacre show “everyone is looking for something known.”
“There is a limited number of IP you can use,” he added, before pointing to doc makers’ current penchant for turning non-scripted ideas into scripted projects.
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