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What Does Netflix’s Investment in Documentaries Mean for Filmmakers?

Netflix has a pretty comprehensive and detailed production plans for their upcoming films, often going years into the future. For years now, this plan also includes big budget documentary films, both created by Netflix and bought from other production companies.

Some rather big names are often associated with these projects and they include stars such as Leonardo DiCaprio as well as the ongoing deal between the Obamas and Netflix that includes both documentaries and fiction work.

The question remains, what does all of this mean for documentary film makers in the long run?

The history

Netflix was pushing big on the documentary market from day one. That’s because it had a backlog of them and there was always artistic interest for exploring real life stories and real life issues. There are two major points in the history of Netflix’s involvement with documentaries to keep in mind.

The first was in 2013 when Netflix bought Jehane Noujaim’s “The Square,” which was later nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and “Mitt,” the documentary about Mitt Romney which premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. The second came this year when American Factory won the Academy Award.

The artistic projects

A move towards more artistic projects bought in style and substance came in 2014. That’s where Netflix announced they would produce and stream Liz Garbus’ “What Happened, Nina Simone?  That’s also a milestone because it’s a project that Netflix picked up in a very early stage before any filming was done.

The film premiered at a Sundance Film Festival and it was a smash hit with both the audiences and the critics. It was also one of the most watched documentaries on Netflix until American factory came out.

“I think that Netflix has added a huge amount, as a major new buyer both at the high level of big films and big prices and at the smaller level of a lot of smaller films and smaller prices but still great deals for films,” Dan Cogan, executive director and co-founder of Impact Partners (and Liz Garbus’ husband) told Indiewire earlier this year. “They’ve added a huge amount to the marketplace. It’s great to have another buyer with the pockets they have, the taste they have, and with the reach they have. It’s a huge resource for filmmakers.”

A matter of finance

Documentary filmmaking isn’t the most lucrative part of the industry and it’s especially difficult to fund the projects upfront, which means there are a lot of loans and uncertainty involved. This isn’t the case with Netflix since they pick up the projects in production and that’s a relief for many filmmakers. However, few are willing to actually discuss fees.

“Any company that is giving money to documentary filmmakers — either so they can make a new documentary or to put it towards the next doc — is a positive. There are not a lot of companies that finance documentaries upfront,” Douglas Tirola, documentary director (“Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead,” which recently premiered at Sundance) and president of the New York-based production company 4th Row Films, said.

”For ‘Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead,’ we were lucky enough to be working with History Films which is part of A&E Networks, one of the few companies helping filmmakers get their documentaries made with upfront financing. The fact that Netflix is acquiring films means there’s a chance that documentary directors will make their money back or put it towards their next project.”


These positive practices aren’t to say that there’s no room for criticism when it comes to how Netflix operates with documentary filmmakers. A controversy was recently discovered that casts a shadow over the work the company was doing. Netflix censored a portion of their stand up show that talked about the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The story of Khashoggi’s murder by the Saudi regime became a documentary of its own, but there was no place for it on Netflix or on any other streaming platform. This is believed to be a result of the financial pressure put on Netflix by the Saudi government.


Netflix was dedicated to making documentary films for years. They’ve started to invest seriously in that market almost ten years from now and they have made a few great successes. Big names are now attached to documentary projects and Netflix won an Oscar this year for their documentary created by the Obama’s film production company.

Most documentary filmmakers are satisfied with the financial practices put forward by Netflix especially because it allows them to finance their projects early and while they are still in development stage. Recently there has also been some criticism of Netflix due to their international releases and issues of censorship.

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