On opening night of AFI Docs a few years ago, festival director Michael Lumpkin noticed something. He and his colleagues were turning to one another, unprompted, and asking the same question: “Where did all these young people come from?”
The night’s headlining film might have had something to do with it: “Icarus,” a deep dive into bike racing, high-performance steroids and the Russian doping scandal, possessed obvious interest to a healthy cross-section of D.C.-area bicycle riders, congressional staffers and policy-shop interns.
But that screening turned out to be more than a one-off. Lumpkin noted similarly youthful audiences for such films as “Minding the Gap,” “Personal Statement” and “Foster,” as well as the annual Meet the Press Film Festival of issue-oriented shorts. At this year’s AFI Docs, which runs through June 23, he predicts that “After Parkland” (about gun violence activism), “Slay the Dragon” (gerrymandering) and Liz Garbus’s “Who Killed Garrett Phillips?” (a true-crime mystery involving a 12-year-old victim) are all poised to attract younger viewers.
“There needs to be more research and data,” Lumpkin says. “But from what we’ve seen, I do think the audience is getting younger.”
Lumpkin’s observations dovetail with what several filmmakers, distributors and streaming companies have been seeing for the past few years: that a form once dismissed as the cinematic equivalent of spinach has been embraced by a new generation. In February, the documentary streaming service MagellanTV issued a study finding that 16 percent of millennials prefer documentaries over straight news and fictional drama, as opposed to 12 percent of baby boomers. The younger cohort were also more likely to use documentaries to inform their world views and marshal evidence for debates about current events.
The fact that former HBO executive Sheila Nevins, a titanic force in forging documentaries’ current golden age, was recently hired by MTV to start a nonfiction film division suggests that spinach might be having a moment with notoriously picky eaters. Suddenly, documentaries have a chance at becoming the cinematic equivalent of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
This shouldn’t be entirely surprising, especially considering the deluge of random information, opinions and raw facts that washes over young people all day on social media. Documentaries help viewers process an overwhelming amount of data into structured, relatable narratives, often with emotionally compelling protagonists at their core. In a “post-truth” world in which the people in highest authority can’t be trusted to be honest, the lived realities of documentaries offer at least a modicum of authenticity.
What’s more, they now exist on a storytelling continuum — alongside fictional movies, dramatic series, comedies, news and commentary — that has become increasingly non-binary. A 17-year-old attracted to the jump scares in “It” is just as likely to be attracted to the lurid real-life horror explored in “The Jinx.” Add the fact that young people are in many ways documentarians in their own right — obsessively chronicling their own lives through visual media — and a form that once might have been considered uninviting or arcane is now a vital means of self-expression.
“Think about what millennials and Gen-Zers are watching: a YouTube video that’s five minutes long, is filmed in someone’s bedroom and is very confessional — a person talking about their sex life or makeup,” says producer Dan Cogan, who with Garbus just founded the production company Story Syndicate to create nonfiction content that can be adapted across a range of genres and platforms. “This generation does not see a boundary between scripted and non-scripted entertainment. “What’s the difference between ‘Making a Murderer’ and ‘Riverdale’? In many ways, they’re touching on the same things.”
Lisa Nishimura, vice president of independent and documentary film at Netflix, concurs, noting that the streaming service serves up viewing suggestions based on what users are in the mood to watch, which can be satisfied “in a feature film, in a series, in a short, it can be fiction, it can be nonfiction,” she says. “If you’re someone who’s just looking to feel something or be inspired in some way, I love that a documentary can be presented shoulder to shoulder with a series or a blockbuster film.” (Nishimura says that Netflix doesn’t track viewership by age, but social media activity around certain films suggests that “Knock Down the House,” about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; “Fyre,” about the misbegotten music festival; and “Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé” have been popular with young people.)
The fluidity of modern media consumption mirrors this generation’s culture: Wendy Cohen, president of Picture Motion, a company that creates social impact campaigns for fiction and nonfiction films, notes that teenagers and young adults are “more aware that this is a giant world full of different people with different identities, and they’re curious about it in a way where they really want to get to know someone. They want to experience diversity they know is in the world, that they might not see every day in their own lives but that they can see in documentaries.”
Cohen notes that two recent nonfiction movies were particularly resonant with young audiences: “Science Fair,” about teenagers competing in an international science competition, and “Roll Red Roll,” a film about a sexual assault captured on social media at an Ohio high school. The latter film was shown at the Avalon Theatre in April at a screening organized by senior girls at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, in response to an incident in which male students were discovered “ranking” their female peers. “There were 300 people there from the school who watched the movie and then had a 45-minute discussion about toxic masculinity, rape culture and consent,” Cohen recalls. “This is exactly why young people love documentaries. It’s a little bit like [they’re saying], ‘See, this is actually what we really want to talk about. This is what we’re going through.’ And sometimes adults don’t do a very good job of listening.”
For passionate documentary fans, the current cachet of nonfiction filmmaking simply underscores what we’ve known all along: that documentaries have evolved from dry, talking-head “educational” films to immersive narratives every bit as visually and thematically sophisticated as the slickest Hollywood feature. With the recent explosion in platforms and the concomitant need for content, the market has finally risen to meet the quality that has been recognizable for at least a generation.
One of the prime movers in that evolution is skeptical about the current boomlet. Nevins, a visionary producer who led the documentary division at HBO for 38 years, isn’t yet convinced that young people are gravitating to documentaries any more than they used to, especially when true crime is taken out of the calculation. What she does believe is that documentaries can help young people makes sense of a world that makes them feel anxious, alienated and powerless.
“Life has become frightening, and no one on high seems to care,” Nevins says. “It’s a terrible time to be alive, and documentaries say, ‘Look at the real world, see if you can shake it up a little bit.’ ” At their best, she adds, nonfiction films can make young people feel less hopeless. “Documentaries have a way of joining people in a society that gives a s---,” she says. “Are they really more important among young people? Maybe they’re all they have, which is a direct reporting of the world, from somebody who wants to make things right.”