Eye inside of video camera lens.

Netflix and Chill: Responding to a Crisis in the Era of Documentaries


Fourteen years ago, Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock changed the way corporations and industries do business—all through documentary film.

A pivotal scene in Bowling for Columbine led Kmart to clear handgun ammunition from its shelves. Super Size Me pressured McDonald’s to publicize nutritional information – a move with industry-wide implications that ultimately changed FDA policy.

Since then, we’ve witnessed the rise of Netflix as a content juggernaut. With over 56 million U.S. subscribers hungry for new content, Netflix has invested heavily in original content – including documentaries. As a result, a film that might not have seen the light of day ten years ago now has a new platform for exposure.

This proliferation of content makes your company or industry a more-likely target of a muckracking documentary. However, these films may not always subject you to the same risk that documentaries once did.

Understanding the Netflix Model

The combination of an exposé-style documentary and Netflix’s vast reach may seem deadly, but it’s not one that should inspire immediate alarm. Netflix provides a platform with a significant audience, but there’s no guarantee that its content will resonate. Netflix reportedly invested in at least 700 pieces of original content in 2018. This number indicates two things:

1. Netflix is in the breadth (not depth) game. Netflix needs a lot of content to attract new subscribers with different interests—and it knows not every movie or show is a winner. It just needs enough programming to attract and retain content-hungry subscribers.

2. Netflix can’t promote each piece of programming equally. So it doesn’t. Some shows get a lot of advertising and press, others wither on the vine.

The documentary game has changed in the last 15 years; the strategy for responding must change with it.

Considering the Crosshairs of a Damaging Documentary

You’ll need to prepare for battle, but make sure a war is truly brewing before you’re baited into firing the first shot. Here are four things you can do to survey the situation and prepare.

1. Compare

Netflix is notoriously tight-lipped about how many people view its original content including shows like House of Cards or Making a Murderer. However, media monitoring and social intelligence platforms may be used to chart trendlines for similar documentaries. Look at coverage of recent documentaries from related categories: Netflix documentaries, films by the same directors, award-winning documentaries on similar topics (health, finance, etc.). Establish a baseline for what “early traction” looks like and continuously chart the conversation surrounding your documentary against it.

2. Monitor

You should be the first to know if anyone associated with the film so much as sneezes. Set up instant media and social monitoring alerts for the film, the directors, the producers, anyone you know is featured in the documentary and any reporters likely to cover it. Follow social channels for the film and Netflix announcement.

When it’s time to share an alert with your boss or board, give context. For example, when you learn the Netflix release date, find out what else will be released at the same time. Will Netflix put its energy and ad dollars behind season 3 of The Crown instead? How has social chatter picked up for other recent releases?

3. Do Your Homework

Don’t respond yet, but be ready. If you can discreetly see an advance showing of the film, do it. Create a document that outlines the film’s damaging arguments (or what you anticipate them to be) and organize the facts that refute them. Find gaps in your research and address them. Identify the strongest, most sympathetic spokespeople within your organization as well as third-party allies who can speak credibly on the company’s behalf. Craft and test messages; use them to create holding statements, press releases, and op-eds. Build lists of reporters to contact at a moment’s notice.

4. Wait

Waiting is the hardest part. Don’t allow yourself to become the documentary’s biggest advertiser. Trust your preparation and the indicators you’ve established.

Netflix’s platform gives a voice to agenda-driven documentarians. As public affairs professionals, the onus is upon us to determine how credible a film’s threat is before responding.