Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Netflix Streaming Deals for Documentary Filmmakers — Some Numbers

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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
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
  • Jimbowski

    my new distributor insists that netflix now avoids independent docs, and thus, that they won’t even consider my film. has anyone had recent experience with that?

  • Bryan Tucker

    Thanks for writing this Tom. I’ve often wondered about this, and there is little information out there about Netflix deals for filmmakers. I’m planning for self-distribution of my doc in the fall, and came across Distribber as an option to get it on Netflix. Haven’t spoken w/ anyone directly at Distribber, but through their website they seem confident in negotiating w/ Netflix on the filmmakers’ behalf (for a flat fee upfront, then low annual cost). Anyone used them before and have any thoughts on their abilities? Thanks.

  • Anonymous

    also for content partners looking to monetize their own apps on Connected TV devices/tablets companies like adRise help develop apps for free adrise.com

  • Lafayette

    I don’t recommend Distribber. They couldn’t get my doc onto Netflix. It was a really unpleasant experience dealing with them. Try New Video, Virgil, or Gravitas.

  • JohnH

    Right now Netflix is not looking for volume but “curated content” (their term), which is why they prefer working with companies that actually select their films, and not just acquire whatever comes their way.

  • Daniel Montoya

    Netflix doesn’t pay much. If you’re lucky you get $5,000 for your film and a deal in which they pay you cents per each stream. I recommend trying to get first broadcast, international sales and leave Netflix for last, not first.

  • Patrick Shen

    Back in 2010 I got $15k for a 2-year deal. Though it was favorably reviewed and rated 30k+ times (not sure how many views – maybe 3-4x that?) they chose not to renew my contract. It got a lot of eyes on my film and for that reason it was a favorable experience for me. My new film will be pitched to them (through Film Buff) in the coming months. We’ll see how it goes.

    • Anyextee

      Did you go direct with Netflix or through a third party distributor? I
      am a new filmmaker, have a grass roots buzz behind my film “Egypt
      Through The Glass Shop” and would like to get the film placed on Netflix
      for streaming. What is the process for submission? Will they do these
      deals direct or is it required that I go through a third party? Please
      advise.

      • Patrick Shen

        Went thru a distributor. Netflix doesn’t accept direct submissions from filmmakers. You can reach out to digital distros like Film Buff, The Orchard, Gravitas, etc. You might also want to look into services like Distribber. Good luck with the film!

  • Icecube

    Thanks for writing this Tom. Netflix streaming do not pay well also they dont consider your production untill it i very good and untill you have a deal.

    Streaming .

  • Ada

    I read your blog on Netflix for doc filmmakers… how does one even go about trying to get their doc on Netflix anyway?

  • restnxist

    Did you know that all the PBS, History, and Biography episodes will no longer be available on Netflix USA after June 30?

    • curlyfriesordie

      i am so heartbroken. and angry.

  • Andrew James

    We got 7K for CLEANFLIX for 12 months on Netflix. Not good if you ask me…

    • Anyextee

      did you go direct with Netflix or through a third party distributor? I
      am a new filmmaker, have a grass roots buzz behind my film “Egypt
      Through The Glass Shop” and would like to get the film placed on Netflix
      for streaming. What is the process for submission? Will they do these
      deals direct or is it required that I go through a third party? Please
      advise.

  • Anyextee

    @patrickshen:disqus @disqus_j1we6uiAzS:disqus did you go direct with Netflix or through a third party distributor? I am a new filmmaker, have a grass roots buzz behind my film “Egypt Through The Glass Shop” and would like to get the film placed on Netflix for streaming. What is the process for submission? Will they do these deals direct or is it required that I go through a third party? Please advise.