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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.

Documentary Productions, Rare footage

Interview with Rich Remsberg, on his work for the latest Netflix docuseries ‘Bobby Kennedy for President’


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‘Bobby Kennedy for President’ is shaping up to be one of Netflix’s biggest documentary releases of 2018. The four-part series is not only a fascinating study of American politics during that period but also an intimate portrait of the complex Robert Kennedy. We had the chance to catch up with the series’ Archival Producer, Rich Remsberg, who is also a member of our international community of professional archive researchers. We spoke about the monumental archive research and production that made this series a true achievement in historical documentary.

How did you get involved in the project? There are plenty of films dedicated to the Kennedy’s, what made this one unique for you?

From the initial phone call with the producers, it was clear that this project would go deeper than the usual treatment of Robert Kennedy. For starters, the four-hour format allowed for the archival to breathe in a way that is not possible in shorter docs. The intelligence that the director and producers conveyed in talking about the story suggested that they understood RFK’s complexities and contradictions and that this story would be told with a good deal of dimension.

USA. New York City. 1966. Portrait of Robert KENNEDY in his apartment.

Considering the enormous volume of archives coming from multiple sources, how did you manage to organize the workflow?

Largely by relying on colleagues! During the research phase of the project, I was focused on finding material; our archival co-producer, Brian Becker, sorted and tracked it all. We used color coding and a couple of pretty straightforward spreadsheets on Google Docs, and Brian had a lot in his head. Our assistant editors ran a very tight ship, and our story producer, Elizabeth Wolff, had total recall for every aspect of RFK’s history.

For managing costs and licensing, I had a more complicated set of linked Excel spreadsheets to accommodate the four individual episodes and project totals. I came to see spreadsheets as something like crossword puzzles, where the game is to fill in every square.

What was the most challenging part of the process?

Without question, the most difficult part of the project was the effort to get footage from archives that would not grant access or made it difficult. There were several, with varying reasons and importance to the project, and they resolved in different ways. For political and politeness sake, I won’t go into details, but it was extremely stressful and we lost a lot of sleep over it. My hair was actually falling out in clumps.

Negotiating terms to meet our budget and ironing our contract language for so many different sources was also a challenge. Because we started ordering for the first hour before we knew what we were using in the fourth, it was especially awkward. I’m grateful to the archives who were willing to work with us on this.

Rich Remsberg in his home studio.
Rich Remsberg in his home studio.

What was your ‘eureka’ moment?

Hard to say, the production schedule didn’t leave much time for savoring in such things. Certainly, finding the footage of Marian Wright Edleman testifying before the Senate committee was an important moment. She speaks so unbelievably beautifully, and she laid out most of what we needed for the exposition of RFK’s southern poverty tours. It also alerted the team to her as a contemporary interview, and she added a lot to the film in that respect.

Another important moment was finding Howard K. Smith’s critical commentary on the Kennedys. There wasn’t much in the way of television news commentary in those early years – Smith and one other commentator were about it. I went through a lot of old TV listings to find references to the original aired programs, but the films were not in the ABC archives. There was a moment of panic, but then I managed to find surviving reels of enough of the programs at the University of Wisconsin. We were able to access from UW and clear with ABC.

Is there a specific piece of footage that you are the most proud of?

There are probably bigger moments to point to, but I liked a lot of the small details, mostly from local news archives, that helped paint a very human picture of Bobby – both the ways people connected with him and their deep dislike of him: Paul Newman’s terse comments from WTMJ, the woman with the excellent bouffant hairdo from Southern Methodist, a dozen different pieces from University of Georgia.

Bobby Kennedy for President

Did you use any international sources to bring fresh new perspectives to the story?

Only a British Pathé newsreel and a British interview that is now in an American archive. This was mostly a US-focused story. For the bits on RFK’s travel to Europe and South Africa, we mostly relied on coverage from the National Archives and the networks.

Could you tell us a bit more about your relationship with the director? How did the script evolve over time with the footage you found?

I worked with Dawn Porter, the director, and Laura Michalchyshyn, the Executive Producer, mostly on big-picture aspects of the project: tone, overall story, the nature of Bobby’s character, key elements, and so forth. Also on budget and legal concerns. For the more specific development, I worked closely with Elizabeth and Brian, considering how to fill story beats, figuring how best to use different pieces of archival, how the archival could build the story structure. As Elizabeth developed the script, there was a lot of her hitting me with requests and my finding the footage quickly to get it into the edit.

Everyone on the project favored using the best footage we could and figuring out how to clear and pay for it later. That made for some long days toward the end, but I think it paid off on the screen.

DawnPorter
Dawn Porter, the director of the series

Netflix is putting a strong focus on heavy archive-driven projects, proving that there is a real demand for the genre. What was the key to creating an immersive experience for a broad audience? How do you think the film appeals to a younger generation?

I think we’ve recently entered a golden age for archival documentaries. One of the best things about that is the platform allows for greater integrity of archival material. Rather than dropping bits of illustrative archival into one- to six-second slots during interviews, there is time for the archival to breathe, to create a more cohesive immersive environment, to convey subtlety, to suggest mood, to express more complex thoughts, to live with contradiction, to get a visceral feel for the atmosphere of the time. OJ was great about this, so was Wild Wild Country. We’re seeing it more and more. I’ve been saying that four hours is the new hour.

Another is that by virtue of being archival-driven it can be less mediated. Interviews can still offer some perspective and keep the story on track, but allowing the archival to carry the historical information leaves more space for the viewer to bring his or her own understanding to the story. I think the best films leave the audience with a complex understanding of the subject and room for different viewers to have different understanding.

I don’t know how many meetings I’ve been in where an executive producer says that young people just aren’t interested in history. I’ve never believed that to be true, and what I’ve found from talking to actual young people is that they expect the visuals to look good, and they don’t want the film to tell them what to think.

How do you think the movie resonates with the audience considering the current political and social developments in USA?

Hoo boy, this really merits a much longer rant, but in the interest of space, I’ll say that 1968 was a node in history where we might have taken a better path. It can be dangerous to play with counterfactual what-ifs, but it’s hard not to entertain at least a thought of that road not taken. I don’t harbor a simple belief that Bobby would have taken us into a beautiful sunlight-bathed world of compassion and justice, but he was an extremely powerful voice – arguably the best voice – for growing in a more mature way as a country, in understanding what it means to be an American citizen.

But here we are, a half century later, with the path taken, a selfish decline to the end of empire. At the same time, there are also other forces at work, and it’s right to ask where in that Bobby’s spirit dwells. It can certainly be found in much of the political resistence, of course, and I think it can be found in our individual sense of decency – not only in committed activists or people who even identify as especially political, just regular people whose conscience says, No that’s not okay; I recognize a different responsibility, and I feel something kinder.

We were never able to fit it into the film, but we tried working with the Dion song, “Abraham, Martin, and John.” It’s a romantic piece that misconceives the killing of Lincoln, JFK, King, and RFK. The part that still gives me chills, though, is the bridge where he asks the simple questions, “Didn’t you love the things they stood for? Didn’t they try to find some good in you and me?”


Rich Remsberg is part of Archive Valley’s community which boasts 500+ talented archive researchers in over 60 countries. If your production needs an archival researcher/producer, you can sign up and find the right person for the job in just a couple of easy steps.