Untold Stories: What the Rise of the Documentary Series Could Mean for Film

As viewer habits change, documentary films are giving way to documentary series. But this could mean certain stories will never be told

“Lod: Between Hope and Despair”; “Ichilov”; “Leibowitz: Faith, Country and Man”; “Families”; “A Match Made in Heaven”; “Life as a Rumor”; “Silicon Wadi: The Story of a Start-Up Nation.” It looks like this was a peak year for documentary films. They garnered a great deal of interest, together with high ratings, in both real time and VOD.

Some years ago, the cable company Hot reported that viewer ratings for programs on Channel 8, its documentary channel, had risen by more than 150 percent. The company noted with satisfaction that documentary series had led the ratings. As if that were not enough, things have changed at the cinematheques — the traditional bastion of documentary film — as well: Audiences all over Israel came to watch the series there even though they were broadcast on television and available on VOD.

But the change can be seen not only among the viewers and station managers, but also among documentary filmmakers. Early next month, the Israeli Documentary Filmmakers Forum will be holding its annual awards ceremony. This is the first time since the prize was established seven years ago that so many people involved in these series have been nominated for awards in various categories (editing, cinematography and soundtrack of all this year’s documentary projects). It seems that this year, the competition's reviewers were particularly impressed by the documentary series.

This process is ongoing, and influenced by global trends and changes in audiences’ tastes that can be seen in general viewing patterns. But one cannot help but see a new record in this year’s crop. After the niche channels Yes Docu and Channel 8 competed against each other for years to crack the format, it seems that the audience’s tastes and needs finally converged. Could this trend also have negative implications? And what could happen to stand-alone films, which were until now the pinnacle of documentary creation, in a market that prefers series?

This development is best described as a process. Series were always considered an asset by any broadcasting company, be it cable, satellite or a commercial channel, a niche station or for general broadcast (Channel 2 and Channel 10 openly cater to the largest possible viewing audience). They create a relationship between viewer and channel, specific viewing habits and an important brand for the broadcasting company. They are also easier to market than one-time programs such as films.

The situation is similar for Yes Docu and Channel 8: What began as an anthology but was marketed as a series became increasingly less prominent on the niche channels’ broadcast schedules. Last year was marked by series that had thematic and narrative connections, protagonists who developed as the episodes progressed and dramatic and emotional peaks.

A strong emphasis

All the above is inextricably intertwined with global trends. The past few years have been the golden age of television dramas. Resources were devoted to them, the highest-ranking artists the world over participated in them and their viewership expanded as ratings increased. Series like “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” have changed the relationship to television, often at the expense of feature films. This process has been encouraged as viewing habits have changed. The development of VOD technology and the rise of online services such as Hulu and Netflix, which allow viewers to decide when and how often they will watch the episodes, empowered the trend still further.

The world of documentary film could not help but be affected. “Until fairly recently, series weren’t held in high regard compared with films, which were considered the pinnacle of artistry,” says Uri Rosenwaks, the creator of the documentary series on Lod and Yeshayahu Leibowitz (he co-wrote the latter with Rinat Klein, director of Channel 8 and the Entertainment Channel).

“I’m not objective, but I feel that the conversation about the year’s series is like the one about films when it comes to the extent of research, editing and artistic approach,” adds Rosenwaks, who is also the chairman of the Israeli Documentary Filmmakers Forum.

“Artistically, it’s a challenge,” says Ruthie Shatz, the writer and director of “Ichilov” (together with her partner, Adi Barash). “The narrative volume is greater, allowing us to tell much more of the story. We’re able to provide a broad picture, strong theme, background and statement, and keep viewers longer. Every creator wants to do something strong that will have an effect on the viewers, no matter whether it’s called a film or a series. But since viewing habits have changed, series are more successful these days. People want to become addicted to a series and this is the golden age of television series, which are becoming more innovative and original. It’s trickling into the documentary field.”

Another reason why writers prefer to focus on series may be financial. A standalone documentary film will receive a production budget of NIS 300,000. That is a very small sum considering that it takes two and a half years, on average, to produce the film, and most local filmmakers must approach public and private foundations to raise the rest of the funds.

Series are much easier. With three to six episodes, they require about the same production time and employ the same number of crew members. Funding for each individual episode is NIS 200,000 to NIS 300,000, depending on the number of episodes.

“Our approach in managing Channel 8 puts heavy emphasis on series. It’s easier for us to bring series to the public. It’s also easier for the creators in terms of promotion,” says Klein. “Series are an asset, and putting them into a daily slot makes them a media event with a cumulative effect. We know that audiences want to get to know characters and form a deeper connection with them. It’s just like the process that happens with television drama, which is attracting the best screenwriters. It’s happening in the documentary genre, too.”

“There’s no doubt that the series we’ve shown this year and also in previous years have succeeded in creating a buzz and higher viewership,” says Guy Lavie, director of Yes Docu, though his approach is more moderate. “I think that it results from combining the topic of the series with the length of time that it’s on the air, viewers’ television habits and the fact that a documentary series can usually deal with a wider variety of characters, so that if someone doesn’t connect to a particular character, he can identify with a different one. In any case, we usually talk about mini-series with three to six episodes. Series with many episodes aren’t on our agenda because they use up too much of the channel’s budget. I believe that the purpose of a documentary channel is to carry as wide a variety of subjects and content as possible and give them exposure that isn’t possible on other channels, particularly in a country where there are so many burning issues to deal with profoundly.”

Getting carried away

Lavie speaks of the major dangers inherent in the increasing prevalence of documentary series. At present, the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council sets the boundaries of producing series as compared with films. According to the council's directives, Channel 8 and Yes Docu must keep within a boundary in which half their budget is allocated for the production of series and half for standalone films. The goal of this boundary is to keep the balance between the channels’ needs while maintaining variety and pluralism and giving young filmmakers a chance to break into the field, which is done by providing support for many films.

But the law is about to change. Only a few years ago, the law defined a standalone drama and a drama mini-series as genres that television was supposed to preserve and produce. But these genres have been slowly disappearing from television as viewer tastes change, and the Broadcasting Regulatory Administration fell into line. There have also been changes in the case of series as compared with standalone films, for example in episode length, budget distribution and screen time, as the balance has shifted in favor of series.

Could the documentary film end up like the standalone drama? And what ramifications could result?

“The moment a television station invests in a series, it has more of a statement and more input into the content,"says Shatz. "That’s problematic in itself. Beyond that, if there are more series, that means fewer filmmakers will receive funding. These things are in vogue, and as far as the channels are concerned it makes marketing and branding easier, since a series makes an impact for a longer period of time and gathers an audience, while there’s danger in a feature film, a standalone documentary film. Viewer habits are changing all over the world. It’s a trend that’s been going on for years. If the Broadcasting Regulatory Administration supports this process, the budget for films will be cut back substantially.”

Noemi Schory, the head of the Beit Berl Film School and the writers’ representative at the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council, says, “The problem could turn out to be bigger than that. If the standalone feature film is harmed or lost, many of Israeli documentary cinema’s best accomplishments could be lost. Certain kinds of stories will never be told because they’re not appropriate for a series. The achievements of Israeli documentary film are enormous, and they are admired beyond the small screen in Israel, whose bread and butter is really the series genre. We need to work to preserve the genres that are in danger of extinction — and that includes the standalone documentary film.”

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