the industry

Reality Check

The boom — or glut — in streaming documentaries has sparked a reckoning among filmmakers and their subjects.

Photo: NEON (Beauty), Netflix (Tinder, Tiger, Dahmer, Harry, Cheer, Fyre, Icarus), Apple TV+ (Eilish, Magic), Searchlight (Soul)
Photo: NEON (Beauty), Netflix (Tinder, Tiger, Dahmer, Harry, Cheer, Fyre, Icarus), Apple TV+ (Eilish, Magic), Searchlight (Soul)

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When Dan Cogan co-founded Impact Partners in 2007 with the goal of making good documentaries that also did good for the world, it was the beginning of what he and others now look back on as the golden age of the form. After decades of relegation to art houses and public television, films like An Inconvenient Truth, Super Size Me, and anything by Michael Moore were suddenly finding an audience and making money. The returns were modest by Hollywood standards (Fahrenheit 9/11 is the highest-grossing documentary of all time and only the 589th-highest-grossing movie), but so were the costs (James Cameron blew through Moore’s $6 million budget in five minutes of Avatar: The Way of Water). When streaming began its Hollywood takeover in the 2010s, documentaries presented themselves as a low-cost way to burnish a reputation. Netflix won its first three Oscars for documentaries, including Icarus, a 2017 investigation into the Russian sports-doping scheme, which was produced by Cogan.

But as Netflix and other streamers battled for market share, documentaries themselves began to change. The streamers had enough data to know what people liked — murders, celebrities, episodes that end with a cliffhanger — and by 2020, when Netflix was releasing a new documentary or docuseries every week, the streamers were competing less for awards than for the next true-crime hit. Between 2018 and 2021, demand for documentaries on streaming services more than doubled, and films that once had hoped to eke out a couple of million bucks at the box office were now selling to streamers for $10 million, or $15 million, or $20 million.

A genre that had always existed in part to inform and enlighten was now primarily a commercial product. That meant documentarians had more work, which was nice, but the projects often came with shorter deadlines and notes from streamers pushing directors to juice opening sequences with a little extra tension, as if these were spy thrillers that could be punched up rather than representations of real life. A decade after journalism suffered through its own period of disruption, its onscreen cousin entered a kind of clickbait era of its own: Make it fast, see what works, repeat. “People talk about the golden age of documentary, and it was exciting to be a part of that,” Cogan told me recently. “It is also true that we left that age three or four years ago and we now live in the corporate age of documentary.” This past May, A24 added Documentary to its line of film-genre scented candles, alongside Horror and Rom-Com. (The fragrance notes: “university library archives, weathered newspaper clippings, a timeline of the events, found footage.”)

In 2019, Cogan and his wife, Liz Garbus, an Oscar-nominated documentary director, started a new company called Story Syndicate with the goal, this time, of finding a way to continue making thoughtful films while meeting the streamers’ voracious appetite for content. That meant ramping up. In the three and a half years since its launch, Garbus has produced or executive-produced 21 films and series — more than she did in the preceding decade. The company now has dozens of full-time employees and more than 200 freelancers. In December, Story Syndicate released one of the most-watched documentaries ever: Harry & Meghan.

Cogan and many of the more than 80 documentarians I spoke to about the state of their industry were frank about both the opportunities and the potential drawbacks of the new era. “Once it became clear documentaries could sell for $20 million or you could get a $5 million budget, all the buyers wanted them to be at that level,” Cogan said. “The smaller films, the more visionary films that were exciting to all of us — those became the films that people were less interested in.” He was reminded of the period in the 1990s, after Pulp Fiction, when Hollywood realized there was money to be made in indie film; this was a good thing, but it also produced “a mind trick,” as Cogan put it. “Once something looks commercial, that’s all people want it to be.” When I put this assessment to a former Netflix executive, they didn’t dispute it. “It’s not enough to do something that a few million people might really love when you’re trying to reach 25 million people or 50 million people,” they said. “A lot of documentaries — I would say the majority of documentaries — don’t meet that bar.”

All this has left the documentary world suffering an identity crisis. What even is a documentary anymore? There is more money than ever, but it has come with expectations that didn’t exist when the industry was closer in ethics and taste to public broadcasting than to Hollywood. The people agreeing to tell their stories are now asking for control, or cash, leaving documentarians navigating a sense of responsibility (or fealty) toward their subjects; the demands of the algorithm; and their desire to make great work. For the audience, it has become almost impossible to sort works of art or journalism from glorified reality TV or public-relations exercises: An HBO Max subscriber can scroll through the documentaries tab and find two movies about Lizzo that she herself executive-produced, 41 films and series described as true crime, an Oscar-nominated movie about Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, and Wahl Street, “a glimpse into global star Mark Wahlberg’s life as he juggles the demands of his personal and professional worlds and hustles to grow his expanding business empire.” Hollywood is now showing signs of retrenching. With budgets shrinking, filmmakers worry the problems of the doc boom could be exacerbated by a doc bust, and that the old-fashioned idea that documentaries could be trusted to tell honest, complicated stories may go down with it.

From left: Subjects then and now: Margie Ratliff in The Staircase (2004). Photo: Netflix (Staircase)And Subject (2022). Photo: Lady & Bird Films (Subject)
From top: Subjects then and now: Margie Ratliff in The Staircase (2004). Photo: Netflix (Staircase)And Subject (2022). Photo: Lady & Bird Films (Subje... From top: Subjects then and now: Margie Ratliff in The Staircase (2004). Photo: Netflix (Staircase)And Subject (2022). Photo: Lady & Bird Films (Subject)

In 2018, as the corporate age began, an experienced director who asked that I not use his name — the doc world loves nondisclosure agreements — was hired to make an hour-long episode of a true-crime series for Netflix. It was his first commission for the streamer, and he hoped the project would shed light on a decades-old murder. But as the director began working, he found the production company making the series had expectations and a timeline that didn’t seem conducive to handling such a sensitive story. For starters, he was given just over two weeks to shoot and only ten weeks to edit. The Alliance of Documentary Editors recommends a month of editing for every ten minutes of run time; The Jinx and Making a Murderer, the true-crime series that helped kick off the documentary boom in 2015, had each taken years to make.

Before filming began, the production company also sent the director a six-page “Story Structure Template,” complete with breakdowns for what it wanted to happen at specific moments. “Ten percent of the way into your documentary, your hero must be presented with an opportunity,” the template read. Instead of citing other documentaries as reference points, it recommended mimicking Erin Brockovich and Gladiator. “For the next 15 percent of the story, your hero will react to the new situation,” it said, pointing to the moment when “Maximus is asked by the dying Emperor to take control of Rome and give it back to the people, in spite of the ambition of his son Commodus.”

Documentary-making has never been ethically pure or entirely subjective. (“I’m working on a project that is the kind of documentary where you do six takes of the person putting a boat in the water to get the right one,” one editor told me.) Every shot and every cut is a choice, and even its practitioners have never agreed on whether the medium is closer to journalism or to cinema. One of the earliest popular documentaries, Robert Flaherty’s 1922 film, Nanook of the North, was about a man supposedly living in the Canadian tundra, untouched by the wider world — and it was full of lies. Nanook’s real name was Allakariallak. His wife in the film wasn’t his wife. (She was, according to another local, one of Flaherty’s multiple wives.) Allakariallak hunted with a gun, but that didn’t fit the story Flaherty wanted to tell, so the director asked him to use a harpoon. In defense of his methods, Flaherty said, “One often has to distort a thing in order to catch its true spirit.”

In 2009, researchers at American University published Honest Truths, a report on the industry, in which a nature documentarian admitted to breaking a rabbit’s leg to ensure he got a shot of a predator capturing its prey; another filmmaker couldn’t find home movies of a family featured in a historical film and simply went to a flea market, bought some Super 8 footage of a random family from the same era, and used that instead. The Jinx features the greatest documentary ending of all time — Robert Durst apparently confessing by asking himself “What the hell did I do?” on a hot mic before responding, “Killed them all, of course” — but the two lines were later revealed to have been transposed in an effort to add drama to the climax, an editing technique common enough to have its own name: Frankenbiting.

The streaming era introduced new pressure points into the filmmaking process. There might now be a production company, with a streamer — and an algorithm — looking over its shoulder, asking the director to produce a moment “around 75% of the way into the story” when “something must happen to your hero that makes it seem to the audience that all is lost.” (Think: “Most of the plaintiffs withdraw due to the bungled efforts of the new lawyers, and George leaves Erin.”) Many of the best films of the golden age were made by cobbling together grant money over years while following subjects without a firm sense of where the story was going. But the streamers were now commissioning more films and series upfront, which left less room for experimentation: Selling a film often required a treatment with story beats laid out, a pitch deck with headshots for your cast, and, ideally, a sizzle reel. If you didn’t know exactly how your story would unfold, the response was often “Come back to us when you know what happens.”

For some filmmakers, the pressure to deliver certain types of stories in a timely manner was limiting the scope of what their films might be. Some editors say they no longer even have time to watch all the footage they have. Producers with more experience in scripted and reality TV were getting into docs, hoping to cash in on the boom and perhaps win an award, but also bringing in different ethics and workflows. “I have been told more and more often, and I think this is because producers are coming from reality TV, that ‘we need a scene where X happens,’” one cinematographer told me. “When you get more money, you want more of a guarantee that you’re gonna get the thing.” Several documentarians told me they had grown wary of working with any production company from Los Angeles.

Plenty of thoughtful, interesting, and moving documentaries are still being made. (To name one: All That Breathes, a lovely Oscar nominee about two brothers in India who rescue injured birds, will soon be on HBO Max.) But the streaming rush primarily directed resources toward safe bets that could be delivered quickly. Streamers began commissioning docs as companion pieces to their fictional shows; at Netflix, they call this the “Bundy bump” in reference to the company’s 2019 pairing of a scripted movie and a documentary about serial killer Ted Bundy, a tactic it repeated last year with Jeffrey Dahmer. Content hours were king, and it was easier to get money for a six-part series than for a taut feature, even if the story might be better served by a shorter run time. If a series worked, like Tiger King, it could get renewed to continue the story. According to a person who worked on The Jinx, director Andrew Jarecki is currently working on a sequel.

One of the most robust and competitive parts of the doc world was now the race to tell whatever viral story hit the news: There are half a dozen documentaries about the GameStop meme-stock saga alone. More than one producer described the rush to secure exclusive access to people involved in these stories as an “arms race,” with different productions locking up sources with contracts that blocked them from talking to other documentarians. Sam Black, a documentary filmmaker, told me he had dealt with sources who had signed exclusive agreements while working on projects ranging from the GameStop story to Jamal Khashoggi’s killing. “I kept calling people who were not particularly well known, and they had already been offered an exclusive contract,” Black said. “Should journalists be walling off people who are of public interest from other journalists?”

The most popular — and often most formulaic — genre of all was true crime. “I hear from other filmmakers who say, ‘Everybody wants The Jinx,’” Marc Smerling, who produced the series, told me. “They’re trying to edit the story in a way to come up with a twist, but you have to accept the story for what it is.” (Smerling, who has worked in both documentaries and podcasts, says the problems are the same in audio but “the money is not so large, so the pressure is less.”) Now that true crime is a firmly commercial enterprise, righting a wrong has become less important than delivering a show with enough intrigue to carry multiple episodes: There is so much new content about old serial killers that a Cosmopolitan article can credibly recommend “7 Ted Bundy Documentaries Every Real True-Crime Fan Needs to Watch.” The productions could be thoughtful, but that wasn’t necessarily the streamers’ first priority. A producer told me he had hoped to give his true-crime series a subtle title, something without the word murder in it; the streamer sent back a list of names that all had the word murder in them. One award-winning investigative filmmaker told me she gets regular notes from her agent — documentary directors didn’t used to have agents — about what streamers are looking for, and they weren’t the kinds of films she was used to making. “I’m getting, ‘Did anybody murder your sister, and do you want to make a film about that?’” she said.

From left: Subjects then and now: Arthur Agee in Hoop Dreams (1994). Photo: Fine Line Features (Hoop)And in Subject (2022). Photo: Lady & Bird Films (Subject)
From top: Subjects then and now: Arthur Agee in Hoop Dreams (1994). Photo: Fine Line Features (Hoop)And in Subject (2022). Photo: Lady & Bird Films (S... From top: Subjects then and now: Arthur Agee in Hoop Dreams (1994). Photo: Fine Line Features (Hoop)And in Subject (2022). Photo: Lady & Bird Films (Subject)

As the streaming boom took off, a number of companies tried to crack the problem of how to make good documentaries at the speed and scale demanded by streamers. Besides Story Syndicate, there was Concordia Studio, which Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) opened in 2020 with funding from Laurene Powell Jobs. The most prominent player in the field is Jigsaw, which was founded by Oscar winner Alex Gibney before the streaming boom but has since expanded rapidly to meet it. The documentary world embraced these companies cautiously. Although they were trying to create more stability in a notoriously project-to-project industry — production companies take a cut of every film’s budget (typically 10 percent), which helps cover overhead to keep the lights on — they were sucking up a disproportionate amount of available resources and had begun to feel a bit like factories. In 2021, freelancers at Jigsaw decided to form a union to improve their low pay and working conditions that no one felt were leading to better documentaries. The companies still made good work — Jigsaw landed Emmy nominations in 2019 and 2020, and Concordia won an Oscar last year with the feature Summer of Soul — but keeping up the pace had been difficult. In an interview last year with The Hollywood Reporter, Gibney admitted that Jigsaw was trying to recalibrate how it worked, which he said might mean being “prepared to do it for less money.” Gibney told me, “If you’re not careful, you’ll end up serving the machine instead of serving the story.”

In November, I visited the Los Angeles headquarters of XTR, a documentary studio founded by Bryn Mooser in 2019. Mooser first got into the genre a decade ago when he started a company called RYOT, which made documentaries, branded content, and augmented-reality projects. He sold RYOT to Verizon, and when he decided to start XTR, he described it as an attempt to build “the A24 for documentaries” — cool docs, cool people, cool parties. (The Hollywood Reporter called XTR’s festival parties “intimidatingly hip.”) Mooser is a charismatic pitchman with connections all over Hollywood — a producer described him to me as “the closest thing to a celebrity while still being a civilian” — and he told me the company’s new $8 million, 35,000-square-foot studio space in Echo Park, complete with editing suites, a soundstage, and a neon sign with the company’s logo, would become “a physical center of the documentary universe.” “In the middle of the night, I had this nightmare where I saw a headline: A24 BUYS THIS BUILDING,” Mooser said. “I woke up in a cold sweat and said, ‘We have to buy this.’” Given that most documentaries aren’t shot on a soundstage, it could also become, as others in the industry suggested to me, a physical manifestation of how overbuilt the documentary world has become.

As we took a tour of the Vice-like studio — “Shane’s an old friend” — Mooser told me he had started XTR after identifying what he saw as an opportunity. The streamers were growing, and without more attention to the business model, the small production companies trying to make smart, interesting films were going to get crushed. “These companies were built by documentary filmmakers who are either uninterested in scaling, or unable to scale, or unwilling,” he said. XTR was eager to scale — Mooser counts Elon Musk as “a dear friend and mentor” — and its investors were different from the grant-makers and foundations that have traditionally funded the industry: former AOL CEO Tim Armstrong; Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia; Jared Kushner’s brother, Josh; Norman Lear’s wife; the actor David Arquette; and Tony Hsieh, the Zappos CEO, who invested $17.5 million in XTR before his death. Mooser said the company had already financed or co-financed more than 90 projects.

Mooser believed that, to survive, documentary companies had to learn how to play Hollywood’s game. “If we don’t all try to build correctly in this moment, we’ll all get forced to make Fuccboi Island,” he said. But he also believed avoiding that outcome would require learning a few things from Fuccboi Island — namely, that there’s something to be said for reality-TV productions that had discipline and delivered on time and on budget. “The notion that all documentaries need to take years and years and cost all this money to make is an old convention,” Mooser said. XTR had longer-lead projects, but it was also pushing documentarians to finish their films in a year or less. Justin Lacob, XTR’s head of development, told me the company had just finished making an hour-long documentary “in under ten weeks, from ideation, to sale, to air.” (The film, about the history of witchcraft, was meant to provide a Bundy bump for AMC’s Anne Rice series Mayfair Witches.) Lacob also boasted that after the collapse of FTX, Sam Bankman-Fried’s crypto exchange, XTR was “the first team out of the gate with a press release” announcing its intention to document the saga with a crew on the ground in the Bahamas. Vice issued its own press release a few hours later. Both companies say they may have their films out by the spring.

By the time we met, Mooser was already shifting his pitch like a proper start-up founder. Building “the A24 of documentaries” was too small; he was building “what a true entertainment studio looks like now,” which meant not only the hip studio space but a streaming channel called Documentary+. The service would in theory allow XTR to circumvent the streamers and distribute films on its own. But it wasn’t yet clear whether the company’s attempts at disruption could meaningfully alter the inherent challenges of finding, telling, and selling great stories. In 2021, Mooser told Deadline that XTR had built an algorithm called Rachael (named for the replicant from Blade Runner), which he described as “a Zeitgeist machine” that would ingest social-media chatter and “real-time data” on what streamers were buying to give XTR an edge in finding promising projects. When I asked Mooser what insights XTR had gleaned from Rachael, he fumbled for an answer, then said the only specific thing that came to mind was that XTR had learned people were perpetually interested in tornadoes.

XTR’s biggest financial success thus far has been They Call Me Magic, a docuseries about Magic Johnson it produced last year for Apple TV+. Alongside true crime, celebrities have become the most reliable source of documentary gold for streamers, who have paid record-setting prices — a reported $20 million for Beyoncé, $25 million for Billie Eilish, and $30 million for Elton John — for the privilege of airing series often made in association with the production company or management teams of the celebrities themselves. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s company, Archewell, was listed alongside Story Syndicate on Harry & Meghan. Other documentarians I spoke to felt it was a surprising project for Garbus and Cogan, both of whom had built reputations for independent, often investigative projects. (Garbus’s first Oscar nomination was for a film about Angola, the notorious Louisiana prison.) Garbus and Cogan have both declined to elaborate on the Harry & Meghan arrangement beyond describing it as a “collaboration,” and Cogan told me the series fit Story Syndicate’s ethos. “It’s about two people who folks all over the world are interested in and raises important issues about colonialism, race, bullying, social media, and celebrity,” he said. But to others in the industry, it appeared to be a doc-world version of the narrative auteur’s bargain — a period drama for me, a Marvel movie for them. Now that Garbus and Cogan and others were running production companies, they also had to ensure they made payroll. “If you’re gonna run a business, you can’t not do that one,” another development executive said of Harry & Meghan.

It was hard to blame celebrities who had lived their lives under scrutiny for taking advantage of a system that gave them control and a paycheck, but the arrangement didn’t necessarily lead to more illuminating films. “Once the artist is involved and management is involved, you don’t always get an authentic story,” said Joseph Patel, who produced Summer of Soul. “What’s wrong with wanting to spend time in Billie Eilish’s world? What’s wrong with wanting to watch Elton John? Nothing. But it’s not really a documentary. It’s entertainment.”

But it wasn’t clear that celebrities were doing themselves any favors by insisting on making what amounted to infomercials. Britney Spears claimed to be “embarrassed” by a Hulu documentary produced by the New York Times about her conservatorship, but the film unquestionably helped draw attention to the injustice and fueled the movement to overturn it. Some of the most notable celebrity documentaries were successful because the famous people had given up control.

Midway through his 2004 Metallica documentary, Some Kind of Monster, filmmaker Joe Berlinger appears onscreen to have a conversation with the band about whether they want to keep making the movie. The group had originally hired Berlinger and his co-director Bruce Sinofsky to shoot promotional B-roll for an upcoming album — one of the many commercial gigs documentarians have long taken to pay the bills — but when he arrived, the band’s bassist had just quit and the remaining members were suddenly working through their issues with a therapist. “We pushed our way in and convinced them to let us film,” Berlinger told me recently. “We let them know, ‘If you don’t want to make the film, we’ll pack up and leave. But if we’re gonna make the film, we’re gonna make the film the way we want to make the film or we’re not gonna make it at all.’” The band stuck with it, and the resulting movie is a classic, capturing rock gods at their most vulnerable. The band members didn’t love every moment, but Berlinger and Sinofsky had control over the final cut and said Metallica didn’t ask for anything to be taken out. “Celebrities making films about themselves, or having an active hand in their production, produces a very predictable film,” Berlinger said. “It’s hagiography. And I think that does a disservice to the audience.” He pointed out that the film connected Metallica to people who didn’t care about the band at all. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told, ‘We’re going into the studio to make an album, and we want Some Kind of Monster.’” Berlinger told me. “Well, is there a larger story? Are you gonna open yourself up? ‘Oh, well, they’re not gonna talk about that or this.’”

And yet control is what many artists want. One athlete who agreed to appear in a Netflix documentary threatened to pull their support unless several changes were made to downplay a series of struggles the filmmakers had captured. “The series was basically finished, and they said, ‘You need to change this, this, and this,’” a member of the production team said. “There probably was a better version of the series to be made, but there’s ultimately no arguing with the celebrity.” I heard from several documentarians — none of whom would share details on the record — about years spent working on projects about famous people only to have the whole thing shut down by the celebrity or their estate. Some films never even get off the ground: One producer told me they had approached a famous musician about making a film, but the musician’s agent said she already had standing offers from streamers with a promise of $20 million and creative control. Alex Gibney told me, “I lost a huge series that would have been enormously beneficial to the company because I was asked by the subject to lie — to pretend I had editorial control even though I wouldn’t.” He says another filmmaker eventually took on the project.

Now that documentaries had become commercial endeavors, and celebrities were being paid to appear in films, there was a growing uncertainty about how to treat everyone else who shared their time and their stories. By and large, documentarians have abided by the journalistic principle that prohibits paying someone for an interview, based on the idea that doing so pushes sources to tell journalists what they want to hear. PBS and CNN have long had prohibitions on the practice, and others largely follow suit, but documentarians have always found ways around the rule. After 1994’s Hoop Dreams became a surprise box-office success, its producers thought it was the right thing to do to go back to the families at the heart of the film and cut them in on the back end: Arthur Agee, one of the two young basketball players featured, says he has received close to $500,000 in residuals over the years. It’s common to pay interviewees a location fee to use their home as a set or a licensing fee for old photos or video footage — even when the filmmakers have no intention of using the material. One cinematographer told me about a true-crime shoot in 2020 for which a woman was paid to provide old photos of her high-school friend, the victim, even though she wasn’t entirely sure the woman was in any of them.

Many documentarians tried to stick to the principle of convincing people that a story would be more authentic, and believable, if they weren’t getting paid to tell it. But the race for sources was making it harder to compete. A producer who has made several true-crime series for major streamers told me he was recently prevented from interviewing the family of a murder victim for a series because, he was told, they had signed exclusive agreements to tell their story to a competing production that promised to pay them more than $200,000.

All of this had warped the relationship among sources, filmmakers, subjects, and the streamers paying the bills. A breakout character in a documentary could become a marketable star in their own right. Carole Baskin, Joe Exotic’s bête noire from Tiger King, has made more than $100,000 hawking videos on Cameo. Jackie Siegel from Queen of Versailles, which told her story as a parable for the foibles of the incredibly wealthy heading into the Great Recession, spun off her appearance in that documentary into a just-released home-renovation show in which she tries to build a Benihana inside her Florida mansion. It is now available on HBO Max.

Getting the right people to talk for a documentary was now such an important part of the Hollywood ecosystem that the major agencies were sometimes getting involved as if they were securing A-list stars. In 2017, Linzee Troubh, then working on the film-development team at BuzzFeed, was talking to potential sources for a documentary based on the site’s reporting about R. Kelly’s sex crimes when she received a phone call from a major agency. The agent was representing a production company pursuing a documentary on the topic. “I hear you’re talking to our talent,” the agent said. “You need to back off.”

Troubh was incensed. “By ‘talent,’ do you mean the families of the women R. Kelly is holding captive in a sex cult?” she asked.

The agent paused, then said, “Semantics.”

Filmmakers hash out the ethics of documentaries at a film festival in Camden, Maine. Photo: Alex Morrow

One Saturday afternoon last fall, 150 people from the documentary world gathered in a chapel in Maine to express concern about — well, all of this. The event, “Towards Value-Based Filmmaking: A Documentary Town Hall,” was part of the Camden International Film Festival, a small but influential stop on the festival circuit, and it was being held in conjunction with a screening of a new doc called Subject. The film follows people from five famous documentaries (Hoop Dreams, Capturing the Friedmans, The Staircase, The Square, and The Wolfpack) as they discuss the fraught process of making entertainment out of real life — their lives — and how unprepared they were for the fame that came after. Margie Ratliff, who was in college when her father’s trial for his wife’s death was documented in The Staircase, said she had agreed to appear in the film only because her dad asked her to. The Staircase had a limited initial run on television in the aughts before Netflix bought the rights in 2018; it was now available to 230 million subscribers worldwide and had come to haunt Ratliff’s life. She once walked up to a watercooler at work to find her colleagues talking about it. (HBO Max adapted the documentary into a fictionalized series with Ratliff played by Sophie Turner.) “I’d like to be stripped from The Staircase,” Ratliff says.

Subject’s co-directors, Jennifer Tiexiera and Camilla Hall, were pitching the film as “Super Size Me for documentaries.” Each of the five subjects — they prefer the term participants because it makes them feel like less of a science experiment — were present at the event in Maine and seated in the middle of the room. Arthur Agee, from Hoop Dreams, said it was a nice surprise to be included on the festival tour; he hadn’t been invited to the Oscars the year the film was nominated. Tiexiera, Hall, and the five participants had been traveling to festivals on a campaign to talk about whether the kind of “collaboration” Harry and Meghan had received should in fact be extended to many more people who agree to appear in documentaries. All the participants in Subject would receive a portion of the proceeds from the film’s sale and served as co-producers with final approval over their segment. Ratliff, for instance, had the filmmakers remove crime-scene photos of her mother’s death.

The town hall was hosted by Dr. Kameelah Rashad, a psychologist the Subject directors had hired to support the participants. Rashad wore a necklace that read DAWG, which was short for Documentary Accountability Working Group, an organization that had just spent a year and a half developing guidelines to help ethically minded filmmakers navigate a world suddenly awash in money. “Is another way, is another world, is another relationship possible?” Rashad asked the crowd. The guidelines covered everything from how to decide if you were the right person to tell a story, to how to “integrate anti-oppression practices into your work,” to ensuring the filmmaking process was “healing, empowering, and ultimately fulfilling” for the people taking part in it. The conversation went on for two hours, at the end of which a festival organizer grabbed the mic and said, “Dare I say, I think there’s a new paradigm emerging from this space … a revolution, even.”

Six weeks later, when I met up with Tiexiera and several of the participants in Los Angeles, Subject still had not found a buyer. Most of the people I spoke to in the documentary world had heard about the film, but almost no one had seen it. “We’re going into meetings with the top streamers, and they’re all talking about it and actually changing policies around it — but they won’t buy it,” Tiexiera said. It was possible to chalk this up to reticence from streamers about drawing attention to the ways documentaries were problematic, but it didn’t help that Tiexiera and Hall had rejected some of the genre conventions that might have made for a splashier film. Could they have manufactured some tension by staging confrontations between the participants and the directors of their original films? Doing so would have felt like the very kind of storytelling they were trying to interrogate.

It also wasn’t the best time to sell a documentary. After a decade of excess, the bad news came in torrents last year: CNN announced it would stop buying documentaries, HBO Max got rid of its nonfiction division, and Netflix had layoffs. The theatrical-documentary business all but disappeared during the pandemic: The highest-grossing one last year was the David Bowie doc Moonage Daydream, which made $4 million at the U.S. box office. Everyone left at the streamers seemed uncertain about their mandate or fearful of losing their jobs, leading toward even safer decisions. The corporate age was giving way to the consolidation age. Several people rather grimly saw in the looming possibility of a Writers Guild of America strike a glimmer of hope that Hollywood might be forced to rely on documentary content.

As I checked back in with various documentarians coming and going to and from Sundance last month, many of them seemed confused about the state of the industry. Documentaries were now a fixture of popular culture, and Hollywood was likely to lean on their relative affordability even if budgets tightened. Filmmakers were grateful that the boom had produced more opportunities and that they didn’t have to spend as much time paying the bills by making literal commercials, even if the documentaries they worked on sometimes blurred that distinction. They wondered who would support smaller, more political films — but those films had never been easy to make. They worried about the turmoil in Hollywood but were painfully aware that, aside from the past few years of streaming largesse, the economics had always been fragile. And they were supportive of the revolution the Subject team was pushing but aware that turning over more control would make an already complicated filmmaking process even stickier.

It was hard to know what audiences should make of all this. During a Q&A after another screening of Subject in Los Angeles, someone who claimed to have seen “probably 75 percent” of the dozens of documentaries mentioned in the film asked Tiexiera, “As viewers, how do we know that the documentary we’re watching is ethical? And fair? And treating the subjects properly? And telling the true story?” There had been chatter in Maine about some kind of vetting process to ensure everything was on the up-and-up — a DAWG seal of approval in the credits. But it also seemed likely that audiences would continue to binge whatever exciting series appeared on their streaming apps without thinking too hard about what went into making it. Subject recently got distribution in parts of Europe, but is still looking for a U.S. distributor, and the filmmakers are fighting an uphill battle. Ratliff said she was trying to start a nonprofit — the Documentary Participants Empowerment Alliance — that would offer guidance and legal advice to anyone considering appearing in a documentary. When I complained to Ratliff that there were simply too many documentaries out there to watch them all, she told me that she expects her new project might result in fewer getting made — so long as she could raise enough money to get it off the ground.

At the top: Stills from All the Beauty and the Bloodshed; The Tinder Swindler; Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry; Tiger King; Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes; Conversations With a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes; Fyre; Subject; Harry & Meghan; Cheer; The Jinx; LuLaRich; They Call Me Magic; Icarus; Summer of Soul; Making a Murderer.

The Documentary World’s Identity Crisis