Moss says streaming has brought his documentary to a wider, international audience, and he has enjoyed the opportunity to explore topics in the documentary format. But, he notes, this is “not the right approach to every story,” and “there has been pressure at times to expand a story that may not support a multi-episode approach.”
What makes a documentary series more lucrative or appealing instead of a feature-length documentary? Hard to say. “Netflix does not disclose the method they use to determine what is considered successful,” said Dan Rayburn, a streaming media analyst at Frost & Sullivan, a market research firm. “So we don’t really know what goes into how any of these streaming services decide what content to make, or how long it should be.”
Still, we can guess. Rayburn notes that there is no extra cost to uploading extra content to the Internet compared to paying for an extra space in the TV show or in a movie theater. If you have five hours of content and would normally edit it down to two, he says, “Why not post it?” Similarly, it’s economical to produce sequels using old footage, and there’s less risk involved when you already have an established fanbase. “Netflix is not guessing at many things, they have the data behind them to show what is considered a good investment and what is not,” Rayburn says.
But are good investments and good content the same thing? Guggenheim Fellow Matt Wolf, Director of The spaceship Earth, says that the document series format works well for the true crime genre when there is “a story that has enough twists and turns that it requires to be serialized.” But, he says, documentary filmmakers have always historically recorded hundreds of hours of footage, and there is now “a risk of misidentifying an abundance of material into an abundance of history.”
Still, both Moss and Wolf believe that documentary sequels can be valuable and are an encouraging sign of a healthy industry. “As a filmmaker, I love the idea that characters and stories are so compelling that when a viewer finishes watching a movie or a series, they keep thinking about those characters,” Wolf says.
Moss says that when a documentary is being filmed in the present, there has always been the threatening question of “Where should I end this story?” In today’s environment, stories theoretically never have to end – we could still see Tiger Kings 3, 4, 5 and 6 plus a bonus Christmas special. “Personally,” says Moss, “I have always accepted that things are a little unresolved. And sometimes I just need to move on, emotionally, and it’s good to finish a movie and do new work.” Boy state was created as a stand-alone, but he is now developing “not a successor, but a sibling,” Pigestat, about the young women’s equivalent to the Boys State camp. “We just think it’s a necessary continuation of the conversation,” Moss says.
In the case of Tiger King 2, that conversation so far seems to be: “Just look at how effective our last documentary was.” But Moss notes that this is not entirely without precedent. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills was a 1996 documentary about the West Memphis Three; it was followed up in 2000 by Paradise Lost 2: Revelations and in 2011 by Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory. The immediate sequel began with a collection of news footage about the first film; the official trailer for the third film contained a flattering Weekly entertainment quote: “We tend to think of movies as funny distractions. But once in a while, they have the power to change lives.”