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A funny thing happened over the past decade in the short subject documentary space: It became competitive.
Where before a small number of players dominated the category, now it is extraordinarily diverse, as filmmakers, streaming services, TV channels and traditional media companies vie to get their projects in front of viewers and garner awards glory.
“The short documentary race has sort of become a different thing than it was 10 years ago, when HBO was really the biggest player. And now everyone sees it as an opportunity,” says Christine Kecher, the senior commissioning editor for Op-Docs at The New York Times.
“HBO was sort of the 500-pound gorilla; they won every year, and they were the only people that would campaign for a shortform Oscar,” adds Kathleen Lingo, editorial director for film and TV at the Times.
What changed? Technology, of course, with cameras and equipment more accessible than they have ever been and the means to distribute those documentaries more varied.
“There has been some democratization in the filmmaking world, especially in recent years, because of the accessibility and affordability of editing software and high-quality cameras,” says Soo-Jeong Kang, executive director of programming and development for The New Yorker. “Therefore, those who have always dreamed of making a documentary now have this opportunity and reasonable access to the tools. That is huge, that is democratization, and that is why there are so many documentaries out there. I also think this has created a paradigm shift, and the result is that the filmmakers and their subject matters are more diverse than ever before, and the documentaries that are pitched reflect that change.”
And with that technological change, some giants of traditional journalism, including the Times, New Yorker and the Los Angeles Times, among others, are beginning to leverage their resources and reach to commission, acquire and distribute short documentaries.
Docs, like the Times‘ The Queen of Basketball or The New Yorker‘s A Broken House, live on the websites of these news organizations and are available to viewers around the world. Many are also distributed on other platforms like YouTube and Facebook, taking advantage of the existing subscriber base and followers of the news organizations.
“Video is a very powerful medium, and right now this is how many people get their information about the world. Traditional media companies are increasingly recognizing this as both a way to reach new audiences and as a profound storytelling platform,” Kang says. “I think part of it is that the tradition of documentaries is rooted in journalism. It comes naturally to these journalistic organizations, to lean on that nonfiction storytelling.”
The result is a multifaceted approach, with news organizations commissioning projects, taking pitches or acquiring completed or in-progress films to bolster their documentary libraries. They also are using their own in-house reporters and video teams to develop content, such as The New Yorker‘s The Andrew Yang Show, which features behind-the-scenes access to the candidate through his presidential and New York City mayoral campaigns, or the Times‘ Day of Rage, which examines the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.
For filmmakers, that built-in distribution and support (“We do a pretty vigorous fact-checking process, so that generally makes the film stronger in terms of giving the filmmakers confidence in publishing them,” Kecher says), combined with an awards-season push, can be an appealing proposition.
But these films also are relationship and business builders, with the potential to forge deeper ties between filmmakers and news brands, beyond short docs.
“For news organizations, I feel like short documentaries are a great gateway into doing different types of content. It is something news-adjacent, journalism-adjacent, but also working with directors, telling more creative, character-driven stories,” Lingo says. “This explosion of short docs that you see is an early warning sign that a news organization might have bigger ambitions. They probably already do.”
The shorts also can serve as an extension of the editorial brand, allowing for complex storytelling that complements the rest of the journalism or tells a story visually that can’t be done through text alone.
“We find that stories are interesting when they challenge conventional wisdom, are produced with artistry and explore interests in sociology and psychology as deeper studies on what people do to each other and why,” Kang says, specifically citing the films Joychild and Joe Buffalo. “They should have a clear central theme with a revealing backstory.”
And those ambitions can carry over to the filmmakers they are working with. Lingo says that some of the filmmakers the Times is collaborating with on feature-length documentaries and TV series are people the news organization first met through Op-Docs, “so there is a really organic connection between Op-Docs and these bigger projects we are doing.”
But acquiring and releasing the documentaries is only part of the battle. Recognition from peers and critics still matters, and that has led media companies in the doc space to invest in awards, using the platform of shows like the Oscars to boost their own documentary brands.
“Certainly awards have helped the profile, and anyone who wants to stay in the game, with the proliferation of platforms and the number of places for short docs to live, you really have to think about awards and how that may attract filmmakers or boost filmmakers’ careers,” Kecher says.
But there’s also a business imperative: As more media consumption shifts to streaming video, and as more advertisers seek to buy space on video, the value in short documentary fare for a brand can transcend prestige and enter the realm of a meaningful revenue stream.
“Google sponsored a series of holiday-themed videos last year,” Kang says. “I think the critical acclaim — both in film and journalism circles — and the power of these films’ messages is a big part of the appeal for our advertising partners.”
This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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