Could this be the year of the documentary? Why factual features might dominate screens as a result of pandemic

With film sets and studios gone dark in the wake of the coronavirus, the documentary maker could be what saves us from quarantine TV viewing blues

Joe Exotic in Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness. Courtesy Netflx
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We're all watching more movies and TV shows during the current quarantine period, that is undeniable. Thankfully, there's plenty to look forward to coming up over the next few weeks – a new series of Money Heist has landed on Netflix, the third season of Killing Eve comes to OSN's Wavo later in the month and the launch of the regional Disney+ service this month has Star Wars fans salivating at the prospect of the well-received spin-off series The Mandalorian.

How long can this last though? Production on new movies and shows has already ground to a halt around the world. Film sets have gone dark, TV studios are eerily deserted and Hollywood stars including Tom Hanks and Idris Elba are among those to have been struck down by the virus. 

So how will content be kept fresh enough to keep those with fully paid-up Netflix, Amazon, Wavo, Shahid, Hulu, Vimeo, Vu, Quibli and Mubi accounts, plus a top-end OSN subscription, too, from complaining that there is nothing on TV but repeats?

True crime documentary series 'Making a Murderer' won four Primetime Emmy Awards in 2016. Courtesy Netflix

With thousands of hours of content currently accessible across the myriad platforms now available to TV addicts, it would have to be a very long lockdown for subscribers to them all to run out of things to watch, but we could soon be in danger of exactly that if sets can’t open up again and the cameras start rolling soon.

The solution could come from the often overlooked world of the documentary-maker. These unsung heroes of the cinematic world could save us from repeat fatigue for three main reasons.

Firstly, and most simplistically, because they can make films, even during a lockdown, and certainly quickly after it ends. The bread and butter of most documentaries is archival footage, which is in plentiful supply and doesn't require leaving the house to access.

When Abu Dhabi Media began digitising its own archives back at the turn of the last decade, those tasked with the job spoke of “tens of thousands of hours” of footage to be transferred. That was from one media organisation, which was only founded in 2007 (although it had inherited a sizeable library of older footage, too). Now multiply that by every broadcaster, news agency, cultural institute, filmmaker, production house, advertising agency, museum and dusty box in the attic, in the world.

There are millions, possibly billions, of hours of unused footage in the world ready to be discovered and shaped into something new, and nobody needs to leave the house to film it. Once the footage is in place, the days of visiting an awe-inspiring editing suite to sit in front of a huge machine and splice it together are long gone. Simply send the file to your crew and they can use software such as Premiere Pro, Da Vinci and Baselight to handle all the editing remotely.

If you need to have a meeting about the film’s progress, fire up Zoom, and while you’re there, you can reach out to interview any talking heads you may have identified, to add context to the story you’re telling. Voila – your film is complete, and you’re still on your sofa in your pyjamas.

Secondly, there is an undeniable appetite for factual content from audiences, particularly during the unusual times we're experiencing. The breakout hit of the coronavirus age has been the Netflix documentary Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, a story few had heard of and even fewer cared about prior to social media making it the quarantine must-see.

A look at audience ratings around the world also shows a voracious hunger for facts currently. TV ratings in the UK, according to the Broadcasters' Audience Research Board, are up around 32 per cent since the lockdown began, and of the top 20 shows for the week to March 29, eight were news or fact-based. In fact, six were simply the evening news.

While some activities have naturally paused ... other activities are able to continue due to our extensive library of evergreen content

Discovery Networks provides factual TV content through channels such as Discovery and TLC. Henry Windridge, its head of brand for the Middle East, tells The National that, although specific viewing figures are not available for the UAE, since the outbreak of the coronavirus, the broadcaster has seen a double-figure upturn in number of viewers across 13 markets in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Windridge also adds his support to the theory that documentary production is better-equipped than most to see through this tough period. “In terms of production, while some activities have naturally paused as we exercise responsible social distancing in line with the global community, other activities are able to continue due to our extensive library of evergreen content,” he says.

Thirdly, documentaries represent good value for money, and in a recession, which seems almost inevitable, this could prove crucial. The Guinness Book of World Records cites the BBC's Walking with Dinosaurs as the most expensive documentary, per minute, made. Its budget of $9.9 million (Dh36.3m) worked out at $61,112 (Dh224,433) per minute over its 162-minute length. If Avengers: Endgame had adopted the same economic model, it would have cost only $11.1m (Dh40.8m) to make, rather than its actual $356m budget.

Henry Windridge, Discovery Networks' head of brand for the Middle East, says documentaries might be better equipped to ride out the pandemic

Of course, a wildlife documentary and a superhero film are vastly different beasts, but you can certainly see how the former could appeal to anxious studio money men looking to turn profitable content around in the midst of a financial crisis.

There’s only one flaw with this plan to save our screens. Just over three weeks into lockdown, and we are already spending so much of that time obsessively watching and analysing every news broadcast, with most of it being screen-on-screen interviews. And it seems we'll be seeing a lot of that for a long period of time, but documentary makers once the lockdown is over, please go out and interview your subjects in person. A human connection is needed, even at a screen level.