On Redefining Documentary Films with Netflix
A brief conversation with Adam Del Deo, Netflix’s Vice President Original Documentary Features about the company’s mission to support great storytellers of non-fiction and documentary filmmakers.
Words by Hana A. Devarianti
Photos by Netflix
Nowadays, when talking about documentary films it seems hard not to mention Netflix. In recent years, the leading entertainment services provider has produced some of the most-watched and critically acclaimed documentary films. From the Oscar-Winning “Icarus” (2018), the viral “FYRE: The Greatest Party that Never Happened” (2019), to recent titles such as “Tiger King” (2020) and “The Last Dance” (2020) which has become the two most talked about films during COVID-19’s social distancing, Netflix appears to provide us with audience-pleasing titles of non-fiction and documentary. Here, we discussed with Adam Del Deo, Netflix’s Vice President Original Documentary Features, who with his supervision six of Netflix’s documentaries have been nominated for Oscars, about some of the company’s most successful titles, their approach on non-fiction and documentary films and how it has redefined the genre itself to wider audiences.
What is the process of making a documentary feature on Netflix?
In terms of making feature and working for us, that could come in a variety of different ways. It could be a title that filmmakers would pitch to us, about certain ideas or exploration around a topic, subject, or individual. We would also tend to look at a lot of project in midstream. What I mean by midstream is for projects that already have footage or collection of scenes, something that already has more formed, from the filmmakers for us to look at and then decide if it’s the right story for our audience. We would also look for a title in a finished form, which we will look at the film festivals or through our creative executives from all over the world. So, we’re very flexible with that regard.
And also, we’re very flexible on what we’re buying. You could see titles like “Explained” (2018-present), a docuseries which comes in a short length, but you might also find 45 minutes length docufilms such as “The White Helmet” (2016) that has won the Academy Awards on Netflix. There are also titles like “Tiger King” (2020) which is a limited series because we feel that the story just could not be told in feature form so it needed a second, a fourth, a fifth, or maybe even a sixth episode. The flexibility to buy titles also help us to cater to a specific audience as well, titles that we think has a great story but might only be fit for specific audiences in a specific country. At the same time, we also have the ability to buy titles that we think are more global, like David Attenborough’s “Our Planet” (2019). It is incredible flexibility in terms of types of story, filmmakers, and format on Netflix. We want to be able to have a wide range variety of films on our platform.
There are lots of interesting documentary titles on Netflix that are able to attract audiences and become a film that is being talked about on social media. “Street Food: Asia”, “Fyre”, and “Tiger King” are perhaps the examples of that. What are the trends for documentary films in Asia, specifically in Indonesia?
The trends that we have been seeing is more of our subscriber watching more documentaries. And with our service in our algorithm, we are able to put titles that we feel will resonates with certain subscribers that may be usually will only watch feature films or series. So, the algorithm could offer up a documentary which something may appeal to the audience.
The way we think about it is that supporting film making innovation and documentary film making, supporting budgets that are geared to make documentary films more entertaining is something we really believe in. That is the core of our approach to documentary films. And also with the flexibility of not having commercial which helps to maintain the continuity of the story, Netflix has been something that is very appealing to many filmmakers around the world to tell stories that are really important to them, authentic, resonates and connects with viewers in a way that they haven’t with documentaries in the past. The strong examples are perhaps like “Chef’s Table” (2015-present), “Making a Murderer” (2018), and more recent ones like “Street Food: Asia” (2019) where we have Indonesian episodes, Vietnamese episodes, and other countries. And “Street Food: Asia” is a series that worked really well in Indonesia and also around the world. The ability to transcend borders and go to social media to found out that they are super excited about street vendors in Indonesia while also seeing that resonating in different parts of the world from non-Indonesian viewers, our filmmakers love that. They love to be able to touch people in ways they haven’t. The ability to have global watcher in 190 countries, that is something that is so new to documentarians. And historically, documentaries have been more intellectual and academic, so people haven’t viewed them as widely viewed global content until now. Like, “Tiger King” has been watched by 64 million accounts in the first four weeks or “The Last Dance” that has been watched by 23 million accounts outside the US in the last four weeks, this is a great thing for non-fiction and documentary storytelling.
Supporting film making innovation and documentary film making, supporting budgets that are geared to make documentary films more entertaining is something we really believe in. That is the core of our approach to documentary films.
Netflix has also been producing more popular culture themed documentary films, such as titles that you’ve mentioned before “Tiger King” and “The Last Dance”. Are there any specific reasons for that?
I think this is really the testament to the storytelling in the film making. I think to be able to stand behind filmmakers and say, “Hey, we at Netflix support you. We support the way you want to tell the documentary”
We have a documentary called “The Great Hack” (2019) which is dealing with the internet privacy, and the filmmakers came to us and said to create a visual language that takes you inside the internet is going to be a very heavy visual effect budget. And, for us it was expensive but we love the filmmakers, we’ve worked with them before on a title called “The Square” (2013) about the Egyptian Revolution which was nominated for Academy Award. So we and went on to produce the film and trusted these filmmakers, perhaps in a way that may be a lot of other companies wouldn’t. Another example maybe our documentary about Bill Gates, “Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates: Limited Series” (2019). The previous biopics about Bill Gates has been pretty conventional, so Davis Guggenheim, the filmmaker who directed “An Inconvenient Truth” (2016) that won the Academy Award, really wanted to tell the biopic in a different kind of way by taking Bill Gates to go on walks with Davis out in the woods, the desert. Through that, you’ll found that to get Bill open up is to not put him in a chair in his office where he’s been interviewed for the most part of his career in a setting that is more oriented towards business nomenclature but to be able to humanize it and find out the real Bill is. We didn’t know if that’s going to work, but we trusted Davis immensely and we got behind him. For us, to take these bold, innovative steps that are new in documentary filmmaking is, well we’re maybe not always going to be successful, but it is something we really want to try. Titles like “Wormwood” (2017) with the great documentarian Errol Morris was really the integration of non-fiction documentary and scripted scenes. That is something that you hadn’t seen at that level before. We’re continuing to redefine and evolve the genre of non-fiction and documentary storytelling. We think when we connect that it is something views towards “pop”, it’s popular. It’s not people’s the preconceived notion of what a documentary has been historically.
There are a variety of documentary genres on Netflix. What kind of genre that attracts the most audience and has it affect Netflix decision to lean towards only to a certain genre?
What we’re seeing is a strong documentary viewing in a variety of different genres. We’ve seen it in true crime in “Making a Murderer”, in food through “Chef’s Table” for example, or in biopics and music like Beyonce’s “Homecoming” (2019) or Taylor Swift’s “Miss Americana” (2020). We’ve seen an uptick in all documentary viewing. How do we think about it? We don’t think about it not to limit ourselves to only certain genres, either it’s true crime, food, or music. What we’re seeing is great viewing where a lot of people going to social media to talk about these titles, which is a great word of mouth.
The way we see it is we always want to work with filmmakers that we feel are connecting with the story and telling the story in a way that we feel are really elevated, and also are going to appeal to different segments of our subscribers base. Some of those segments could be large in terms of scale, something like “Our Planet”. But, also with titles that we picked up at film festivals like “Circus of Books” (2020) that we recently launched, we feel that it’s a great film that would appeal really well to the LGBTQ community. And so, for us, it’s about right-sizing the economics, but we can have a wide variety of different documentaries in a lot of different topics. We just want that film to resonate and have people really love them, create a lot of satisfaction. That’s how we think about it.
What are your most exciting upcoming documentary projects on Netflix that you think we should keep an eye on?
That’s a great win for us when we can connect not only to the local level but also on the global level.
I’m really excited for the “Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich”, which launched on May 27th. Also really excited for the title called “Father Soldier Son” which comes out on June 19th, a tittle about a military officer who returns from Afganistan and his connection with his son. Another great title coming this June is “Athlete A” which follows reporters of The Indianapolis Star in exposing Dr. Larry Nassar’s the sexual abuse to young gymnasts, a title that comes from Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, the directors of “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power”. Another title that I’m excited about is “Mucho Mucho Amour: The Legend of Walter Mercado”. Walter Mercado was an astrologer from Puerto Rico and immensely popular in Latin America. That is the title that we bought from the Sundance Film Festival.
We also recently launched “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution” on March, that was a film that we did with Higher Ground Production (a production company founded by former United States President Barack Obama and former United States first lady Michelle Obama). The film is about the passing of the American disability’s act won Audience Awards at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. To be able to bring a film about rights to the disabled is something that you haven’t seen before, so it’s something that really fit so perfectly with the way we think about documentary: to tell a story that no one knew.
Oh, also later in the year we will have David Attenborough’s film called “A Life On Our Planet”. This is really David witness statement to the world. I think he’s the most travelled man on the planet as he started in the 50s, and have seen habitats and species all over the world and what they have become in the modern day. So, to hear David Attenborough about where the environment as at and what we need to preserve it is something that I, and I think also our subscribers, very excited for.
In the future, will Netflix collaborate with more international filmmakers?
The answer is yes. So, we have offices all over the world. I have executives on my teams overseeing Europe, Asia, Latin America in our offices around the world. Having 183 subscribers all over the world in 190 countries, there are demands for great storytellings. So, we’ve been very active commissioning storytelling that maybe more relevant to specific to different countries. For example “Wild Wild Country” (2018) was a documentary series that we made on Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (Osho), it’s the title that is not only working to English people territories but also very well in India. “Street Food: Asia”was another example, that was an original documentary commission. We heard from Asian members is that they love street food but they felt they want content that is more tailored and resonated to them. So, we ended up making 9 episodes only in Asia and it was a title that was very successful.
We have seen titles that are geared to more specific audiences and individuals countries are working quite well and that’s something that we’re looking every day all over the world. We will continue to commission the best stories that we feel will work, even when it’s only for specific countries.
We’re continuing to redefine and evolve the genre of non-fiction and documentary storytelling. We think when we connect that it is something views towards “pop”, it’s popular.
How big do you think for documentarian from Southeast Asia, especially Indonesia, to collaborate with Netflix?
With celebrated viewing of Indonesian episode of “Street Food: Asia”, we would love to find storytellers that could bring stories that could be resonant in Indonesia, satisfy our subscribers, and create a great word of mouth in the country. We also hope that we could find stories that could transcend borders, not only to Southeast Asia but Asia and the global level.
We have seen different tiers of documentaries, some maybe are more locally based but also when you can connect to the right one. Something like “Wild Wild Country”, a story that is really specific to India and Asia, but also could work all over the world. That’s a great win for us when we can connect not only to the local level but also on the global level. That’s important to us.
My last question will be, do you have any recommendations for titles that audiences will enjoy during this quarantine time?
For sure! So, I think if you haven’t had the change to watch, “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution” is really a great title. It has been picked from New York Times as one of the best films that have come out so far this year. That’s something I would recommend. I would also recommend “Tiger King” (2020) which has been a title that becomes a global conversation. I think those two are pretty good ones.