TBI Weekly: What’s driving Europe’s factual revolution?

‘MH370: Missing’, produced for France 2 by Federation, has sold to countries such as Germany and Spain

US docuseries have helped to revolutionise factual content over the past decade but the genre’s evolution in Europe is now also attracting attention, writes Nick Edwards.

Ever since Netflix’s Making A Murderer and HBO’s The Jinx hit screens in 2015, producers in European countries have been developing their own take on the documentary style that incorporates the episodic and narrative structure of scripted series.

Since then, the tectonic plates of the industry have shifted significantly on both sides of the Atlantic.

“There’s a feeling that too much was being made and things aren’t being discovered the way they used to be,” says Marc Smerling, creator of The Jinx, speaking from New York. “Everyone is trying to adjust to the new reality of less production and fewer shows being made for a finite number of streamers. It seems there’s a sea change in the business.”

In Europe, however, the high-end docuseries model is proving more resilient. “Overall we are actually investing more than we did three or four years ago,” says Petter Wallace, head of commissioning at NRK, referring to the Norwegian public service broadcaster (PSB)’s spend across both factual and scripted.

“But the genres being bought are changing. Drama producers are struggling more. The big streamers started to buy local series, companies expanded to reach that demand, then one after another those platforms have pulled out. But docuseries are not affected so badly,” he says.

NRK’s ‘Scandinavian Star’ was a co-pro between three countries

Streaming impact

In Germany, Christian Beetz, whose company Beetz Brothers is making five-part series Mafia Hunter for ARD, tells TBI: “We also have a robust PSB system. They want high-end series to compete with the streamers, especially for younger audiences.”

The landscape in France is also similar. “Whilst it’s very interesting and exciting to work with the global streamers,” says Myriam Weil, head of docs at Federation, “when you look at the volume of what they commission it’s really small. If you solely relied on them for your business it would be pretty risky.”

Netflix commissions a handful of premium French language docuseries each year, whilst the combined output of the other global streaming platforms is around a dozen. In contrast, France Télévisions (including its regional channels) still produces around 800 hours of documentary programming annually; Canal+ Group says it is behind “several hundred hours” and Arte remains very active.

French trade body, the CNC, last year revealed that France Télévisions had spent almost €72m for its 755 hours of docs programming, while Arte paid €32m for 234 hours and Canal+ committed almost €20m. Whilst these are not all premium docuseries, Weil adds that “the volume for linear is the same or even more than it was a couple of years ago.”

“The budget for a commission is stable,” she explains, but cautions that inflation has impacted the market, meaning that in real terms budgets have fallen. “But overall, it’s a pretty healthy market,” she adds.

Beetz, whose company specialises in the ‘high-end’ doc market, points to the competitive advantage of docuuseries at the moment.

“The impact of the streamers is that everything has to look high-end and cool. They always need new ways of storytelling – surprising narrative angles and so on. To do that in fiction is so expensive, it’s many, many times more expensive than in factual. Docuseries are expensive but not in comparison to scripted. It’s a much cheaper route to a big audience,” he says.

He also notes that the global streaming platforms have changed their strategy. “They’ve gone to ‘local to local’ rather than ‘local to global’. By that I mean they are concentrating their slate on local content for the local country rather than aiming for it to take off globally.”

One show that exemplifies this shift is Netflix’s Crime Scene Berlin: Nightlife Killer, which has Joe Berlinger (Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich) on board as EP.

“A couple of years ago this would have been shot in English and aimed at worldwide subscribers but this is shot in German and aimed at Germany first,” says Beetz, whose company will also be making three other true crime projects for Amazon (including the four-part series German Cocaine Cowboy) in 2024.

For NRK, its docuseries model is proving highly effective. “Most of the docuseries we have done have been amongst the highest rating [shows] on our linear channel and on our streaming service,” says Wallace.

“They are considered event series and we try to make them available all at once for binge watching – unless the last episode has a revelation in it, in which case we may try to drag it out for as long as possible.”

Like NRK’s famous scripted output, the broadcaster’s non-scripted series also focus on innovative storytelling that may well appeal to foreign audiences. Scandinavian Star is about a major ferry accident that occurred between Copenhagen and Oslo, in which hundreds of people died.

The screenplay was written by Nikolaj Scherfig, the Danish writer who wrote for the international scripted hit The Bridge. “It was a very expensive production. It needed a large amount of research in three different countries to make it relevant to all the contributing countries. So we co-produced with DR in Denmark and TV4 in Sweden. If we hadn’t have done that we couldn’t have bared those costs ourselves,” says Wallace.

However, much as NRK’s shows are loved at home, they do not tend to travel as Nordic crime fiction has. But this could all change. Wallace points to a rival’s production – Murder In Mayfair, which is a co-production between commercial broadcaster TV2 and the UK’s BBC. The show revolves around a murder in London involving a Norwegian as an example of a production that could spark a broader interest in docuseries from the region.

L’Affaire Flactif for Canal+ tackles a racially-motivated murder

True crime remains king

Federation’s MH370: Missing is another international story that takes place in multiple countries. Produced for France 2, it has many English-speaking protagonists and has already been bought in Germany, Canada and Spain, amongst others.

And global uncertainty is also providing an array of topics to explore – from war to climate change and politics – that generates international demand (often via pre-sales and frequently with interest from US buyers).

The driving genre of the docu-series is still, of course, true crime and it faces different challenges on both sides of the Atlantic. Productions that drive creativity within the genre are about more than just the crime itself. For example, L’Affaire Flactif, which Federation made for Canal+ in 2023, explores a potential racial motive behind a killing in a beautiful Alpine village. It is the type of project that is in the remit of a PSB to air.

“There are ethics in true crime that we should be very aware of as a PSB. Not glamorising the perpetrator is one of them. Finding stories that are not simply salacious or repeating what has been done before is a challenge,” says Wallace.

This was the case with NRK’s upcoming Phenomena Phillipe about a violent embezzler who scammed wealthy Scandinavians for millions of Krona.

“We tend to end up with a lot of unsolved crime stories that may or may not already be known to our audience. Sometimes we have known about them in the newspapers for years.

“We’re all still waiting for that one where we help solve the crime, like in HBO’s The Jinx , I think everyone in the world goes around waiting to get an ending like The Jinx in one of their series. But we work hard with our producers to make sure there is enough value in the storytelling itself, even if it ends up being unsolved.”

Smerling, whose Oscar-nominated feature Capturing The Friedmans was pivotal in establishing the true crime genre is now fearful for its future at home. “I’m a little worried for challenging non-fiction,” he says, “particularly the kind of journalistic investigations that don’t necessarily explore murders, but other crimes and scandals that are more complicated and that use the crime to shed light on what else is going on in America today.”

Smerling has pivoted his career before. His podcast Crimetown: Divine Providence is one of the most successful of all time and Apple TV+ is currently shooting a scripted adaptation of his 2021 podcast Firebug, with Dennis Lehane (The Wire) as showrunner.

He believes that 2024 may prove to be an existential moment for documentaries and docuseries, with new ways of connecting with audiences emerging. And, almost a decade on from the impact of US shows such as The Jinx, Smerling suggests that European models may be more deeply adopted.

“Perhaps [it could be] in a low budget way, maybe through independent movies. Maybe offer streamers and studios a model that resembles what we used to do – break up the cost, break up the territories.

“Maybe we look to a more European model – you get a little money from Germany, you get a little money from France, you spread it around.”

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