The Evolution of Documentary Filmmaking in the Age of Celebrity

The Evolution of Documentary Filmmaking in the Age of Celebrity

Documentaries have long been viewed as a powerful medium for shedding light on important issues, providing in-depth analysis, and presenting a more objective view of the world. However, in recent years, the landscape of documentary filmmaking has undergone a significant transformation. With the rise of celebrity-driven documentaries, such as Netflix’s “Harry & Meghan,” traditional notions of the genre are being challenged. In this article, we will explore the impact of celebrity involvement in documentaries and the changing dynamics of access and editorial control.

Traditionally, celebrities were seen as subjects of documentaries, offering audiences a glimpse into their lives and experiences. However, in today’s media landscape, celebrities are taking on a more active role in the production and development process. As former HBO producer Sara Bernstein points out, celebrities now understand the value they bring to the industry and the audience, leading to their desire to have a seat at the table as producing partners or second producers.

The Access Conundrum

One of the consequences of this shift is the increased control that celebrities exert over the content and narrative of documentaries. Bernstein highlights the case of “Harry & Meghan,” where the ex-royal duo’s Archewell Productions secured a multi-million dollar deal with Netflix. As a result, the subjects of the documentary have a certain amount of editorial control, shaping the story according to their vision and objectives. This level of access comes at a cost, as Bernstein mentions the rising fees associated with documentaries of this nature.

While celebrity involvement can bring unprecedented access and visibility to a documentary, maintaining editorial control is crucial to preserving the integrity of the genre. Bernstein cites “The Super Models,” a documentary produced by Imagine Entertainment for Apple TV+, as an example. The supermodels featured in the film, such as Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell, serve as executive producers, but there is still a need to strike a balance between their input and the creative direction of the project. This delicate equilibrium ensures that the documentary remains informative and enlightening while still giving audiences a glimpse into the celebrities’ lives.

In recent years, streaming platforms have recognized the potential of documentaries to captivate large audiences. Bernstein points out that multiple streamers, such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, have become major players in the documentary space, challenging the dominance that HBO once held. However, this shift also brings new challenges. Documentaries that are focused on issues or lack the allure of celebrity personalities may be seen as less “sexy” but can still offer valuable insights and perspectives. The key is for platforms, streamers, and broadcasters to take risks and recognize the audience’s appetite for informative content.

Documentaries as Agents of Empathy

Beyond entertainment and information, documentaries can also serve as powerful tools for fostering empathy and understanding. Bernstein argues that some of the most impactful war reporting has come from documentary films, allowing audiences to step into the shoes of those affected by conflicts. In the context of the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict, she emphasizes the role that documentary filmmakers can play in presenting different perspectives and generating empathy among viewers. By enabling audiences to see the world through someone else’s eyes, documentaries have the potential to contribute to a more compassionate society.

The landscape of documentary filmmaking is evolving, driven by the increasing involvement of celebrities and their demands for editorial control. While this shift presents challenges, it also highlights the potential for documentaries to reach broader audiences and shed light on important issues. As the industry continues to adapt to this new reality, finding a balance between celebrity involvement and maintaining the integrity of the genre will be crucial. Ultimately, the power of documentaries lies in their ability to inform, entertain, and foster empathy among viewers.


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