Documentaries like Netflix’s Harry & Meghan are “almost in a different category,” the docs boss of Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment said today.
Responding to a question from Deadline at MIA Market, former HBO producer Sara Bernstein also said the “fees have raised in terms of what this access looks like and what it costs a producer like our company” on shows where the subjects exert a certain amount of editorial control.
Although it isn’t only Harry & Meghan that opted for this approach, the conversation was sparked by last year’s hit doc series, which was co-produced by the ex-royal duo’s Archewell Productions via a multi-million dollar Netflix deal.
“We live in a world today where celebrities, big personaltiies and talent of a certain magnitude understand what their value is to the industry and to an audience,” Bernstein said. “I think that has driven the desire to be more participatory in the process and to either demand a seat at the table as a producing partner or second producer.”
Speaking to Deadline recently, BBC docs boss Clare Sillery said she would never have commissioned Harry & Meghan due to the royal couple’s editorial control demands.
Bernstein pointed out that Imagine’s Apple TV+ doc The Super Models counts subjects Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington as EPs, but she said “it is important to maintain some level of editorial control.”
“But you have to understand that these projects are what they are,” she added. “Do you look at Harry & Meghan as a hard hitting exploratory documentary into their lives or realize you are getting a glimpse of their life and they’re opening up to you? Maybe that is more entertaining than informative? It is a big topic of conversation but I don’t think it’s going to change.”
Bernstein was speaking in Rome, Italy at the film and TV industry event MIA.
The producer joined Howard and Grazer’s Imagine around five years ago and has since worked on the likes of CNN’s The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, Amazon Prime Video’s Judy Blume Forever and Lucy and Desi about Lucille Ball. She made her name producing a wealth of big-name docs at HBO including The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling and Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour.
Her time at Imagine has coincided with multiple streamers recognizing that documentaries can grab vast audiences, she added, whereas in the past HBO was the main player in the premium space.
Therefore, Bernstein spotlighted the challenge of focusing on documentaries that “can still have impact and be enlightening to audiences” but aren’t “ripped from the headlines or have big personalities that people don’t normally have access to.”
“Those projects are less sexy,” she added. “People don’t like to get their vegetables or medicine when they watch TV but the projects can still be incredibly enlightening and the trick is to find the right way in to an issue-driven film. We need more platforms, streamers and broadcasters to take risks and recognize the audience is looking for information.”
To that end, Bernstein said documentary makers have a role to play in the devastating Israel-Hamas conflict, which has so far claimed the lives of more than 2,000 people.
“Some of the best war reporting has come out of docs over the past couple of decades,” she said. “There have been incredible films coming out of Syria and Ukraine and I think the more you allow an audience to walk in someone else’s shoes then the more empathy they are going to have to a situation.”
MIA Market is running this week in Rome, with talks from the likes of Paramount’s Nicole Clemens, Miramax’s Marc Helwig and Anonymous Content’s David Levine.