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How to make the kinds of documentaries that will be sold to Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Vice, Apple, or HBO

How to make the kinds of documentaries that will be sold to Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Vice, Apple, or HBO

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.

 

3 Ways You Can Increase The Value of Your Issue Documentary

3 Ways You Can Increase The Value of Your Issue Documentary

There are many documentary genres that are worth discussing: true crime, music, political, and family melodrama to name a few, but today I'd like to put the focus on the "issue documentary." 

If you haven't seen the Netflix Original "The 13th" yet, you must do so immediately, for two reasons: 1. It is a fantastic film. 2. It is what I will refer to as the quintessential "issue documentary" of the 2010s.  The issue in this film is the 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution that freed the slaves but also created a plethora of systems from Jim Crow to lynchings to mass incarceration that have made life a living hell for millions of black Americans. The filmmaker, Ava DuVernay, takes a harsh stand against injustices by the American government, putting numerous policies under the microscope. For this, The 13th won the 2017 Emmy Award for Best Documentary. (I'm proud to have lost to this fine film!) 

Al Gore's 2006 "An Inconvenient Truth" and his 2017 follow-up "An Inconvenient Sequel" are two further examples of issue documentaries that have attracted large audiences and potentially earned profits for their producers: The first film was made for $1 million and earned $50 million at the box office. The second was also made for $1 million and earned $4.5 million at the box office. (The reason I say potentially earned profits for the producers is there's no way to determine the marketing budget for these films, as they may or may not come out of the listed production budgets.) 

Many documentary ideas I hear about are issue documentaries. But here's the big difference between Al Gore's issue documentaries and yours: You weren't Vice President of the United States and don't have millions of dollars from Participant Media's marketing department behind you. Furthermore, you aren't Ava DuVernay and don't have a Best Director Prize from Sundance, a Golden Globe nomination, or the power of Netflix's powerful marketing and public relations departments behind you. This is a harsh reality, but let it sink in for a second, because it is true.

No film is going to be an indie smashing success without millions of dollars of marketing behind it. Of course there are studio films that spend the GDP of small countries on marketing and still flop, but in the indie world, you'll likely only get a mega marketing budget if you're film is awesome.This said, there are many things you can do togreatly increase the value of your indie issue documentary

1. Get celebrities involved: Let's say you're making an issue documentary about colon cancer, and some new treatments for it. Well, simply Googling "colon cancer celebrity" reveals a dozen celebrities who have either had colon cancer themselves or are strong advocates for colon cancer research. Such people include Katie Couric (whose husband passed away from the disease) and former NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (whose grandfather also passed away from the disease). Why not reach out to these people to see if they'd be interested in narrating your film or being interviewed for it? That would be one way to inherently boost the value of your production and would make it way easier for you to get distribution down the line. 

2. Target people who care: The goal of your issue documentary might not be for it to reach every eyeball on earth; the goal might be to reach specific eyeballs, namely those people who are deeply affected by the issue you have created your film about. So, using the example above, you could organize screenings in major cities and target colorectal cancer patients to tell them about amazing new treatments that they may be able to use. This would be measurable impact. 

3. Create an issue related blog to build a community, and brand yourself as an expert. Chances are, if you are making an issue documentary, it is because you or someone you know is adversely affected by the issue. Furthermore, from your filmmaking you likely know quite a bit about your subject. Thus, creating a resource where people can go to discover more relevant information about the issue at hand is a natural way for you to build a solid, caring audience for your film.

A Year in Review: Adventures in Start to Finish Filmmaking

A Year in Review: Adventures in Start to Finish Filmmaking

I cannot believe how quickly the past year has flown by. Just over a year ago, my business partner Maria Springer and I graduated from the University of Oxford with our MBAs. We felt that the staid, old, complex film industry, especially documentaries, needed further disruption, beyond what Netflix and Amazon were already doing.

Armed with the lean principles we were taught in our technology and operations course at Oxford, we set out to make films at record speeds on record low budgets. And, as we learned in business school, it gets faster to make a film every time you do it. You will learn tricks left and right.

It took over 5.5 years from the time I landed in Perugia, Italy to start doing research for AMANDA KNOX until the film was released on Netflix. For our first OBSERVATORY project, EUROTRUMP, it took 9 months from the time we conceived the project until it aired on television on VICELAND in the Netherlands and Belgium and on the Dutch national broadcaster. This is a substantial improvement but there is more work to be done. If not for minor mess-ups along the way, we could've had this film ready three months earlier. But we will live and we will learn. We will make process improvements, And we will help others along the way.

Here are the key lessons we learned from making EUROTRUMP in 9 months: 

1. Run simultaneous processes: At its simplest level, this means if you are shooting a film you should also be gearing up to sell that film at the same time. This means start making trailers for your film while you are shooting it. It might be a pain, but as they say, "Show don't tell." 

2 . No deal is a deal until it is a deal. The BBC gave us a contract for this project a few months in. We thought we were set. We thought all was good. Then, the executive we dealt with over there went on vacation and all hell seemingly broke loose inside their headquarters. Our project became too controversial for them. And ultimately it was dropped. This was BY FAR the most stressful month for us over the past year. We didn't know this rule at the time, so we started coasting, thinking the BBC was a done deal and all was good. It didn't happen that way. 

3. ALWAYS BE CLOSING. As an independent filmmaker, your job is to sell as much as it is to create. If you don't sell your project, nobody will see it. And then you'll have an audience of 1. 

4. If you make something for $100,000 and sell it for $200,000 you've made a profit. If you make something for $600,000 and sell it for $200,000 you're very deep in the hole. This sounds logical, but too often I see filmmakers who want to raise loads of money, especially for non-fiction projects. If I can make a film for well less than $100,000, then you can too.  

5. Hire slow, fire fast. During the past year, we've had hundreds of personnel working for us on different projects at OBSERVATORY. It's been a major ride. I'm grateful that so many of the people who have helped us out are super competent at their jobs. However, we have also had to get rid of a number of people throughout the year, including interns, producers, and edit staff. It is painful when a bad apple, intentionally or unintentionally, ruins the whole bunch. There were many moments when I blamed myself or other people for someone's incompetence. (For example, if you start fighting with someone you previously worked well with, you have to look around you.) I hate to say this because it lacks scientific proof, but at some point, you have to GO WITH YOUR GUT. If you feel that a person is hurting your team or your efforts to move your project forward, you've got to get rid of them. This is the most difficult but also the most necessary part of being a manager. Once you are rid of your burden, you will immediately feel free. Having nobody working for you is better than having someone work for you who is incompetent and will waste all of your time. 

More observations coming soon...