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The Explosion of Documentary Films

There’s a revolution happening in the film world…

In most cases, dramatic movies are far more expensive to produce than documentaries. And yet, time after time, young directors and producers with a limited budget choose to produce a mediocre dramatic film instead of using that limited money to produce a potentially excellent documentary.

I understand the fascination with drama. Writers, directors, and producers naturally love working with actors and telling dramatic stories. However, thanks to the work of visionary filmmakers like Ken Burns, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris and Alex Gibney, innovative docs are making a powerful comeback.

During most of my career, producing documentaries was a risky business, and distribution was almost impossible. But with the rise of streaming platforms, a growing audience has discovered the genre, and it’s popularity is skyrocketing.

In 2019, Variety magazine reported:

Nearly 40% of exhibitors at FilMart this year are currently involved in documentary films. This year, there are 290 such exhibitors from 26 countries and regions, an increase of 30% from 2018, when the “Doc World” section was launched. And there are 24 nonfiction titles in screening sessions, nearly double last year’s 13 titles.

BBC Studios’ exec VP David Weiland noted that younger audiences are driving growth:

Documentary used to be a niche that was regarded as fairly boring, with a lot of black-and-white archival footage and talking heads, scheduled late at night. But something’s happened,” he said. “I think it’s too early to say if we’re going into a golden age of documentary, but at the BBC we’re certainly noticing that documentary is becoming more mainstream.

If you’re a filmmaker with a limited budget, it may be time to stop trying to stretch it to make a poor dramatic movie, and consider making a creative documentary instead.

This past year at the National Religious Broadcasters Convention I hosted a panel discussion on “The Documentary Revolution: The Explosion of Documentaries on Streaming Platforms.” We discussed the production and distribution of our Cooke Media Group television documentary for Episode 5 of the TV series “Inexplicable: How Christianity Spread to the Ends of the Earth.”

Since 1995, documentaries have grown to nearly half of all dramas produced, so it’s time this generation of filmmakers explore the possibilities.

If you’re a filmmaker, this could be your moment! 

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