The Doc Uptick: In a Post-Truth World, Documentary Comes to the Fore

In today’s world, where disorder seems to be the new order, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the documentary format is experiencing a newfound success. As Mark Twain cannily observed, “truth is stranger than fiction… because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”

And truth, it turns out, can make for good business. With budgets usually in the low single millions vs. the hundreds of millions spent on box office toppers in genres such as drama, adventure, animation and comedy, distributors, sales agents, and financiers are now looking at the documentary format from a new perspective.

Docs at the box office

Box-office analyst Jeff Bock explained the doc phenomenon this way in a recent issue of Variety: “Netflix and streaming services have pushed documentaries into the forefront.” Bock continued: “Could the surge inspire studios to get in on the trend? It’s possible… Documentaries are generally inexpensive to produce, and commercial companies likely have a bigger budget to spend on marketing than indies do [...] Don’t be surprised to see a Lionsgate or Paramount documentary released on a wide scale as counterprogramming [next summer]. If a studio that is struggling can make $10 million on a $1 million film, what does it have to lose?”

Bock’s analysis follows two notable years of box-office hits, on top of the popularity of factual titles available through SVOD services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. In the midst of summer break blockbusters such as Deadpool 2 and Avengers: Infinity War, 2018 has also been hailed ‘the summer of documentaries’ with audiences across North America filling seats for the real-life tales of TV’s Mister Rogers, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and a group of separated-at-birth triplets.

2018’s top documentary performers:

Won’t You Be My Neighbor, on the cultural impact of Fred Rogers aka TV’s Mister Rogers ($22.6 million generated at domestic box office)
RBG, the story of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ($14 million generated at domestic box office)
Three Identical Strangers, the story of identical triplets separated at birth and raised by different families then accidentally reunited ($12 million generated at domestic box office)

Across Canada this summer, audiences also showed up in large numbers for the Canadian production The Accountant of Auschwitz, which tells the story of former SS officer Oskar Gröning’s trial, held 70 years after the end of WWII. The stirring documentary, released theatrically across Canada during the summer and fall of 2018, enjoyed unusually high box office numbers. During one week in June, The Accountant of Auschwitz even recorded the highest per theatre revenue of any film in Canada, beating out summer blockbuster Oceans 8. Producer Ric Esther Bienstock is quick to point out, however, that the documentary’s box office victory over Oceans 8 “[…] is a bit of an optical illusion. While it’s factually true, it’s because we were in one theatre that week, and we grossed more on a per theatre basis than Oceans 8, which was presented in 300 theatres. Still, the success of our theatrical release has really been a very pleasant surprise. We’re also set for a broadcast premiere on the Documentary Channel this fall, with a Hollywood Suite second window. And, of course, the rest of the world is still open for exploitation.”

The robust world of non-fiction

At this year’s TIFF Industry Conference documentary day, a group of executives focused on acquiring and representing non-fiction content assembled for a panel to deconstruct the goings on in the world of documentary. Kevin Iwashina, senior associate at Endeavor Content (formerly WME Global), noted that the documentary category used to mean just one thing, and that was a 90-minute feature. Now he sees what he termed “the robust world of non-fiction”, with the potential to mean many different things and take on a variety of form factors and be presentable on a variety of screens.

Also new is the variety of paths to positive economics, whether it’s theatrical box office, streaming/SVOD, advertising-supported AVOD, transactional TVO or some combination of those monetization options. “What’s changed,” pointed out Rena Ronson, head of the Independent Film Group and partner at United Talent Agency (UTA) “is that we now have feature docs doing better than feature films in the marketplace. And that’s new.” Jessica Lacy, partner and head of the international and independent film department at ICM Partners, says she has witnessed a new attitude toward documentaries from the investment community. “Financiers from the world of traditional feature films are becoming interested in financing the documentary format. […] We live in a complicated world and people want to be a part of that.”

New form factors and new opportunities

UTA’s Ronson and ICM’s Lacy noted that the IP (intellectual property) that resides within these real-life stories is another element that makes documentary financing attractive to investors. Examples cited include the romantic comedy meets documentary Meet The Patels, which is being developed into a feature film, and The Seven Five, the story of one of New York City’s most corrupt cops, which now has a book deal and is in development as a TV series.

The model of investing once and having the potential for returns across multiple platforms is one that is getting the attention of equity investors. They’re now looking to documentaries for exploitable IP, and also to podcasts, where titles such as Dirty John, S-Town, and Homecoming, are making the leap from audio to television. “It’s a great place to grow your IP”, noted Ronson.

After many years of being thought of in the categories of news and information, documentary is now an entertainment category, pointed out Iwashina. With that comes a new respect for the documentarian. “I’ve never seen so much focus on the director,” he said. “It used to be more of a content/story focus, and now documentarians are being acknowledged as artists.”

Leora Kornfeld
So far in life, Leora has been a record store clerk, a CBC radio host, a Harvard Business School case writer, a blogger and a crossword puzzle clue. Currently she’s a media and technology consultant, working with clients in the US and Canada.
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