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Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

Sundance: Buyers Bid $20 Million as the Feature Documentary Category Booms

The feature documentary is booming.

That’s the message from Sundance 2019.

  • Reported bids for rights approach $20 million.
  • Topping the list is Knock Down the House, the Sundance Audience Award winner that captures the run for Congress in 2018 of the “AOC” superstar Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
  • The SVOD giant reportedly bid $10 million for worldwide rights.
  • That’s double the previous known Sundance record: $5 million for Icarus.

Here is the list, followed by my Takeaways:

Sundance Documentaries: Reported Acquisitions
(Partial List / Work in Progress, February 2019)

TitleParticipatingBuyer /  DistributorFee EstimateAward
Sea of ShadowsLeo DiCaprio,  Terra Mater Factual StudiosNat Geo Films$3 million worldwideAudience Award for World Cinema Documentary
A thriller doc follows wildlife activists, the Mexican navy and undercover investigators as they take on the Mexican and Chinese criminals whose illegal fishing threatens a whale species.
“Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary”Hulu$2 million
An as-yet-untitled documentary on magician The Amazing Johnathan.
Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen Ava DuVernayDuVernay’s distrib company ARRAYNA
Chronicles the life of late New Zealand filmmaker and former Sundance Institute adviser Merata Mita.
David Crosby: Remember My NameCameron CroweSony Pictures Classics$1 million /
“Low 7 figures”
The 50-year career of the Crosby, Stills & Nash singer
HalaJada Pinkett SmithAppleNA
Chronicles a 17-year-old’s plight to balance her traditional Muslim household with her modern schooling
HalstonCNN Films, Halston, Liza Minnelli, Marisa Berenson, Joel SchumacherThe Orchard  / for theatrical and home, CNNNA
About American fashion designer Halston 
The BrinkCNN Films, Steve BannonMagnolia Pictures, CNNNA
A fly-on-the-wall chronicle of rightwing flamethrower, media executive and ex-White House strategist Steve Bannon
“Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men”Wu-Tang ClanShowtimeNA
A docuseries on seminal hip-hop collective
Ask Dr. RuthDr RuthHulu/ Magnolia/ AGCNA
Biodoc on pioneering TV sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer
Knock Down the HouseAOCNetflix$10 million worldwideAudience prize for best U.S. Documentary
Four extraordinary ordinary women run for Congress in 2018, battling political machines in different U.S. landscapes. One of them becomes a superstar. (Pic below)
American FactoryParticipant MediaNetflix$3 million worldwideBest Director award, U.S. documentary
In post-industrial Ohio, a Chinese billionaire opens a factory in an abandoned GM plant, hiring 2,000 blue-collar Americans. Optimism gives way to setbacks as high-tech China clashes with working-class America.

(See Notes below)

Still from Knock Down the House.


Netflix Strategy

  • Netflix is driving the boom.
  • The documentary category is affordable:
    • Budgets are a fraction of those for Scripted features and series.
    • And yet docs win generous press coverage and prestigious awards.
    • Indie scripted movies produced at greater cost but with unknown actors just vanish into the night of never-seen projects.
  • Documentaries are a proven positive factor in subscriber satisfaction and retention.

How They Buy

  • The SVOD giant had swung from acquisitions to commissions in recent years.
  • Its Documentary unit develops projects with A-List directors and producers.
    • The word “auteur” is spoken with a straight face inside Netflix’s HQ.
    • The films are often about A-List celebrity subjects.
  • The  word on Netflix films:
    • “If it is made by a B-Lister or unknown, then it better be about Steven Spielberg”
    • “And if its about a B-Lister or unknown, then it better be produced by Steven Spielberg.”
  • But Netflix is finding that the must-have hit titles and award-winners can’t be predicted by an internal development team.
  • Most hits like Knock Down The House are developed by independent creatives.
  • These filmmakers harvest some special magic that makes their film a standout, like picking AOC as a subject ahead of her shocking victory.

Competition Surges

Netflix is racing to fortify its dominant OTT brand and subscriber base against intensifying competition for breakthrough projects, including from:

  • OTT services like Hulu.
  • Emerging platforms like Disney.
  • Apple is expected to launch its service in 3Q’19, with billions earmarked for spending on content.
  • Amazon PrimeYouTube and others are expected to ramp up their spend on premium content.
  • Legacy channels, including HBOCNN and Nat Geo are curating and delivering hits in the premium unscripted category.
  • International players are taking on Netflix in their own territories.

Winning the Lottery

  • Theatrical distributors are motivated by the box office success in 2018 of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? ($22 million) and RBG ($14 million).
  • And with $20 million on the table at Sundance, the documentary category suddenly looks like a goldfield for producers rather than the charity it has so often resembled in the past.

More Reading + Listening


  • The table above is a work in progress.
  • “Participating” is a partial list of players and personalities associated with the film.
  • Sources include interviews with industry insiders and Mike Fleming’s excellent coverage in Deadline.
  • Fleming writes: “The most I can recall a festival documentary selling for was the $5 million paid for the Russian doping docu Icarus, which was bought by Netflix at Sundance in 2017 and went on to win the Best Documentary Oscar.”

Updated November 2018

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