This week, Variety reported that Netflix said it will raise $1.6 billion in debt to fund additional content in 2018. This means that Netflix is now projected to spend $7 to $8 billion on content next year. And with a half dozen other major competitors out there, this should be music to the ears of content creators. However, when we are looking at documentary financing, things aren't all roses for non-fiction filmmakers, especially novice ones.
First, of the $8 billion Netflix will spend on content, one can assume that no more than 3%, or $24 million, of this budget will be spent on documentaries. Yes, other non-fiction content might be highly paid, like Chris Rock's $40m comedy specials, but documentary doesn't work like this. Additionally, other than The 13th, created by an outstanding director with a strong track record, Netflix isn't funding documentary projects from start to finish. It is, inherently more risk appetite than Netflix (or other large companies, other than HBO) are willing to take on.
Thus far, Netflix has paid $5 million for one documentary, Icarus. And they have paid around $2 million for several more. But again, these are all outliers, films that are in the top 0.1% for sales of documentary films made. You can look at the themes of these films to understand what Netflix wants: Crime (Amanda Knox, Making a Murderer), Sports (Icarus), Justice (Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower).
And Netflix isn't alone: Amazon paid north of $2 million for City of Ghosts (about the relevant issue of the Syrian war) at Sundance last January. Ostensibly they will have paid this much for a few more films during this year, too.
These stats beg the question, what kinds of films are you making that have the potential to be purchased for big bucks?
Making films that can be purchased by big companies is the major goal of OBSERVATORY. That isn't to say we don't appreciate artsy films, but they have to be commercial for us to be interested. Amanda Knox, EuroTrump, and Freedom For The Wolf are all shot beautifully. But they also are stories that resonate with millions of people on a commercial level.
Thus, if you want to make films that are bought by large companies, you need something special: access to a person who has never given access to anyone else, knowledge of a place that nobody else has, an incredible story that only you know about that should be on the front pages. You also need to be relevant. If your story was important when you started your project, but it doesn't really matter today, you're crap out of luck.
The films that are purchased by large companies do have many similarities: they feature bold and interesting characters, are shot well, and highlight some level of controversy. You learn this in screenwriting 101: controversy sells, so don't think you can make a film without this that anyone will be interested in. What you will also realize is every team that has sold a project to a major company has someone on it who knows how to sell.
More on this in future Observations.