For Netflix Documentaries, There’s No Place Like Sundance

This image released by Netflix shows a scene from "Power" by Yance Ford, an official selection of the Premieres Program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Netflix via AP)
This image released by Netflix shows a scene from "Power" by Yance Ford, an official selection of the Premieres Program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Netflix via AP)
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PARK CITY, Utah (AP) — Filmmaker Yance Ford was in a “Sundance haze” when he took a meeting with Netflix following the premiere of “Strong Island” in 2017. The streamer was still somewhat new in the original documentary space at that point, but had made several big splashes with docs as different as “The Square,” about the Egyptian revolution, and “ What Happened, Miss Simone? ” Liz Garbus’ portrait of Nina Simone, both of which were nominated for Oscars.

“Strong Island” would go on to get an Oscar nomination, too, as would its Sundance and Netflix peer “Icarus,” which would win best documentary in 2018. But “Strong Island” was a different kind of film, a wrenching and deeply personal investigation into the 1992 murder of his brother and the failures of the justice system. When Ford, a first-time filmmaker, walked out of the meeting, he asked his producer if that had gone as well as he thought. He was assured it had.

“There was no explaining the film to them,” Ford said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “Netflix understood what ‘Strong Island’ was doing and what it could say to a big, broad audience.”

Ten years after “The Square,” an acquisition that put Netflix documentaries on the map, the streamer is back at the 40th Sundance Film Festival with an eye towards acquisitions and two very different originals. Ford’s latest, “Power,” an inquiry into the evolution of policing in America that had its world premiere Thursday night in Park City, Utah. Bao Nguyen’s “The Greatest Night in Pop,” about the making of the charity anthem “We Are The World,” debuts Friday before streaming on Jan. 29.

“I think that Netflix is largely responsible for the documentary landscape that exists today,” Ford said. “It was responsible for giving the public access to films like mine.”

With “Power,” which looks at policing from 30,000 feet, he said, “I wasn’t particularly interested in the debate about defund the police. I wasn’t particularly interested in the rhetoric of Back the Blue. What I was interested in is this thing that I saw at play which was just this manifestation of the power of the state being exercised over people.”

Adam Del Deo, Netflix's vice president of documentary, joined the company around the time of “The Square” and commissioning “What Happened, Miss Simone?,” working with veteran Lisa Nishimura.

“We really were the new kids on the block trying to persuade filmmakers that having the reach of the platform was something that was really important,” Del Deo said. “The mission when I began was to be the premiere storyteller in the doc space. That was the case back in the DVD days and continues to be the objective today.”

In the 10 years since, the Netflix audience has grown from around 37 million members to over 250 million worldwide and the appetite for documentaries has only intensified. It’s allowed for experimentation in commissions and acquisitions in both series and features, including “Chef’s Table,” “Making a Murderer,” the Emmy winning “Wild Wild Country,” the Oscar winning “ American Factory ” and the Oscar nominated “ Crip Camp.

Many of those successes started in some form at Sundance, the festival that launched doc classics like “Hoop Dreams” and “Paradise Lost” before the so-called “golden age of documentary” from the past several years. They don’t have one specific type of movie they’re after – in fact, they’ve found their members seek out diversity of genre and thus it’s a matter of finding “best in class storytelling,” he said, whether that’s in sports, pop culture, nature, current events or anything else.

“It’s really a question of curation of titles that… really cut through, that are going to feel fresh and drive conversation and create cultural moments around the world,” Del Deo said.

“What Happened, Miss Simone?” was the company’s first commissioned documentary and Garbus remembers being excited but also a little wary as they were “untested.” Then she met Del Deo who became her trusted “man on the ground” while making the film, which played on the festival’s opening night in 2015, with a performance by John Legend.

“One of the most exciting things was being on Twitter the moment the filmed dropped on Netflix, seeing reactions from Brazil, from France, and seeing the world light up at once,” Garbus said. “It was thrilling. You really felt like you were in a global moment.”

“Miss Simone” was also the beginning of a long friendship and professional partnership between Garbus and Del Deo that continued through “Harry & Meghan” and on through “Power,” which Garbus executive produced.

While Nishimura exited the company last year, Del Deo is excited about the future of their original documentaries — including several recent festival acquisitions like the Jon Batiste film “American Symphony” (out of Telluride), “Black Barbie” (out of SXSW) and “Mountain Queen: The Summits of Lhakpa Sherpa” (out of the Toronto Film Festival) — as well as their Sundance titles and those they haven’t discovered yet.

“The Greatest Night in Pop” was produced by Lionel Richie and features never before seen footage from the making of that memorable charity song that started with Harry Belafonte and brought together performers like Bruce Springsteen, Smokey Robinson, Cyndi Lauper, Dionne Warwick and Huey Lewis. It is sure to be a popular crowd-pleaser with one of those big premieres in the festival’s biggest venue, the Eccles, where “Miss Simone” also started.

“I think it's going to put a lot of smiles on people,” Del Deo said. “I cannot wait for people to see this film.”

Though Nguyen was only around 2 when the song came out in 1985, it’s taken on greater meaning over the years. It was one of the records that his parents, Vietnamese refugees, would often play. And then recently, visiting his mother in Vietnam, his taxi driver had it playing in his car and its timeless, global resonance set in.

“It was such an unlikely group of people who came together in one night. That sense of pressure, I felt was quite cinematic,” Nguyen said. “It’s great to be able to share this film to the world because of how much the song touched people all around the world.”