Can Documentary+ Give Non-Fiction Films a Home in Crowded Streaming Wars?

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Photo credit: Tiger King Records/Netflix

The ‘Tiger King’ Effect: Documentary+ Enters a Crowded Streaming Market Targeting Fans of Nonfiction

“A lot of people would be surprised, extraordinary documentary films that were Sundance hits a few years ago are homeless,” XTR CEO Bryn Mooser says

Nonfiction films and docuseries are having a moment. Netflix’s documentary series “Tiger King” was streamed last year for 15.6 billion minutes of viewing, Nielsen projected, making it the fourth most-watched original series of the year and beating out even a juggernaut like Disney+’s “The Mandalorian.” (Sorry, Baby Yoda.)

So Bryn Mooser, CEO of the nonfiction studio XTR, senses an opportunity for Documentary+ — another new streaming service on the market (and yet another one with a plus sign at the end).

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The service, which launched last month to coincide with the Sundance Film Festival, is a free, ad-supported platform, that aligns more closely with niche, genre-based platforms like Shudder or Crunchyroll, touting an initial library of more than 200 films dedicated solely to documentary films.

In that sense, Documentary+ is competing not just with niche streamers but also with big players who view nonfiction content as an easy way to fill up their libraries. Mooser feels the audience for documentaries is surging, with shows like “Tiger King” and “The Last Dance” and films like “The Social Dilemma” driving pop culture conversation.

“I want to build the best documentary streaming channel in the world, and what’s interesting about it is that there really weren’t any documentary-only streaming platforms at this type of scale,” Mooser told TheWrap. “The future of the industry is changing so rapidly, and it made me realize that a platform like this, there’s never been a better time to do it.”

“Born Into Brothels” (THINKFilm)

Among Documentary+’s initial lineup of films are award-winning, classic documentaries such as the 2004 Oscar winner “Born Into Brothels,” more recent cult documentary films such as “The Imposter” or “The Aristocrats,” sports docs like “The Stand” and films by auteurs like Werner Herzog’s “My Best Fiend.” Mooser said he envisions the service as a curated, Criterion Channel-type of platform, with Mooser himself acting like the movie geek behind the video store rental counter.

But even with the major studios reclaiming the streaming rights to many of their older films and racing to acquire more out of festivals, Mooser said he was shocked by how many films were ripe for the picking. “A lot of people would be surprised, extraordinary documentary films that were Sundance hits a few years ago are homeless,” he said. “There’s a lot of incredible films that are not exclusively on one of the major places. What I think that I was surprised by as I was building it was actually how many incredible docs were available for us to get.”

Mooser points out that the industry and market as we know it today for documentaries is only a few years old. For years, even the most commercial of documentaries were often relegated to limited releases in art-house theaters and found even less exposure once they hit home video. Not only is there a renewed market for these films, but audiences who had never been exposed to documentaries before are discovering them.

What he hopes with Documentary+ is that it can become a “key pillar” of the nonfiction industry and the film industry at large, offering a dedicated landing spot for filmmakers premiering their movies at festivals and at least drive some much needed competition in the market.

“The Imposter,” available for streaming on Documentary+ (Indomina Releasing)

“We’re at the very beginning of just an explosion of documentary film, television, and I’ll include podcasts, audio, in that too. Because of that there’s really terrific films that are very hard to find, and we want to make it easier,” Mooser said. “I’m not worried about it making noise or breaking through because I think what we’re building is really necessary and hopefully it’s going to be really awesome.”

In addition to Documentary+, Mooser leads XTR, which is still a young nonfiction studio at work developing a docuseries that hopes to do for Magic Johnson what “The Last Dance” did for Michael Jordan. Mooser made a splash on last year’s festival circuit by backing films such as “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets,” “The Fight,” “You Cannot Kill David Arquette,” “Feels Good Man” and “76 Days.”

Mooser said Documentary+ is in active conversations on potentially acquiring four documentary films that premiered at this year’s Sundance and may even be competing with itself, as XTR is co-financier on a whopping eight documentaries, many of them in competition. Those include “Ailey,” which sold to Neon, “Bring Your Own Brigade,” “At the Ready,” “Rebel Hearts,” “Users” and “Homeroom.” He added that the service will be exploring all options in terms of distribution, whether premiering exclusively on the service or in partnership with a theatrical distributor.

“Ailey” (Neon)

“We wanted to make sure those films go to the best place they can go, the best streaming channel, the place that can give the best deal in terms of financial and in terms of eyeballs. We’re a new platform, so I don’t expect that we’re going to be competitive on that scale,” Mooser said. “I don’t think we’re beating the big players out in terms of money or eyeballs, but I think that as filmmakers are figuring out how to get their films out everywhere, we will be an important part of that this year.”

One bittersweet aspect of Documentary+ is that the service was made in partnership with the late Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, who died last November at age 46 in a fire. Mooser called Hsieh one of the greatest entrepreneurial minds who ever lived and said he hoped to be raising a glass with Hsieh this week.

“It drives me to build this thing better, cooler and more incredible in his memory,” Mooser said. “The biggest thing to it is to build a culture. Build a community. Build a brand with Documentary+ and focus on that instead of focusing on subscribers and users right off the bat. Build something awesome, and luckily we have an investor with Tony who gave us the resources to do that. Build something awesome that people love and want to use and then a lot of great things can happen. I think that’s the recipe to success.”

Documentary+ is available for download now on Apple TV, Amazon and Roku.

Brian Welk