Is Netflix a doc lovers paradise?

Let’s give that a think.

Most people I know use an iPhone. Many listen to music through Spotify. But it’s gotten to a point where I assume everyone I know has Netflix. Although Netflix has 36 million subscribers, that number seems to encompass all the folks in my orbit. (That’s sort of a remarkable feat, considering some of the bad press that the DVD and streaming company has received.)

And that number includes a lot of documentary lovers. I’ve always appreciated how I can use Netflix to watch a doc I might be writing about. Sure, it doesn’t have every documentary, but I’d say a quarter of the time they’ve got the film I want to see.

But when they have it streaming I’m ecstatic! That happens to me about one out of eight times, but my needs can be very particular — You’ll probably have a better success rate. Just take a look at the docs that are available right now to stream. I can easily put together a great list of 10 recent must-sees: Bully, Pina, The Imposter, Undefeated, The Invisible War, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, The Island President, Last Days Here, 5 Broken Cameras, The Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975.

From a viewer’s perspective, there’s a lot of reason to love Netflix. I appreciate how Netflix serves me, but do the doc filmmakers feel the love and get a fair shake in their deals with the company?

I asked documentary directors about their dealings with the company, and they seemed by and large not miffed, as I’d assumed they would be. If anything, they were mostly resigned. For some, there was a vagueness about the deals they got, and one told me of getting the “runaround” in doing business with them. There was also a sense that Netflix, as one director said, sometimes leaves “the little guys behind.”

But I was mostly interested in the money. This is what I got, in my unscientific survey:

Filmmakers, through an intermediary, might sell 500 to 1,000 DVDs to Netflix, for a rate of $10 to $13 per DVD. For streaming, the deals are generally flat fees for a set number of years (say, three to five), generally in the low-five figures, but they can get as high as six-figures. Most don’t have the leverage to do that, but some do. That’s quite a range, I know. In fact, one director was incredulous about the high end. “Not in a million years,” he said. I’m just reporting what I’ve been told. (I contacted Netflix, which declined a request for information.)

So do my findings constitute a “fair shake?” First, for most films, Netflix is an ancillary market, so, hopefully, the filmmakers have made some bread during a theatrical or video-on-demand release. But with Netflix, considering the wide range, it appears that if a filmmaker can structure the right deal, he or she can do alright. Of course, $30,000 (or even $10,000), for a film that took years to make, isn’t adequate compensation for the blood, sweat and tears, but this is what the marketplace seems to bare today.

Care to share your streaming deals with the documentary community? Share your experience in the comments, or message me directly on Twitter at @docsoupman.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen