Documentaries can be somewhat of a niche genre of film for a lot of people. While there are many people who love watching television and movies for educational purposes, documentaries often appeal less to mainstream audiences than groups interested in specific topics or issues. There are several reasons for this. One is that documentaries are often based around a particular and specifc topic, limiting its potential viewer base to those who are interested in learning about the focus of the film. Second is that documentaries are educational, and while there are a lot of people interested and entertained by learning more about certain subjects, there are plenty of people who would rather spend their free time engaging with programs that are more suited directly towards making sure that the viewer is having a good time.
But what does this mean in regards to the creation and more importantly the distribution of documentaries? It means that, in a lot of cases, documentaries are simply not profitable. And because of this, many major networks and streaming services do not offer many documentaries to watch, preferring to avoid programs that may end up being liabilities in favor of ones that will appeal to a wider audience and therefore guarantee revenue. Because of this, extremely well made, entertaining, and enlightening documentaries are often limited to being released in small theaters and film festivals, finding praise but not much in the way of popularity or financial success.
However to a degree, this has begun to change recently. Netflix, responding to consumer interest, has begun to offer more and more documentaries as part of its streaming service, from feature length offerings like Icarus and 13th to episodic series like Making a Murderer and Evil Genius. This has been a great boon to the documentary genre, as having a documentary be hosted on Netflix ensures that many people will have a chance to see it. This helps documentary creators find an audience and make money off of the projects that they have invested countless time and money into creating. However, some people have noticed and expressed concern over the fact that the catalog of documentaries Netflix offers is very limited in specific ways. Specifically, Netflix has shied away from the more niche, original programs that target very specific demographics in favor of more traditional offerings that appeal to a wider array of audiences.
The reason for Netflix’s focus on more traditional documentaries is entirely a financial one. With Netflix’s consumer friendly image and focus on entertainment it is easy to forget that, when it comes down to it, Netflix is and always has been a business with the goal of making money. As Sudeep Sharma states in her essay Netflix and the Documentary Boom, “Netflix provides access to various materials, but purely on the basis that access to the material will in some way improve profits for the company.” (144) Sharma goes on to compare Netflix with both a library and a newsstand, deciding that it is much more similar to the latter. Because of this, Netflix does not want to risk turning off potential subscribers by having them see programs that do not interest them, and would much rather fill its library with documentaries that many people would enjoy. While I do think that, to an extent, it is a shame that Netflix cannot offer many brilliant, unique documentaries a home, I also understand that Netflix would not have the resources to offer any programs a home if it made bad business decisions that put the company at risk. It is hard to accept, but commercial companies will always have to prioritize financially viable options over risky gambles. I believe that it is up to the consumers to make what they want to see financially viable for the company.
13th was a supremely engaging and enlightening watch that opened my eyes to many injustices regarding America’s treatment of African Americans that still go on to this day. However, there is no doubt in my mind that Netflix chose to host this program has a clear means of profit. While the mistreatment of African Americans in our country has been a huge problem for many generations now, over the last couple years there has been a large spike in interest over the subject. Netflix, by hosting 13th, is very clearly attempting to capitalize and profit on this trend. I have to admit that while I am very happy to see media addressing these issues be made available to many people, there is something uncomfortable to me about the way Netflix is cashing in on real pain, suffering and injustice. In this case, I do believe that the ends justifies the means however.
Evil Genius, on the other hand, markets itself easily as the insanity present in both the documentary and the real life crime it covers is undeniably fascinating and mesmerizing. Evil Genius, as I mentioned above, is an episodic documentary, and I believe that this is extremely fitting. While it is based on true events and does take its subject matter seriously, Evil Genius is at the same time, quite sensational, drawing on the uniqueness and morbidity of its subject matter to draw its audience in and keep them hooked on cliffhangers. By making the series episodic, it sacrifices a bit of its comprehensiveness for a better entertainment value, weaving more of a narrative which fits what the show is going for more. Feature length documentaries on the other hand often feel less like a narrative and more like a lecture, foregoing attempts at hooking the audience in exchange for a more encompassing look at a topic.