Most factual filmmakers will tell you that story and character are the crucial components of a great documentary. But increasingly we’re finding that commissioning editors and buyers are reluctant to give the green light unless there is a third core element: access.
Access documentaries have always been an integral part of the factual TV landscape. But now more than ever buyers view some kind of unique insight or observation as indispensable. Indeed, such is the premium on access that often it will be the most important selling point in a pitch – more likely to catch a buyer’s attention than the overarching subject or genre.
There are several reasons for this shift in emphasis, not least that the TV market is so crowded. With so much choice across scripted and unscripted, audiences are not prepared to invest time and energy in a show if it doesn’t deliver something that sets the pulse racing.
Linked to this is the fact streamers feel obliged to push the envelope on access because they are dealing with paying customers. Extraordinary access, like sports rights and an A-list cast, is vital to stop subscribers cancelling their direct debit. As with true crime and reality, this inevitably triggers a creative response from the traditional television sector.
Another access-driving factor is that scripted TV is increasingly in the access business – drawing on everything from celebrity to true crime to drive its storytelling. Inevitably, the more that drama focuses on big reveals, the more that documentary has to follow.
Finally, there is the simple fact there is more amazing content out there for filmmakers to unearth. Recorded conversations, emails, mobile video and the like have underpinned amazing access documentaries ranging from Making a Murderer to Fyre to Seaspiracy.
So what exactly do we mean by access? At Drive we generally divide it up into four broad categories, discussed below. Our advice to producers is to think about these categories, and how they are evolving, during their development. Finding the access angle could be the key to securing an order from channels or attracting deficit financing from distributors.
This is the age of the warts-and-all-megadoc, with Harry and Meghan and Billie Eilish among recent subjects in the spotlight. It’s no surprise that one of Netflix’s top performers this month is Schumacher, which provides insights into the life of the iconic Formular 1 driver.
Royals have worked especially well for us (Minnow’s The Diana Interview, Oxford Films’ Prince William: A Planet For Us All), but it can be just as impactful if you have unique true crime access (The Ted Bundy Tapes). Access doesn’t have to be the subject themselves, but it has to be someone close enough to the action to have something compelling and original to say (Framing Britney Spears). If there’s a challenge with access to A-list stars, it’s that they will often want to control the narrative, so a key question for producers is whether they want to seek the subject’s co-operation or not.
Producer tip: Think about how to link access to anniversaries of events. Voltage’s three-part series about Osama bin Laden for Channel 4 dovetailed with the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
Now more than ever, audiences are looking for adventure stories that take their minds off Covid-19 and lockdowns. Documentaries that involve access to remote, rugged geographical locations or inaccessible countries are perfect – think Michael Palin in North Korea or Steve Backshall white water rafting in Bhutan. One of the stand-out examples this year has been Ben Fogle’s Inside Chernobyl, commissioned by Channel 5 in the UK. C5 also aired the Palin documentary, illustrating how access can elevate a channel’s overall brand.
Producer tip: Audience ideas about what represents inaccessible shift all the time – not least because of developments like Covid. When we were selling A Greek Odyssey with Bettany Hughes, part of the appeal was that Greece was quite hard to get to at that moment.
Audiences are fascinated by what goes on behind the closed doors of venerable institutions like NASA, Harrods and the NHS. Right now, we’re distributing Oxford Films’ Inside the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art), which is made especially poignant and dramatic by the impact of Covid-19 and the hot political debate around social justice. Arguably, blue-light documentaries deserve a category of their own, with shows like Live PD and 24 Hours in A&E providing raw access to frontline emergency services.
Producer tip: Some organisations are concerned about the impact of access on their brand, but many are opening up. A key argument for access is that documentaries can show the human side of organisations, maybe also driving business footfall into the bargain.
This covers scenarios from backstage at a music festival through to the retelling of a key historical event. In the case of historical documentary, access means scientific discoveries, expert commentary, archive footage and eyewitness accounts. The more elements that provide a marketing hook the better. When we talk to National Geographic, they always get us to think about what the poster would be. A good example of how to leverage marketing is The Real Hunt For Red October, a Muse production for Reelz. Based on the true story of a missing Russian submarine, it resonates with the book and movie bearing a similar name.
Producer tip: Explore whether recent books have been published on the same subject. Working with an author can massively speed up the research process. It’s possible the author will have recorded personal testimonies that can be used in the eventual documentary.
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