Documentary Film Industry

Documentary Festivals, Documentary Film Industry, Documentary Productions

The Documentary Film Industry in 2019: Insights from Peter Hamilton


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Recently, we had the privilege to host Peter Hamilton. Peter is an executive producer and senior consultant to industry leaders, governments and nonprofit organizations in the non-fiction television sector. He is the founder/editor/publisher of DocumentaryBusiness.com, the indispensable weekly newsletter on the non-fiction TV business where he sheds light on current trends in the documentary film industry. Here we discuss the pros and cons of the rise of powerful SVOD channels with the capacity to reach a global audience. Here’s the interview our CEO, Melanie Rozencwajg had with Peter.

Peter, you are a major expert in the documentary film industry and it is a real privilege for us that you are sharing your vision and insights with Archive Valley’s international community. First, can you tell us a bit more about yourself, when was your blog born and how many years did you have the privilege to work and witness the industry changes from inside?

Thank you, Melanie. I have always loved History since I was a little boy, growing up in Victoria, Australia. My mother liked to take me on week-long trips around the bush in her Morris Minor, with a thermos of tea and a package of roast lamb sandwiches on the back seat. She would stop at deserted graveyards and decipher for me the stories behind the migrations, epidemics and shipwrecks that she read in the gravestones. Her curiosity ignited my love of discovering the past. As a young reporter, I became thrilled by how the film archive brings stories from the past to life. I have served as a senior consultant since 1987. My specialization is marketing and business development. One of my first projects was to help plan and then launch Discovery International. Before that, I was an executive at CBS in New York.

Back in 2010, I decided to share my expertise and industry analysis in an online newsletter. I saw a gap in the trade press for revealing the ‘business of the documentary film and unscripted business.’ I’ve been excited to support Archive Valley’s creative solution to archive research since I first met your team at MIPTV 2018 ( you can find the key takeaways from our panel talk here).

Your blog offers a broad perspective on how and what are the reasons for the current shift and changes in the non fictionindustry. Latelyyou’ve elaborated a lot on the changes and challenges the SVOD channels brought to the industry: how does it affect the broadcasters’ business? and does the rise of distribution channels lead to a rise in content/shows/ documentary productions in order to feed all the different distribution channels?

We are about to enter a time when the pipeline of unscripted programming will be cut back. The rise over four decades of hundreds of Cable / Satellite channels drove a massive increase in commissions because each channel needed a certain number of fresh hours, as many as 600 a year, to fill their schedules, particularly their primetimes. And viewers watched repeats in great numbers

Enter online video platforms led by Netflix: Viewers can now watch want they want when they want to. Binge-viewing scripted series became the preferred way of consuming video.

U.S. channels are quite rapidly losing subscribers and viewers, particularly of repeats. Facing declining revenues, many networks have cut back their acquisitions of original unscripted series and specials. This trend will be replicated worldwide, although with the most resistance occurring in Western Europe and UK.

Netflix’s strategy involves a shift towards commissioning feature documentaries that cut through the clutter by involving ‘auteurs’ as directors, and A-Listers as executive producers, talent and often as subject material.  It’s the Hollywood scripted model applied to unscripted, and it most resembles HBO Documentaries’ longtime strategy.

So the non-fictionbusiness is in flux, things are changing, new structures are developing. What’s your view on the global temperature of the non-fictionbusiness overall?

The new global documentary commissioning pipeline is, therefore, a narrower one, with fewer originals flowing through it. But it involves more “Blue Chip” productions, often with much higher budgets than characterized the Cable / Satellite era. Netflix and Amazon are such dominant players worldwide that I don’t see many competitive SVOD platforms emerging soon who will fill out the demand lost as channels cut their budgets and volume.

So my #1 Takeaway: Fewer projects overall. But more big budget documentaries involving A-Listers, and that are developed along the Hollywood model with agents as their packagers.

Is there, in your opinion, a risk that the distribution channels (svod, broadcasters) will suffer like other industries from industry concentration and monopoly?

The new online video model is a duopoly: Netflix and Amazon dominate, with Hulu chasing them. They are evolving to become platforms that offer subscribers everything from $200 million budget star-studded movies to the NBA and Premier League. Amazon enjoys the most sophisticated model because, as Jeffrey Bezos says, “Video helps sell shoes.” The center of power in video entertainment has shifted: It was shared by LA and New York, with London important in many genres, particularly documentaries. And Washington, too. Now, nearly all cellphones are dialing LA. Disney, Comcast, Apple, Facebook and YouTube are also in the picture. They enjoy tremendous resources, but they have been left behind by Amazon and Netflix.  The BBC plus French and German and several other European public broadcasters will remain important commissioners of unscripted programs as they retain strong tax-based funding and loyal if ageing audiences.

In your own words you said that “Despite the challenging business environment, the global documentary film industry and unscripted sector is responsible for $ billions in annual productions and sales”. Will the competition landscape open up new opportunities and raise the quality bar and the amount of content (shows, films, documentaries…) produced to feed the viewers’ appetite for good shows ?

Industry veterans became certain that our sector would grow forever. The shock of this decade is that the boom came to an end. But it’s not a bust. The global unscripted business will remain a huge mega-billion dollar industry compared to its size back in the early Eighties before the Cable / Satellite boom. It will be somewhat smaller, with more high-quality projects eating up the total pie spent on the genre. Channels will continue to commission originals, though fewer of them and with tighter budgets.

Netflix and Amazon are in a growth spurt, spending furiously to grab market share everywhere. Their hectic spending on original, A-Lister commissions will become more selective as they reach maturity. And new entrants to the online video business will chase them, providing new opportunities for filmmakers, including for specialists in archive-base History.

What are in your opinion to you the next big opportunities and challenges producers/ filmmakers will face with this current industry shift?

Oscar-nominated directors or producers who are working with celebs and A-Listers are finding open doors at the SVOD’s, particularly if they are represented by a credible agent.

The mid-size producers who did well with Cable networks will find the going tougher, but they are still earning commissions. Europeans with strong relationships with public broadcasters will continue to do well.

And outside the commercial economy, the documentary film is one of the most prestigious forms of creative expression today. Governments, foundations and the super-rich together spend billions of dollars every year on feature docs. Their motivations range from winning awards and ten minutes of fame to changing minds. The creative talent involved is often amazing, with the art of documentary story-telling forever finding new ways to compel viewers.

Archival documentaries seem to be experiencing a golden age right now – if we add to that market shifts – it looks like archive sources can gain a lot by connecting with international filmmakers who are looking for new ideas and fresh local perspectives on historical events. Is that your reading of the situation? And what opportunities do you believe are out there for them?

Topics that rely on the archive are hot and are features of Netflix’s list of originals and top-performing commissions. Celebrity bio-docs, portraits of great musical artists, True Crime involving unheard of cases: these are among the genres in great demand. The celebrity bio-docs are particularly high-budget projects, often in the $5-10 million range, because of the cost of clearing the archive and music.

Many mid-priced commissions will rely on resourceful directors and researchers to efficiently discover fresh archive sources.

My final Takeaway is that the SVOD leaders are going global, and they are being challenged by local platforms. Giants like Netflix and their local competitors will all need regional productions to win and retain subscribers. We can see this trend in dramatic series created in Turkey, Israel, Scandinavia, India and more territories. Soon there will be an growth spurt in spending on local documentaries, and archive-based History will be one of the preferred genres.

Peter Hamilton is a senior consultant who specializes in business development and marketing for the unscripted video industry. His clients have included NBC, A+E Networks, National Geographic Channels, Global Canal+ and BBC; the Rockefeller Foundation; and governments, notably Singapore’s IMDA. He has planned and helped launch dozens of channels, notably for Discovery International. Peter is the founder, editor & publisher of DocumentaryBusiness.com, giving weekly insider analysis to 20,000+ executives and producers worldwide. He served as an executive for CBS International in New York. His consulting firm has been based in New York since 1987. He served as an executive for CBS International in New York. His consulting firm has been based in New York since 1987.