In 2005, when Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos began the documentary project that would eventually become Netflix’s “Making a Murderer,” they thought they were making a feature length documentary film.
Over a decade after the start of production, “Making a Murderer” was released by Netflix as a 10-part series. It sparked a far-reaching and passionate discussion about the criminal justice system in the US.
But it wasn’t always clear that “Making a Murderer would find any audience at all. It didn’t fit the mould, the directors tell Business Insider, and a path toward a commercial release wasn’t clear until 2013, a full eight years after they started work on it.
By March of 2006, just a few months into filming, Ricciardi and Demos knew they were pushing the seams of what a documentary could be commercially. Then 16-year-old Brendan Dassey had entered the story as one of two men, including his uncle Steven Avery, who would stand trial for the murder of Teresa Halbach. As the story the directors were capturing unfolded, it became simply too big for a single film — or even a miniseries.
“There were not many distribution forms for a longform nonfiction series that was all one story, told over the course of several episodes,” Demos says. “We had one example of ‘The Staircase,’ which aired on the Sundance channel, and we held it onto that model for dear life.”
But things weren’t looking good. Ricciardi and Demos took a series of meetings as the years crept on, some with high-profile outlets, but the talks always broke down. When the details came out, traditional deals would require them to cut and compress, and significantly alter the storytelling language. It was rewarding to have people interested, but it didn’t really help, they explain.
There was a point when they just had to make a decision to put their energy in making the film instead of making the sale, Demos says.
95% of the project was self-funded until 2013 (the rest came from things like grants). While the pair edited the film, they returned to their former careers: Ricciardi worked as a contract lawyer, and Demos as an electrician on film sets and television shows.
But in 2013, Netflix started producing original content, and the directors saw an opening.
“Netflix was already a place we went to see documentaries,” Ricciardi explains. Netflix hadn’t started releasing documentaries yet, but agreed to a meeting anyway. Ricciardi says by the end of the meeting Netflix had said they were on board. “Of course it took a little while to hammer out the deal,” she finishes.
What impressed Netflix so immediately about “Making a Murderer?”
“We can look at the data and say true crime is an interesting category that people are interested by, sure,” Lisa Nishimura, Netflix’s VP in charge of documentary acquisitions, explains. That’s one factor. “But there’s a lot of true crime content out there, right? So the question was what made this compelling and interesting and for me, it was that commitment to the level of storytelling.” Lots of true crime is focused on descriptions and reenactments, she says. “Making a Murderer” put you in the courtroom, in the interrogation, right in the story.
Netflix was hooked, and it didn’t have the constraints that some other bidders for the series had. Netflix didn’t care what form the story took. It could be a feature, six episodes, 10 episodes — as long as it was compelling and entertaining.
Giving the directors flexibility is ultimately what allowed Netflix to snag “Making a Murderer,” and it’s also part of the more general way Netflix is providing a different type of outlet for documentary film — one that helps facilitate viral success.
When Nishimura explains Netflix’s documentary philosophy, two huge factors jump out. The first is the lack of a specific form Netflix is looking for. But the second, which is perhaps of greater importance, is its global distribution.
“The standard way in which documentaries are produced is inherently disaggregated, meaning that generally, the old school way to do it was that you would take money from various distributors, like an advance. You would then promise some window of your broadcast to that partner.”
They would get it for a certain period of time.
“But when that was DVD,” Nishimura continues. “Some markets were less unsold. They would go sometimes months if not years before getting another partner … What [Netflix has] taken out of the whole mix is the ambiguity of availability.” If you sign a deal with Netflix, you don’t have to worry about being being able to find a way to watch your film.
There are other outlets for broad distribution of documentaries. Nishimura points particularly to international broadcasters like BBC, or NHK in Japan, which have been funding quality documentaries for a long time. But there is still often a regional element and a constraint in availability. It’s simply easier for something with global distribution on the internet to go viral.
“I think the key of every great documentarian I’ve had the pleasure of working with, at the end of the day, they want to be fairly compensated, which we completely agree with, and they want to be heard,” Nishimura says. “They want their story to reach an audience. That is why they do what they do.” In some sense, they want to go viral.
Ricciardi and Demos echo this sentiment. Their goal was to start a dialogue about the American criminal justice system. That’s not an easy feat, but it’s something they certainly accomplished (whichever side of the case you come down on). Nishimura describes it as a “global watercooler moment.”
Ricciardi and Demos laugh about the project being a huge cost to their posture and grey hairs, but there is a whole lot of truth in that. This series took them a decade of toiling to make, and they certainly wanted to reach people, and be complete the project on their own terms.
Netflix isn’t the only company to have discovered the viral potential of longform nonfiction narratives especially in the true crime genre. HBO’s “The Jinx,” which chronicles the deaths surrounding real estate heir Robert Durst, burst into the cultural conversation in a similar fashion, and ESPN’s “O.J.: Made in America” is getting initial buzz. In a slightly different medium, there is also “Serial,” the podcast megahit that revisits a murder trial over a decade old.
The commercial climate bodes well for filmmakers, Ricciardi and Demos say.
But Netflix’s lure of freedom and global distribution has spanned beyond the true crime genre as well, notably to celebrity projects. In May, Chelsea Handler began her three-year, 90-episode talk show deal with Netflix.
“I wanted to create my own structure and the only place to do that, in my mind at that time, was Netflix,” Handler recently told Recode’s Kara Swisher. “So they didn’t come to me, I went to them.” She’s also been impressed with the global distribution. “Netflix being in 190 countries … that kind of platform is hugely attractive.”
And Nishimura says nonfiction will be a big part of Netflix global future, as it’s been since she began working there 9 years ago. “It’s been part of our DNA and our fibre from the get-go,” she says, and as Netflix expands internationally, it will only become more so.
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