Digital platforms race to distribute the top docs

In this new V.O.D. world of constant streaming in both short form and long form content documentary films as a growing niche genre continues to raise the bar of excellence and intrigue. And, Netflix, Amazon, and HBO are in the thick of it among top-rated distributors in such online streaming of the best documentaries today. In relatively the past 5 years and on, outside DVD sales, small movie theatres, and even the film festival circuit independent documentaries and docuseries have found a unique home among targeted markets and the genre’s most feverish enthusiasts. What the on-demand world of endless streaming made accessible for cheap at one’s comfort and leisure documentary filmmakers have elevated their game in a hyper-competitive arena for distributors bent on expanding their reach of new audiences. It is in this pathway that the value of documentary film watching has been a main staple for business models of the three top video-on-demand platforms in the U.S. Unknown documentary filmmakers, seasoned journalists and the genre’s top auteurs has made splashes of their work to reach the queues of the robust catalogs in Netflix, Amazon, and HBO.

Gone are the days where film directors and producers were incessant on getting their work in the best rated film festivals for a top bidder for distribution. Now while Toronto Film Festival, Sundance, Tribeca, and others still boast world premieres of the year’s most anticipated documentary films Netflix, Amazon, and HBO have opened up the pathways for young and old documentarians to make their mark with top-notch films. Moreover, with Netflix and Amazon as opposed to HBO that still relies on a TV broadcast model, popularity with documentaries has reached beyond a traditional market base. With no heavy roll-out of advertisement and marketing schemes to get audiences excited for what’s to come, a surprising add to viewers’ watch list has made for a great platform and easy-to-access approach in watching the next best documentary available. In addition to skirting away from film festivals as the best option Netflix, Amazon, and HBO still allow for great documentaries to reach theatrical distribution and the chance to snag top awards and nominations among the Oscars, Emmys, and Peabodys.

As great as they started, Netflix original documentaries have gotten better and better with time. Removed from the status and look of HBO-and-PBS-modeled documentaries Netflix has the freedom and audacity to be all over the place with their works. Virunga, set in the middle of the turbulence of central Africa can fall in the same category of content with Strong Island and 13th–both set in the midst of American race relations.  Errol Morris’ genre-bending, 6-part series, Wormwood, can naturally mix in with the rest of Netflix’s socially and politically relevant documentaries like Nobody Speak, Icarus, and Chasing Coral. What Netflix has been able to do with their documentary catalog–either with original projects or acquisitions–is open up the imagination of what documentaries can do for a culture of diverse watchers. Whether the focus is on government conspiracies, climate change, racism, or sports all of it has the educational and knowledge-based wherewithal to expand minds and possibilities of where docs can go and the impact it can make on communities. It is now become a commonplace refrain among Netflix’s millions of subscribers to talk over a cup of coffee or at the office break-room even to complete strangers: “Have you seen that documentary on Netflix?”

While still a primarily acquisition factory house Amazon Studios is slowly building up original content of great documentary film works. Documentaries like Human Flow and Author: The JT Leroy Story provide award-winning stuff readily available for watching in the online giant’s e-commerce reach. Amazon is molding itself as a powerhouse for film storytelling of social relevance and political expediency. This allows them to reach a particular emphasis among their targeted demo. Their distribution models allow for world premieres at varying film festivals in conjunction to an online film release in their portal. By doing so its audience members follow and galvanize behind the popularity of a given documentary title.

The stellar slate of HBO Documentary Films has been around longer than this era of mainstream online streaming. However, HBO has certainly continued to provide the kinds of top-notch documentaries in the V.O.D. experience. HBO put out two of Alex Gibney’s well-known works, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God and Going Clear and the always-provocative Spike Lee in his rare dabble in documentary filmmaking with 4 Little Girls and When The Leeves Broke. HBO’s tradition has been less experimental than Netflix’s model sticking with their historic formula of thorough storytelling and a firm, engrossing approach to raising awareness on a range of current topics. This is all thanks to the creative vision and leadership of Sheila Nevins, the head of HBO Documentary Films. 3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets, the bio pic, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, and the family-friendly, lovable piece, Heart of a Dog all play a solid role in providing today’s documentary film lovers with enough of an appetite to consume in the endless libraries of global online streaming. In other words, if a documentary enthusiast wants his or her share of watching the best of the best among recently-produced documentary titles and decides to go with HBO he or she will get their steady supply and satisfying fill.

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