Picture of Gerald and Gay

Gerald Foos (l) and Gay Talese (r) in Voyeur

When Myles Kane and Josh Koury were looking to distribute their film Voyeur, they had a lot of interest in the documentary. The pair had spent three and a half years working independently on the film, and wanted to make sure to find the right place for it.

Enter Netflix.

While the directors had offers from traditional distributors who were offering big theatrical runs and all the chances of success and glory that comes with that sort of distribution, ultimately they decided that Netflix was the right fit for the film.

The film follows journalist Gay Talese as he writes his book, The Voyeur’s Motel,  chronicling a Denver motel owner who spent decades with an elaborate set-up to spy on his guests. The cameras roll as the whole affair begins to blow up in Talese’s face.  The subject of the book, Gerald Foos is called into question as some of what Talese has reported doesn’t seem to add up. The film has a distinct investigative and cinematic feel. It fits well with the other true-crime documentaries Netflix has released—Making a Murderer, Amanda Knox and Casting Jon Benet, just to name a few.

“I think Netflix especially has spent a lot of energy building up their original doc selection,” said Kane, “not to mention films that fall with in the ‘true crime’ genre which is so popular now. So it seemed to fall into exactly what they’re trying to cultivate brand-wise.”

But going with Netflix wasn’t an easy decision for the filmmakers at first.  “We, as filmmakers, certainly had to adjust our perspective and expectations, as the old model of theatrical release followed by VOD still feels seductive and up to a few years ago was the dream scenario, especially for docs,” said Kane.

In today’s age of instant streaming, there is a large amount of uncertainty attached to the traditional route of theatrical distribution. What if the movie isn’t popular? What if fewer people come to see the film than anticipated? How can they expand the film’s reach beyond the cities in which it shows?

While the traditional route was appealing, Netflix provided a certainty the filmmakers couldn’t pass up. One sure thing–streaming services like Netflix guarantee wide visibility for the film.

“In terms of press and publicity, they have been incredible,” said Kane “It’s where their power in the industry really shows.”

Picture of billboard

Voyeur billboard in LA

He evidenced this with a photo of a promotional billboard in Los Angeles for the film. Netflix’s reputation as a company and the large amount of money it has available to invest in content creates an ideal combination for filmmakers. Kane said the fact that Netflix was able to outbid every other competitor couldn’t be overlooked.

According to Ted Sarandos, chief content officer for Netflix, the company has budgeted $7 billion to be spent on content in the coming year, up from the $6 billion spent on content this past year and the $5 billion spent on content in 2016.  With the growing budget, Netflix will have more room to invest in branding “original” content.

With more and more people looking to streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime as main platforms for media consumption, and with the large amounts of money these companies are able to spend on content, these outlets may be the smartest way to go when it comes to film distribution.

There is a trade off, however, to deciding to sell the film rights to Netflix. People often fail to realize that Netflix “original” content isn’t actually all content Netflix creates itself.  There are shows that Netflix created and distributed—such as House of Cards, and then there are films Netflix’s purchased and distributed under its brand—such as Voyeur. Selling a film to Netflix means the film isn’t associated with a filmmaker anymore, but rather the brand of Netflix.

Another issue filmmakers face is the Netflix is still largely focused on TV-style content. According the company, subscribers spend about 70 percent of their streaming time watching TV series. In today’s “binge watching” culture, the popularity of series is only growing. Kane acknowledge this trend, commenting how when he and Koury told people they had a documentary premiering on Netflix, they were often asked how many episodes it would be.

However, this new binge watching trend may not be all bad for documentary filmmakers. It seems every filmmaker laments the fact that there are stories and characters that can’t find their place in a 90-minute feature. With the popularity of docu-series on the rise, perhaps those storylines will be able to find a home within the multiple episodes of a series, allowing filmmakers to dive deeper into their subject’s stories.

As streaming services continue to expand their role in media consumption, documentary may find a growing platform to call home.

About Olivia Jacobson