Emerging platforms such as Netflix, Disney+, HBO Max, and Apple TV+ are not simply major documentary distributors, but have recently made the aggressive move into production. Conjoining the technological inventions and creative labor of Silicon Valley and Hollywood, these platforms are contributing to new production trends and heightening the visibility of documentary within public life. This paper will address the implications of these shifts within the U.S. media landscape.
On the one hand, the investment of these studios in documentary has meant expanding the demographic for nonfiction and opportunities for projects that have had a difficult time finding a home in the theatrical market or broadcast and cable television. On the other hand, major deals with these companies tend to be geared towards celebrity producers (Oprah/Apple, Obamas/Netflix, Harry-Markle/Netflix) and star auteurs. At the same, time, the rise of these commercial platforms and their search for maximum eyeballs has meant a narrowing of the documentary form (over-reliance on compelling characters, constant exposition, fast editing). This paper analyzes the influence of these major streamers on U.S. political culture and what it means for filmmakers struggling to make socially engaged projects.
Joshua Glick is the Isabelle Peregrin Assistant Professor of English, Film, and Media Studies at Hendrix College. He is the author of Los Angeles Documentary and the Production of Public History (UC Press, 2018) and is currently co-editing the Oxford Handbook of Documentary with Patricia Aufderheide.
Community documentary has flourished in recent years. As both a way to cut through the digital deluge of disinformation and advocate for marginalized groups, documentary serves a strategic purpose during this historical moment. Operating at a local level and positioning themselves against the big corporate streamers, community documentarians are not only innovating with new approaches to form and style, but exploring new ways to circulate and exhibit their work. This essay will explore how documentarians are using digital platforms and forging new partnerships with organizations in order to advance social movements including Black Lives Matter, Me Too, and climate justice.
Just as filmmakers are finding ways to self-distribute, so, too, are they collaborating with local newspapers, PBS stations, museums, and media outlets (such as Field of Vision) to engage with overlapping publics. Importantly, this essay will examine practices of collective meaning-making beyond the screen itself. The essay’s conclusion will gesture towards how the pandemic continues to shape the relationship between online and on-site movement organizing.
Angela J. Aguayo is Associate Professor in the Department of Media and Cinema Studies and Dean’s Fellow in the College of Media at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She is a scholar-media artist specializing in participatory and engaged cinema. Her most recent book, Documentary Resistance: Social Change and Participatory Media (Oxford University Press, 2019) investigates the political impact and democratic possibilities of engaged production practice. Aguayo is an award-winning writer, director, and producer of documentary shorts utilized in community engagement campaigns, screening at festivals and museums around the world.
The 2010s have been an extremely turbulent time for media distribution. The rise of streaming behemoths has not necessarily resulted in a sweeping democratization of access, however, but a concentration of power that rivals the classical studio system’s vertical integration. One particularly pernicious trend has been the end of output deals between streamers and small distributors, including those that boast a strong documentary lineup or even specialize in documentary. Boxed out by Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, distributors such as Zeitgeist Films, Grasshopper Films, and Oscilloscope Laboratories have a competitive disadvantage in acquiring films, since they have no guaranteed streaming platform. To combat this disadvantage, small independent distributors have innovated in a variety of ways; for example, they have launched their own streaming platforms and, spurred by the pandemic, collaborated with arthouse cinemas to create virtual theaters.
Websites such as OVID.tv and Projectr.tv have robust catalogs of documentaries and curated lineups of films, while the virtual theaters highlight new and rereleased documentary films and arthouse films. Importantly, these outlets often carry documentaries that are either deemed too “political,” or formally experimental for commercial streamers. In turn, these films tend to play to educational environments, the cinephile audience, or as part of advocacy campaigns. This new constellation of distribution strategies lights a productive path forward in a landscape dominated by streaming behemoths.
Nora Stone is Visiting Instructor of media production at the University of Alabama and holds a PhD in Communication Arts from University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her first book project is a history of the commercialization of documentary films, 1960 to the present. Her research has appeared in Media Industries Journal, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She is also an active filmmaker, with her recent short films having played at the Maryland Film Festival, among others. She produced and art-directed the independent feature film A Dim Valley, being released in theaters in 2021.
Patricia Aufderheide is University Professor of Communication Studies at American University. She founded the School’s Center for Media & Social Impact, where she continues as Senior Research Fellow. Her books include Reclaiming Fair Use: How to Put Balance Back in Copyright (University of Chicago), with Peter Jaszi; Documentary: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford), The Daily Planet (University of Minnesota Press), and Communications Policy in the Public Interest (Guilford Press). She received the career achievement award from the International Digital Media and Arts Association and the Scholarship and Preservation Award from the International Documentary Association.