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Why director Ken Burns won’t make a documentary about the streaming giants

The Britney Spears Conservatory, the college fraud scandal, the Woody Allen accusation of sexual assault – all these stories have returned to the top of the headlines in recent weeks after new documentaries offered new information.

The films appeared on streaming platforms Hulu (DIS), Netflix (NFLX) and HBO Max (T) to feed the growing appetite for non-fiction.

Still, legendary documentary filmmaker Ken Burns says in a new interview that he will never make a film about giant streaming. Rather, he plans to maintain his long-standing partnership with PBS, which gives him full creative control and a long production schedule, he said.


7;ve been on public television my whole thing and I’m staying with them,” said Burns, whose new three-part film, Hemingway, premiered on April 5. “They have one foot on the market and the other is unsuccessful. “

Burns, best known for his expansive films on typical American themes such as Jazz and Baseball, cites a marathon production schedule for his 10-part documentary series The Vietnam War, which aired in 2017.

“PBS gave me 10 and a half years”

“I could have gone a few years ago – or 10 and a half – to a streaming channel or to a premium cable and said, in my experience, ‘I need $ 30 million to make Vietnam’ and they would have given it to me,” he added. “But what they wouldn’t give me is 10 and a half years.”

“PBS gave me 10 and a half years,” he says. “I was given six and a half by Ernest Hemingway.”

With hundreds of millions in the United States isolated at home – and many more around the world – the pandemic caused an explosion of audiences for a documentary. Last April, 34.3 million viewers watched the mystery of the “Tiger King” murder in the first 10 days, making it one of the most popular original programs ever aired on Netflix, according to Nielsen.

A documentary series about basketball legend Michael Jordan, called “The Last Dance”, which aired for five weeks from April to May 2020, averaged 6.1 million viewers per episode, ESPN said – making it the most-watched documentary. in network history.

The documentary is a key part of the spectacular production deals achieved by streaming giants and creators. Last September, Netflix struck a multi-year production deal with Prince Harry and his wife, Megan Markle, worth more than $ 100 million, which requires a number of projects, including documentaries. Similarly, former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama signed a blockbuster deal with Netflix in 2018, which includes non-fiction.

However, Burns said he was rewarding the deal with PBS without pressure to make a profit, as he relied on many people and institutions to support his work.

“It’s not a financial model; it’s a grant model,” he said. “We raise money from foundations and wealthy people, from the Public Broadcasting Corporation, from PBS itself.”

“We are doing [the films] zero-sum games, “he added.” We are not allowed to place unforeseen circumstances, we are not allowed to add a profit margin and it just happens. “

“What it gives me is complete creative control. If you don’t like these movies, it’s my fault,” he says. “And that’s the way you want it to be: No excuses.”

Burns spoke with Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Server in an episode of Influences with Andy Server, a weekly series of interviews with leaders in business, politics and entertainment.

Director Ken Burns talks to Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Server

Director Ken Burns spoke with Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Server about “Andy Server Influences.”

A two-time Oscar nominee, Burns has made films for more than four decades on a range of topics, ranging from the Vietnam War and the Civil War to Country Music and the Brooklyn Bridge. In addition to the upcoming film “Hemingway”, Burns will release later this year “Mohammed Ali”, a four-part documentary about the legendary boxer and social activist.

He has lived and worked in the small town of Walpole, New Hampshire for years.

Speaking to Yahoo Finance, Burns welcomed the explosion of documentary filmmaking. He described the early days of his career in the 1980s as what he considered the “golden age” at the time, but acknowledged that results have improved since then.

“There was just an incredible spectrum,” he says. “And it just got bigger and more efficient.”

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