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Documentary Series Length of Episodes

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Aaron Cadieux
Documentary Series Length of Episodes
on Jul 1, 2020 at 5:48:48 pm

Hey everyone,

It's been years since I have posted to Creative Cow, so I wasn't sure which forum to float this question to. Hope I chose wisely.

Anyway, I am heavily involved in a true crime documentary series that is nearing completion. We think that this is a compelling story that could very well wind up on a high-profile streaming platform (i.e. Netflix, Amazon, Hulu), or a premium network (i.e. HBO). As of right now, this is a seven-part series. We have done a lot of fat trimming, but the running time of the first four episodes still stands at 80 minutes each. If anyone out there has some experience in dealing with the big outlets, can you tell me if they would be absolutely dead-set against running times that long? From what I can see, most episodes of documentary series run in the fifty minute to one hour range. The only exception to the rule, that I've seen, are some of the Ken Burns series like his series on Vietnam. But Ken Burns is Ken Burns, and his series are not tagged as "Netflix Originals". They are obviously licensed to Netflix after-the-fact.

Anway, would love to get some feedback.

Thanks

Aaron



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Mark Raudonis
Re: Documentary Series Length of Episodes
on Jul 1, 2020 at 6:40:37 pm

I'd suggest reaching out to these prospective buyers and asking them for their formatting templates. Every distributor has slightly different requirements. But, the commonality is that a "one hour" show is never 60 minutes. It's more like 44:30 or something like that to make room for commercials, promos etc.

80 minutes would be closer to a "90 minute" programming block. We've done plenty of "90 minute" episodes, so it's not impossible, but you really need to speak with the network. Nobody in this group can answer the question "how long is too long". Frankly,
if the subject matter is compelling, most buyers want MORE rather than less. Good luck.



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Douglas K. Dempsey
Re: Documentary Series Length of Episodes
on Jul 1, 2020 at 7:00:52 pm

Mark is right, it’s not a tech question so you need guidelines from potential distributors/networks.

Anecdotally I have watched a lot of series in last few years, and can not recall any with “feature length” episodes. There must be some ... but as you note, it’s not the rule.

So creatively, and preemptively ... I would look at the possibility of finding the likeliest cliffhanger break, two-thirds of the way into the first episode, pasting that onto the head of episode two ... and ripple through all 7 episodes, with the idea of making a ten-part series. At least, have notes on how you would do it, in case that becomes the issue. If someone like HBO becomes interested, they employ supervising editors and might stipulate exactly this kind of edit ... and you would be wise to go along.

Finally - if the piece is truly compelling - consider doing the above exercise and selling it as two SEASONS. The streamers love taking you to a season finale, then with holding the final resolution to another binge-worthy season.

Doug D


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Aaron Cadieux
Re: Documentary Series Length of Episodes
on Jul 1, 2020 at 8:23:47 pm

Douglas,

Thanks for your reply. As of right now, each episode ends with, what at least I consider to be, an absolutely perfect cliffhanger. Another set of eyes may be able to find cliffhangers that would, in essence, extend the series and make each episode shorter. But the cliffhangers, as they currently exist, are what make splitting up the episodes further so difficult.

I would imagine HBO, given that they air content in real-time, would be less flexible than a Netflix or Amazon regarding the length of an episode, but I could be wrong.

Thanks for the advice!

Aaron



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Douglas K. Dempsey
Re: Documentary Series Length of Episodes
on Jul 1, 2020 at 8:37:22 pm

Bottom line, if the shows work as well as you claim, the “highest bidder” may be the one who buys into your structure, and that’s worth any other compromises. Good luck and can you give us a hint? Or just come back and post here, if you get a deal!

Doug D


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Scott Witthaus
Re: Documentary Series Length of Episodes
on Jul 4, 2020 at 8:52:03 pm

Just finished an “hour-long” doc that PBS might have an interest in. We had to be 56:45 on the nose. So we did two versions: PBS and a film festival version (1:04:00).

sw


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