Netflix has been in the original content business for three years. Yes, that's how long it's been since it released the entire season of House of Cards all at once and created what we now commonly call "binge" viewing. At the time, I wrote an article that criticized the practice -- and in doing so got so much negative feedback that I was forced to rethink the column, and in the end, retract it.
So rest assured -- I won't make that mistake with Netflix new the Making a Murderer documentary series.
Here's the thing about Making a Murderer -- it's not like anything you've seen before. It's not a feature documentary -- as a filmmaker, I know that those come in a 90-minute long feature-length package. And it's not a "series" in the way we've come to know them. It's a 10-hour documentary -- immersive and addictive.
Honestly, it starts so slowly, the footage is so old and poorly shot and the characters so unsympathetic, it's hard to believe anyone gets past the first four minutes. I bailed out the first time and I know others who did the same thing.
But unlike film where you sit in a theater or a television show where you either watch it in real time or DVR it for later, Netflix long-form non-fiction is a slow, deep, detailed exploration that is hypnotic in its tick-tock rhythm. It draws you in -- revealing its story in no particular hurry and with none of television's required cliffhangers or ginned up characters. Netflix non-fiction is pure story -- and it seems to say: "if you don't like me -- fine, just stop watching." But you can't. Because the story of Steven Avery is so profoundly disturbing that it raises questions that reach far beyond the 10 hours of film that are now being devoured by the Netflix audience.
Lisa Nishimura, VP for original docs at Netflix understood that Making a Murderer needed a different kind of distribution."What was clear was that they were going to need a platform where the series could unfold in the well-paced, immersive way the story demanded," Nishimura told the New York Times.
The filmmakers, Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, have gathered together remarkable resources, and thanks to their choice of venue, present them in painstaking detail. For example, the more than three-hour long interview with Brendan Dassey, a 16-year-old who's police interrogation and eventual confession, plays out like a slow motion coercion. It's too slow to be filmmaking in any conventional sense of the word, yet far too captivating to fast forward through. Of course, it's Netflix -- so you can skip ahead -- but I suspect few viewers do.
Today, the story of Steven Avery is being debated across the country. It's a massive phenomenon on Reddit where a community of amateur investigators is now building its own case based on their viewing of the series. It's been debated on cable news and in print including Nancy Grace, People Magazine, and Rolling Stone. That a Netflix non-fiction film can trigger such discussion and debate is a tribute to the new nature of the form and the importance of a deeper dive into complicated stories.
It's a massive gathering of almost 700 hours of police interrogation footage, interviews, news reports and courtroom video. As the New York Times describes it, the series is, "immersive, compulsive and unpredictable, but also exhausting."
Back in 2013, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings seemed to see the future. In a letter to investors, he wrote: "linear channels must aggregate a large audience at a given time of day and hope the show programmed will actually attract enough viewers despite this constraint. For linear TV, the fixed number of prime-time slots mean that only shows that hit it big and fast survive. In contrast, Internet TV is an environment where smaller or quirkier shows can prosper because they can find a big enough audience over time."
Making a Murderer is a revelation to filmmakers and audiences. Because now, given the powerful success of the series, a new generation of long-form non-fiction projects will see the light of day. And audiences won't be forced to watch only 90-minute long films, because some subjects don't lend themselves to that abbreviated shelf space. Bravo to Ted Sarandos and Lisa Nishimura. A new genre is born.