For several years, the streaming giant has produced and broadcast a large number of criminal documentaries. While the true crime genre isn’t new, it has never been so popular.
They are everywhere. On YouTube channels as well as on podcasts, where they are listened to by millions of curious people. More than ever, real crime stories are exciting. They also abound on streaming platforms with documentary series, called true crimes in English. Netflix has made it its specialty, to the point of releasing it every month. The latest, Sons of Sam: The Endless Horror, looks at the misdeeds of serial killer David Berkovitz.
Formerly offered on cable, especially on the HBO channel, these programs have become one of the flagship signatures of the streaming giant since Making A Murderer. Upon its release in 2015, this 10-episode docu-series, directed by Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, is a worldwide success. Praised by the press, he won 4 Emmy Awards – the Oscars of the small screen – the following year.
A considerable impact
Cardboard becomes a social phenomenon whena petition, collecting more than 500,000 signatures, asks then-President Barack Obama to forgive Steven Avery. Accused of the murder of photographer Teresa Halback, the man, who claims his innocence, was the subject ofa life sentence. A few days later, the White House reacted by reminding that the situation was not their responsibility. This craze pushes Netflix to capitalize massively on the genre.
The interface even offers to list all the titles with the help of a secret code: 9875. With these four figures, the page displays no less than fifty programs, which cover crimes that have become famous with still unresolved disappearances. To enrich its catalog, the platform scans festivals, from Toronto to Sundance, and acquires nuggets likely to create a new event.
While the genre is particularly popular in States–United – most of the programs focus on American affairs – it also fascinates the French. In 2019, Netflix unveils Grégory, a 5-episode documentary series directed by Gilles Marchand on the murder of Grégory Villemin, killed in 1984. Success is there and encourages the platform to continue its momentum. She is currently looking at theOutreau affair with a new docu-series, carried by Imagissime, the same production company as Gregory.
In the footsteps of Hollywood series
The strong demand is partly explained by the efficiency of the format. Over time, the true crimes have evolved. First edited like classic reports, alternating testimonies, reconstructions and archival images, some take on the appearance of Hollywood series. The staging is neat, focusing as much as possible on the suspense with great blows of distressing music and open endings, otherwise called cliffhangers.
This renewal “sets the bar very high for directors, said Alexandre Aja, guest of the podcast ofAlloCine for the release of his film Oxygen. The serial format for the documentary brought another perspective, another dimension.“The director, who quotes The Staircase and Wild Wild Country, admits to being seduced by the drama offered by these productions.”We refrain from going on the internet so as not to know how it will end“, he continues.
The line between traditional series and documentary series is getting thinner and thinner. In parallel, Netflix continues to offer many fictions on criminals like Mindhunter by David Fincher or The Serpent with Tahar Rahim. Soon, it is the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer who will be entitled to his own program under the leadership of Ryan Murphy.
Faced with this flow of stories, each more macabre than the next, a question arises: what does this fascination say about viewers? There is, of course, a desire to rub shoulders with danger, to explore the worst corners of the human mind, but also a hint of a little perverse voyeurism. Asked by AlloCine, Joe Berlinger, renowned filmmaker in the genre of true crime, insists on an important distinction: “There are the sensational, gritty documentaries and those made for the right reasons.”
The director, who notably signed the trilogy Paradise Lost and La Disparue at the Cecil Hotel, wants to pay tribute to the victims and their families. “In my work, it has always been about social justice. I want to allow these people to take back control of their story“, he underlines. A strong principle which recalls that behind these entertainments hide above all human tragedies.