The Year of the Documentary: How Netflix Became the Hub of the World’s Best Factual Production

Last year, all eyes turned to Netflix when the international streaming site garnered international recognition after taking home its first Oscar and Bafta award. The wins took the world by surprise, especially considering they were not for any of Netflix’s popular comedy or drama shows. Instead, they were awarded for two documentaries: a film about the Syrian volunteer rescue group known as The White Helmets, and 13th, a political film that sheds light on racism in the US criminal justice system. The streaming site showed that it was more than the binge-watching and “netflix and chill” it’s known and loved for through innovative, illuminating and quality factual viewing content.

What does Netflix owe its success to? Given the increasingly relevant discussion on the general public’s waning attention spans and the oft-discussed negative influence TV and the Internet are said to have on our lives, it’s startling that demand for thoughtful analysis and factual production is on the rise. Viewers are not simply craving the visual equivalent of junk food and “fake news”, but are nourishing their minds with remarkable and enlightening content.

The increase in documentary production comes down in large part to finances. Filming a long, in-depth, factual piece requires a significant investment of time and money. Large streaming sites like Netflix or Amazon Prime have deep pockets and can afford to produce documentaries. Their large networks of production companies and marketing knowledge also contribute to their successful reception.

In addition, their streaming model and the fact users subscribe to the site has another benefit: films can be tailored to the viewers without limitations from traditional TV scheduling restrictions. Most broadcasters operate by planning their schedule, adapting time-slots to maximize viewership and selling more advertising spots. In contrast, Netflix already has its community of subscribers, and so traditional broadcasters’ advertising model is not really relevant. All these factors combined result in a liberated production field where the emphasis can be placed on high-quality, often unique, and sometimes downright unusual, series and films.

The customer is truly at the forefront of the decision-making process. Akin to Spotify, the numbers speak for themselves. With access to so much data on subscribers’ activities on the site, it’s no coincidence that increasingly relevant content is being created. This is evident by the rise of true-crime series and documentaries. The 10-part series Making a Murderer became a near-overnight success in late 2015, with viewers captivated by the shocking and heartbreaking story of Steven Avery’s judicial ordeal. Ever since this whirlwind success, new true-crime shows and films have continued to pop up on the site, from an exploration of the infamous Amanda Knox trial to The Keepers, which looks at the decades-old murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik in Baltimore. Most recently, Netflix announced two new true-crime documentary series including Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist and more episodes as part of the critically-acclaimed series, The Staircase.

Aside from true-crime shows, the streaming site has produced some outstanding biopics. Joan Didion looks at the life of this incredible journalist, essayist and fashion muse whose reporting encaptured the often chaotic changes to the US in the 60s and 70s. Last year, in the run up to her 2017 Super Bowl halftime show and the release of her fifth album, the site published a chronicle of the singer Lady Gaga’s preparation for the iconic performance, Gaga: Five Foot Two. Stories of sporting stars and icons are also among some of the site’s most popular films. Last Chance U follows an inspirational football program at a Mississippi community college, and KidPoker looks at the life of the phenomenal poker champion Daniel Negreanu.

Netflix’s hugely entertaining, stimulating and thrilling documentaries all have one thing in common: they’re all completely gripping, and will leave you feeling informed yet hungry for more. With unbelievable twists and turns that will leave you breathless, these factual series and documentaries are just as dramatic as some of the site’s fictional content. If you’re in the mood for political commentary, an environmental exposé, historical analysis or the inside-look at the lives of the rich and famous, log on and browse through the expansive and varied archive. You won’t be disappointed.

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