Movies & TV

How Netflix Chooses Its Documentaries: 'It’s Always the Story First'

The Last Dance exposed viewers to more non-fiction programming in the streaming service.
IMAGE Netflix
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In case it wasn’t abundantly clear, the Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance was an unqualified success for ESPN and Netflix. Nearly 24 million people engaged with the program during its first four weeks in the streaming platform worldwide. Meanwhile, in the US, where ESPN carried it, the show averaged 5.6 million viewers across all 10 episodes, making it the most-watched ESPN documentary of all time. 

All this has thrown documentaries or non-fiction programming into the spotlight. Not that it wasn’t popular to begin with. In Netflix, especially, over 165 million households, or about 9 out of 10 Netflix subscribers, has watched at least one documentary on the service over the last year. 

“Six and a half years ago, when I first started with the company, we knew our subscribers were watching some documentaries, but to think in that period that weve gone to 165 million households now watching documentaries, with a subscriber base of 183 million—that’s nine out of 10 households that have watched a documentary over the last year,” said Adam Del Deo, VP of original documentary programming at Netflix, in an exclusive chat with Esquire Philippines. “We take a lot of pride in that.”

The Last Dance

Photo by Netflix.
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The Last Dance

Del Deo said that The Last Dance, in particular, was insanely popular here in basketball-crazed Philippines.

“It’s been in the number one spot for eight days there in the Philippines,” he said. “And in the top 10 for about a month.”

Del Deo revealed that they worked closely with ESPN executives to bring the documentary about Michael Jordan’s career, particularly during his last season with the Chicago Bulls.

“It was terribly exciting and a great opportunity,” he said. “We’ve done co-productions, but with (The Last Dance), specifically given Michael’s global reach, there was a special interest and appeal, and we worked closely in a diplomatic way with the ESPN execs to come up with a deal that made sense for them as well as for us. And it’s been a great partnership. Extremely collaborative, and a big success for both companies.” 

Del Deo, who has supervised seven Oscar-nominated films including Virunga and Winter On Fire as well as Academy Award-winning titles like The White Helmets and Icarus, has overseen popular Netflix docu-series like Chef's Table, Making a Murderer, Wormwood, and most recently, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. He said choosing a documentary to air in the streaming platform always starts with great storytelling.

Tiger King

Photo by Netflix.
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Story first

“It’s always the story first,” he said. “We support great filmmaking along those lines. We want to tell these best-in-class stories from every genre. And because of our platform, people have different moods, tastes. They vary wildly. So we pick titles that we think are big globally. We also have the ability to tell smaller stories, that resonates with people.

Del Deo ticks off some of the most popular documentaries that Netflix has presented in recent years, including Tiger King and The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez. He also mentioned the Sir David Attenborough-voiced Our Planet series, which he called the company’s first “blue chip natural history” title. In Asia, there was Street Food Asia, which had a Philippines episode, and Money Heist: The Phenomenon, a companion documentary on the popular Spanish TV series Money Heist. Finally, he also mentioned music docus like Taylor Swift’s Miss Americana.

“That’s the great thing about the platform,” Del Deo said. “We believe we can find the audience if we’re doing our job correctly. Great storytellers that can be of different size and scale. We also have the ability to take risks on new talent. So if we think something is innovative, if we think there’s an incredible story behind it, we have a great executive team to help listen to that vision and stand behind the creatives, the filmmaker, to break ground and tell different types of great stories. It’s really creative first from our end.”

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Homecoming

Photo by Netflix.

Although Del Deo did not specifically mention how much Netflix shells out per documentary in order to beef up its slate, he did say that it would depend on the title and that it can run the gamut.

“Something along the lines of a big blue chip natural history title, that’s going to cost more than a human title or a personal story that would play like at the Sundance Film Festival,” he said. “So it’s a just a wide range.”

When is a title successful?

Netflix, which famously doesn’t often publicize viewership numbers on its platform, does have other means to measure whether a documentary is successful or not.

“We do look at viewing numbers, but there’s also other areas,” Del Deo said. “How does a story work on social media? Is it something people are talking about? Is it giving in to the cultural conversation? It doesn’t have to hit a certain bar or level, because…there’s nothing that can capture the word-of-mouth that’s out there. 

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“So the way we think about success is, is the title that its targeted towards a specific audience, is that audience excited by it and is it something that’s moving them and are they getting happniess and joy and satusfaction out of it? All that is kind of relative, but I would say, some of our most successful titles, from a budgetary perspective, maybe on the smaller end of the spectrum, but it’s been titles that have really moved people, educated people, got them talking about the topic or the subject. And for us, we would deem it a big success.”

Icarus

Photo by Netflix.

What's coming next

After The Last Dance, Netflix isn’t letting up and has a full slate of documentaries that will appeal to a wide variety of viewers. 

1| Father, Soldier, Son – A title from The New York Times that follows one military family over the course of 10 years. Coming June 19.

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2| Spelling the Dream - A film about the Spelling Bee in the US. “Nineteen of the last 23 winners are Indian-American. We think that would resonate with Indian audiences,” Del Deo said. Coming June 3.

3| Athlete A – Based on a scandal involving the US Olympic gymnastics team. Directed by Bonni Cohen and John Shenk. Coming June 24. 

4| Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado – Shown in Sundance, it’s about the legend of Walter Mercado, a famous Puerto Rican astrologer. Coming July 8.

5| Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich – A peek into the life of the disgraced billionaire and convicted pedophile. Now showing.

6| Dick Johnson is Dead – Also shown at the Sundance Film Festival. It’s from Kirsten Johnson, an acclaimed filmmaker, who follows her father as he deals with dementia. Coming later in the year.

7| Unsolved Mysteries – A reboot of the popular TV series. Coming later in the year.

“You can’t always predict what’s going to be the next hit, it’s hard to play that, but what you can do, is watch and and think, hey there’s something really special here,” Del Deo said, about finding compelling material from filmmakers all over the world. “The thing that’s interesting when a title launches on our service, is that we find people that are engaging in feature films or TV series, they’re also engaging in documentaries. The reason for that is that our platform is really finding stories that people not only watched in the past in the scripted space, we feel they would also watch documentaries.

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“So, introducing documentaries to people that haven’t had access to them, or haven’t seen them before, just based on their viewing taste, we find great satisfaction in that,” he added.

And for those documentarians and filmmakers who would someday like their matrial shows on Netflix, Del Deo has this piece of advice: “They need to really understand what story it is they really want to tell. And to be able to pitch that with enthusasim. The key word is authenticity. That the story they’re telling is very unique, that they have a strong grasp behind it, and articulating that with passion. And at that point, if it’s something we love, we can help support them.”

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Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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