Documentary filmmaking is getting its chance to shine with the arrival of Documentary+, a brand-new streaming service that showcases the genre in a way no other platform can offer. The service (which recently joined XUMO) comes from film studio XTR, and I spoke to XTR’s Head of Film Kathryn Everett about what makes it unique.
Plus, what has she learned from her own experiences as a documentary filmmaker and as a producer? And how is XTR continuing to further the documentary space with projects like their newly announced film about the IOC Refugee Olympic Team’s journey to the Tokyo Olympics? Get insight from one of the industry’s game-changing executives in our interview.
Brittany Frederick: Where did your interest in documentaries come from? What about the genre made you want to focus on it?
Kathryn Everett: I’m actually a non-traditional documentary film executive. My background, and most of my career, has been spent working in politics and for non-profits and largely working for non-profits internationally, advocating for education and specifically education for girls. I was doing work in Haiti for many years and then started doing some work around girls’ education in Pakistan, and when I started to learn more and more about the education crisis there, I was just shocked that nobody knew about it, and nobody was talking about it…So I thought, gosh, how could I make people care about this?
Of course I knew how to raise money from my non-profit and political fundraising days. I knew how to throw an event. I knew how to do a social media campaign. I knew that there were things that you could do to get people’s attention, but I knew that the best thing of all that you could do is to tell a great story and make them feel and make them care about the subject. And so I decided to make a documentary about it.
The film is called Girls Section and I directed it and produced it. I funded the whole thing on my own, just reaching out to friends and family and getting them to support it. And I was so excited by how the film landed in the world. It was watched like 100,000 times online and raised $250,000 for the organization that it was supporting. I realized then that you could work for different organizations or you could do as many fundraisers or events as you wanted, but nothing was more powerful than the storytelling tool of documentary film.
So I started to work on my own projects and dive deeper into the industry, and then teamed up with my old friend Bryn to start XTR, our documentary studio.
BF: You make a point of championing other female filmmakers. Did that become a priority for you based on that previous experience, or was it something that you saw a need for once you entered this industry?
KE: I would say definitely a combination of both. You can’t really experience professional life as a woman without noticing the inequalities and gender discrepancies that exist in our everyday existences. And that is for sure exacerbated abroad and much more glaring in different cultures. The one thing that I love about documentary as an industry is that it is much more diverse than the narrative industry in entertainment and many other industries. So we’re definitely starting at a better place.
But that’s one thing that we’re trying to do, is not just support female filmmakers or POC filmmakers in a way that is about mentorship or just providing a foot in the door. It’s by real support and investment financially. We are a company that is not afraid to give big investments to first-time female filmmakers, first-time filmmakers of color. Sometimes other bigger studios would think that those investments are more risky and not take those chances, but we see them as absolutely essential to our business.
BF: Why launch Documentary+ as its own platform, rather than taking your content and forming a partnership with an established streaming service?
KE: I think what we’re seeing right now is one of the most exciting times ever for documentary. The space is just exploding and there’s so much demand for non-fiction storytelling, but there’s also this huge accessibility that’s happening from all the streamers and all the platforms out there. So you’re getting hungry audiences and access to the content that they are really desiring.
But the thing that we aren’t seeing is an even playing field in the marketplace. When we looked around the landscape of documentary online and what was available to stream, so many of the platforms have amazing curated collections of films, but they’re really films that are specific to their audiences, and more commercial-type films or films that might be a little bit more expected. Whereas the curation on Documentary+ really has something for everyone.
Because it’s a free platform—you don’t even need to sign up, you can get it all around the world—it offers more options to filmmakers, for their film to find a home that is premium. It also is a way to make sure that there’s something for everyone on there. Our selection and our library is just so diverse and so varied and has really something for everyone.
BF: You made a bold and really unprecedented decision to share your viewership data, which we don’t see with other streaming services. Why does that transparency matter to you?
KE: It helps us to see what people are loving and what else we should like to acquire. But I think the reason that it’s so amazing for filmmakers is that they can also see what’s resonating with audiences. In a time where box office numbers aren’t as standard and people are consuming content online and in all of these different virtual ways, you have to be able to have metrics to drive what type of content you want to make next. And so we think that’s really valuable for filmmakers.
BF: As we get more options like Documentary+, and more filmmakers in this space, what do you see in the future of documentary as a whole? It’s very different now from where it was even ten years ago.
KE: It’s so fascinating to see how much the space has grown with the rise of streaming and the rise of accessibility to this type of content. If you look at what’s happening in popular culture and just in our everyday lives, people are really interested in true stories. You can see that even looking at people’s fascination with social media, and how we love to follow a specific person and see what’s happening in their specific life. Documentary is sort of like the meta version of that. You want to share and feel based on true stories. That’s what sets documentary apart, and I think that the options to keep telling those great stories are really infinite.