The Rise of Netflix Documentaries

A still from Misha and the Wolves by Sam Hobkinson, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

For years now, Netflix has become a powerhouse because of its original properties. Whilst some people will go to Netflix for the Original Series or the Oscar contenders, there is a point to be made that they get the most attention for the collection of documentaries. Whenever a Netflix documentary drops, millions of users will watch it as soon as they can. So, what is it that makes these documentaries compelling and why do so many people go to Netflix for their fix?

Recently, the 2021 Sundance Film Festival had a documentary in their catalogue called Misha and the Wolves, a tale of a woman whose holocaust memoir took the world by storm, but a fallout with her publisher reveals a darker truth. When people got to see this film, myself included, it became obvious that it would be a Netflix acquisition. Sure enough, it took only a few days for Netflix to officially acquire the rights to the documentary, which should be coming onto the platform later on in the year. The simple reason why it was a clear Netflix acquisition? It fit the “Netflix Formula”.

To put it plainly, the “Netflix Formula” is focusing on stories, usually true crime, that are so unbelievable. These are the stories that you can’t believe you have never heard of before,      that you cannot believe are real. These are the films that viewers simply have to watch as soon as it drops or as soon as someone talks about it because there is a need for that conversation. As a company that reports its success based on viewership, that desire to be part of the conversation is exactly the marketing they need with these documentaries.

What is perhaps known as Netflix’s first major docu-series, Making a Murderer was a documentary that got the audience talking. Whilst many Netflix documentaries are a commercial success, Making a Murderer also became a critical success. Focusing on the court cases of Stephen Avery and his death penalty ruling, there was a lot of anger that came out of audiences who watched the series. This had an effect not only on audience reactions but inspired change within the system. Some of the biggest lawyers have stepped forward to defend Avery and actions are being taken to try and save him from the death penalty. This is a documentary that has had an impact, and it would be a formula that Netflix would duplicate going forward.

If there is one show that summarises 2020, it is the docu-series Tiger King, which focuses on the rivalry between animal park boss Joe Exotic and big-cat rights activist Carole Baskin. It felt like everyone had watched it near the start of the year, now being heavily linked to the start of the COVID-19 lockdown and being a show that people could binge watch at home, as nobody could believe what they were watching was real. Each episode escalates as it becomes hard to know who to trust and who we should like. It has gone beyond Netflix at this point, as star Carole Baskin took part in Dancing with the Stars in the same year. It has been nearly a year since the series came onto the platform, and people still do not know what to make of the show or the people in it. The conversation is still going to this day.

These are not the only types of documentaries that Netflix has on their platform, however. Just like they do with their feature films, they also have some Oscar contenders within their documentary slate. They have made a name for themselves within the category, winning twice and earning numerous other nominations.

Last year, the winner of the Best Documentary Feature was Netflix’s American Factory. This film was produced by Higher Ground Productions, owned by Barack and Michelle Obama. Obviously happy with how it turned out, they have continued the partnership as Netflix distributed their latest documentary, Crip Camp. These films don’t focus on unbelievable stories, instead, it tells more human stories and subject matters that impact the regular audience member. They might not cause people to immediately gossip, but they will have more long-time impact.

This year, Netflix has numerous films longlisted for the Best Documentary Feature category. The one that has been a stand-out, both in terms of quality and as an Oscar contender, is Dick Johnson is Dead. Kirsten Johnson takes the documentary format and twists it, telling this compassionate story of her father and grasping to terms that he will soon pass away. It is an emotional and impactful documentary, and it seems to be the film that Netflix is pushing to get nominated from their slate this year.

If there is something that viewers should look out for when scrolling through the selection on Netflix, it is the range of short films they have. They have recently also been pushing their short films for Oscar consideration, but they have some fantastic documentaries on their platform. A few of these have been pushed onto the front page, but it is something I wish they would do more.

The first short documentary that I saw pushed onto the front page of the Netflix platform was The Speed Cubers, a documentary that focused on the Rubik’s Cube community. There will be many people that are not aware of the competitions that run specifically for being able to complete a Rubik’s Cube quickly, but it is a large community and this film shines the light on it in such a positive way. It is a heart-warming documentary and one that is a contender for the Best Documentary Short category at this year’s Oscars.

Following the theme of competitions, another strong documentary short from last year was Spelling the Dream. Whilst presented as a simple documentary about a competitive spelling bee and the preparation that the children need to go through, it becomes so much more as it focuses on the refugee issue, showing the long-run success of Indian-American refugees who go on to compete in the competition. Netflix is able to make an impact with their documentaries, even if they are only given up to 40 minutes to tell a compelling narrative.

To conclude, it is no wonder why there is an audience that goes to Netflix to watch documentaries. The company knows that their algorithm will push them to each viewer, whether their taste is more targeted to the Oscar contenders or the must-watch docu-series. Quite simply, it is hard to ignore these stories and not be gravitated towards what they are placing on their platform. Their latest acquisition in Misha and the Wolves is certainly one to keep your eyes out for.