One thing is clear from Sundance 2020: the current market for documentary and quality unscripted projects is extremely strong. Among several eye-catching deals, the $10m paid by Apple to acquire the documentary “Boys State” matched the sum paid by Netflix to acquire “Knock Down the House” in 2019. Concurrently, premium cable outlets and SVOD platforms ranging from HBO, Netflix, Amazon and Hulu to new players HBO Max (scheduled to launch in May 2020), Peacock (July) and Quibi (April) are commissioning a diverse range of quality documentaries, either as one-off pictures or episodic documentary series such as “Cheer,” “McMillions,” “All or Nothing” and “Making a Murderer.”
In the context of this new exciting marketplace, some of the traditional rules have changed. What do producers need to know?
- Contemplate Flexible Formats: Given the rise of episodic content, and taking into consideration the massive amount of footage that documentary filmmakers often create, it is no surprise that there have been several examples of projects that were originally planned as one-off documentary films being reformatted into two-part documentaries or even multi-episode series. Moreover, several projects that were planned as feature documentaries have been reformatted into multiple episodes of ten minutes in order to premiere on Quibi, while other documentary projects have been developed in tandem with a tie-in series of podcasts (for instance, the “McMillions” podcast promises to allow listeners to ‘go deeper inside the story’).
Accordingly, filmmakers should try to structure their deals and negotiate their paperwork in a manner that permits some flexibility with respect to the final form of the project. It is best not to be put in the position of having to determine whether a release that was signed with respect to a “documentary motion picture” would apply to an entire episodic series, especially if the subject at hand is very high level or somewhat tricky (such a subject who withdraws cooperation with the film during the course of production).
- Make Room for Buyers: Traditionally, documentary filmmakers have often adhered to the mantra that “credits are free” when according individual credits and company credits to financiers and collaborators (meaning, that filmmakers will often offer an enhanced credit in lieu of a financial entitlement). However, the new group of premium buyers strongly disfavor logos and company credits, in part because their business is predicated on keeping viewers engaged, and they don’t want people to be discouraged by long opening credits. Accordingly, it is not uncommon to see only one company logo at the top of the production – that of the platform. Filmmakers should bear this in mind, and may want to build in contractual language stipulating that all credits are “subject to network, distributor or other licensee approval” (which has been commonplace in television for some time). Likewise, most of the newer platforms do not approve of according any kind of paid advertising credit to third parties (unless it’s a very high level celebrity-like figure), so filmmakers need to be cautious when agreeing to any such obligations.
- Where’s My Backend?: Most documentary filmmakers (and many documentary financiers) would agree that nobody is in docs for the money. With that said, there have been multiple examples of extremely successful documentaries over the past twenty years that have generated profits for filmmakers and financiers. Under the new structure, whereby the conglomerates that own most of the platforms and outlets are seeking to acquire all rights and build their IP libraries, there is usually one “buyout” payment and no backend profit participation, while other forms of “upside” such as box office bonuses are also effectively rendered moot. Filmmakers need to bear this in mind, and may need to revise their financial structures to account for this (in consultation with experienced counsel, of course).
- Remakes, Remakes, Remakes: The dirty secret of documentary acquisitions is that, at least some of the time, buyers are acquiring the documentaries in order to secure the remake and other derivative rights. The right unscripted material can be fodder for a highly successful scripted series or series of scripted motion pictures – or can be used as the basis for an unscripted series spinoff format. Indeed, circumstances have sometimes arisen where potential buyers have withdrawn their interest in a documentary when it became apparent that remake rights were not available.
Accordingly, filmmakers should pay attention to remake and derivative rights when putting together their projects. They may wish to seek to acquire life rights – or an option to acquire life rights – from subjects, although this is not always possible. They may want to consider how their collaborators and financiers participate in derivatives, if at all. And when it comes time to sell the project, filmmakers should be cognizant of the potential value of derivative rights to certain types of projects. Ultimately, for documentary filmmakers the documentary should come first – but selling remake rights can be a good way to help finance the next doc!