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

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

Netflix has a comprehensive and detailed production plan for their future films, spanning years into the future. This includes collaborations with big-budget film companies. Big names such as Leonardo DiCaprio and the Obamas are often associated with Netflix’s projects, including their documentaries and fictional works. The question remains, what does all this mean for filmmakers in the long term?

The History

Netflix has pushed towards dominating the documentary market from Day One. There has always been an artistic interest and high demand for exploring real-life storiess and issues. These are two major points in the history of Netflix’s involvement with the documentary genre.

Their stake in the industry began in 2013, after purchasing rights Jehane Noujaim’s The Square. The film was later nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. In 2014 Netflix purchased Mitt, a documentary about Mitt Romney, which premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.


In 2014 Netflix made a move towards projects with an increased focus on artistry and style, announcing they would produce and stream Liz Garbus’s What Happened, Nina Simone? The announcement was a milestone, as Netflix picked up the project at a very early stage before filming had even begun. The film premiered at Sundance Film Festival to wide critical acclaim. It reigned as one of the most-watched documentaries on Netflix, before the release of American Factory. 

Earlier this year, Executive Director and co-founder of Impact Partners told Indiewire: “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. 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.”

Matters of Finance

Documentary filmmaking isn’t the most lucrative corner of the film industry. It can be particularly difficult to find funding for projects upfront. This isn’t the case with Netflix, however, as they pick up projects in early production: a relief for many filmmakers. However, few are willing to discuss their 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,” said Douglas Tirola, president of 4th Row Films and director of Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead. ”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 company’s work. Netflix reportedly censored a portion of their stand-up show that touched upon the murder of Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. The story of Khashoggi’s murder by the Saudi regime later became the subject of its own documentary, but there was no place for it on Netflix or any other streaming platform. This is believed to be the result of financial pressure placed upon Netflix by the Saudi government.


Netflix has been dedicated to producing documentary films for years. Their investments have become increasingly competitive, collaborating alongside the likes of the Obamas and other big-name stars. This spells a bright future for filmmakers, despite questionable practices recently enacted by the company.