With documentary filmmaking increasingly becoming the new investigative journalism, producers around the world are taking big risks to get the heart of the story. “Every documentary is a risk and every docu-filmmaker is a risk taker,” said Sara Bernstein, vp of HBO Documentary Films at the Real Screen Summit Tuesday. The risks include creative ones, which demand tackling under-covered stories, as well as navigating distribution challenges for docu-films within a multiplatform world. And another risk is immediate: it means making the difficult decision on whether to send producers to war zones to cover stories.
“No risk, no great films” seems to be the mantra for Simon Kilmurry, executive director and producer for PBS’s “POV,” which features independent non-fiction films. An example is the “The Act of Killing,” directed by Josh Oppenheimer, which documents the mass killings in Indonesia and will air on POV this summer. “These kind of stories haven’t been covered very well over the years, and once they do, they drive a lot of conversations and interest,” he said.
CNN, which bought Sundance Film Festival pick “Black Fish” about a year ago, aims to provide documentaries that generate “national conversation” with “rich context,” said Vinnie Malhotra, svp of development and acquisitions at CNN Worldwide. The film, which followed the 2010 killing of Sea World trainer Dawn Brancheau by a 12,000-pound orca—a whale previously associated with the death of two other people—raised questions about the safety and humaneness of keeping killer whales in captivity. It became a national conversation, Malhotra said, noting that the story is still evolving. The film’s airing has led to protests against Sea World, and advocates are now attempting to put pressure on Sea World partners using social media. Ratings aren’t the only barometer for success in this case. “Success is defined by impact. We are looking to do more of that,” he said.
When it comes to the ideal distribution for documentaries, Malhotra believes linear TV remains the key platform for their mass exposure—despite the increase in viewing on secondary devices and the growth of OTT video. “It’s the golden age for documentaries, and I still believe the broadcast portion of it gets the most exposure,” he said. “I would love to think that people are watching lots of documentaries on Netflix—but I have no idea,” he added. That said, CNN’s documentary approach spreads across platforms and brands.
For HBO’s part, the premium channel is always looking at new technologies, but ultimately it’s about branding, Bernstein said. “HBO is a [premium] pay service, so that puts us in a different position than CNN or PBS,” she said. “It’s almost like subscribers are buying a ticket to have the service,” and “we always keep that in mind,” she said. Calling Netflix a “competitor for a lot of us,” she said it all comes down to content, whether it’s cable or broadcast or OTT. “It’s also about the impact the films make,” and turning topics into national conversation, she added.
Perhaps one of the biggest risks of documentary filmmaking involves the crew’s safety. Determining whether to send a production team to potentially dangerous places requires having “a conversation about what you want to accomplish,” Malhotra said. Risk assessment and identifying the story’s value is key, Bernstein said. But taking these risks is what makes docu-makers and journalists quite remarkable, she said. “They put their lives on the line.”
With print journalism struggling, documentaries have the potential to be a powerful method in which to tell stories about world events, according to the panelists. “The ability to take stories well beyond the headline is important, especially to us,” Malhotra said. He suggested that a documentary can offer a more in-depth representation of events than traditional news, as it dives deeper. Moreover, a documentary transforms viewers into “the jury,” said director/producer Ondi Timoner. And she should know, having won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival twice. “It gives the power to the audience,” she said. “Through the camera, producers are able to let the story evolve."