Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network’s Documentary Club – Is it a Game-changer?

The Oprah Winfrey Book Club changed book publishing. Will her documentary club do the same for feature documentaries?

We continue our ‘early days’ examination of OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, with a 1st look at OWN’s documentary film club.

We look at:

  • OWN’s acquisitions process for documentaries.
  • The anticipated license fees.
  • And the potential impact of an Oprah endorsement on the niche market for documentary features.

Last week, we posted our initial look at how our ‘Sweet Spot’ methodology applies to production budgets for OWN’s early Factual commissions. The exceptional response to that post indicates the high level of anticipation felt across the industry for Oprah’s entry into channel branding and programming.

What the Sources Say about OWN’s Documentary Club

  • OWN earned a tremendous buzz amongst independents and the creative community when it announced a partnership with ro*co productions to promote a monthly feature documentary.
  • According to OWN’s press release: “As an important part of the new channel’s programming mix, OWN will spotlight cinematic documentaries that can inspire and entertain, as well as provide opportunities for the audience to engage with each film’s emotionally gripping, universally important themes.”
  • Inspired by Oprah’s celebrated Book Club, OWN’s documentary film club will include a primetime airing on the channel, an online community experience on, and potentially, a nationwide theatrical screening event. 
  • The application of the Book Club model to a dedicated documentary slot could be a game-changer for the niche:
    • Time magazine reported that book publishers credit an Oprah endorsement with increasing print runs by up to 500%.
    • According to a 2005 Business Week report on the book-buying ‘frenzies’ that Ms Winfrey inspired: “Publishers estimate that her power to sell a book is anywhere from 20 to 100 times that of any other media personality.”

The Acquisitions Process

  • ro*co productions is a division of ro*co films international, since 2000 a leading U.S. documentary film distribution company. 
    • ro*co has distributed eight Oscar nominated feature documentaries: Born into Brothels, The Garden, Jesus Camp, No End in Sight, Promises, Regret to Inform, Street Fight, and The Weather Underground.
    • ro*co productions screens and recommends acquisitions to OWN, which makes final decisions and executes licensing agreements.
  • At the 2010 Sundance Festival, ro*co and OWN announced their first acquisition, Family Affair:
    • “At 10 years old, Chico Colvard shot his older sister in the leg. This seemingly random act detonated a chain reaction that exposed unspeakable realities and shattered his family. Thirty years later, Colvard ruptures veils of secrecy and silence again. As he bravely visits his relatives, what unfolds is a personal film that’s as uncompromising, raw, and cathartic as any in the history of the medium.”
  • Other acquisitions are in the pipeline.
  • OWN is also open to commissioning feature documentaries on a case-by-case basis.

***************** ‘Sweet Spot’ Report

Purchase our original research findings about the ‘Sweet Spots’ for 25+/- U.S. channels, including OWN.

The ‘Sweet Spot’ Report covers:

  • Network budget benchmarks for original commissions
  • Several levels: Signature, High, ‘Sweet Spot’ and Low
  • We cover ‘the biggies’ and diginets


OWN’s license fees for acquisitions are fair by industry benchmarks for widely distributed channels.

  • They are comparable to the license fees paid by HBO Documentaries, the market leader in commissioning and acquiring feature documentaries.


  • The television market for feature documentaries is a tiny niche, but one whose creative and cultural importance far outweighs its scale.
  • OWN adds a significant new force to this market by contributing a prime time slot on a widely-distributed channel, a stream of license fees, the powerful Oprah brand, and promotional clout.
  • And we can only guess at the impact of the Oprah Book Club model on feature documentary awareness, viewing, downloads, sales, rentals and box office.

3D Update – Nat Geo

Nat Geo clarified its 3D plans for productions (‘exploring options’) and channels (‘no plans’ to launch 3D networks) in a statement reported by Real Screen on line. (May 12)


  • Upfront wrap-up.
  • Sweet Spots for Scripps Networks, HBO Documentaries, Smithsonian Channel, Canadian channels, PBS, BBC and more.

Note on Sources

The data is taken from recent interviews with network executives, producers, distributors and experts, as well as from conference presentations and published sources. Actual budgets, rights and deliverables vary from project to project.


  1. This site is tremendous, Peter. Thank you for your hard work. I met with Sue Turley from ro*co at Hot Docs. She’s terrifically encouraging. And this article really filled in the big picture about this venture. I’m grateful for the details.

  2. Thank you for a great article. This is very encouraging news for doc filmmakers. I look forward to reading more!

  3. Pingback: The Sundance Channel: What’s New? How Many? What’s the ‘Sweet Spot’? «

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