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Documentary Genres Hollywood Can’t Seem to Get Right



Over the last decade, the nature of documentary filmmaking has changed. As streaming services slowly took over the traditional cable model, studios and streaming platforms were looking to stand out. One of the easiest ways to garner acclaim was to create documentaries.

Compared to TV shows and films, documentaries are more investigative and grounded in reality. (At least, they should be.) As Netflix, Hulu, and HBO began to compete, releasing a critically acclaimed documentary series was one surefire way to garner attention and nab new viewers. But along the way, it seems there’s been a proliferation of poorly rated documentaries.

A good documentary is characterized by investigation and storytelling, along with credible sourcing, narrative structure, and a balance of competing opinions. In other words, a documentarian should let a story speak for itself. A bad documentary, on the other hand, will stand out thanks to a highly biased perspective on an event or person. 

While it might seem like a good documentary has a few straightforward ingredients, it seems there are some topics that Hollywood and its filmmakers just can’t seem to get right. Let’s explore.


Poker has been around for well over a century. Though it originated in New Orleans, it has since become a staple for players throughout the UK. Millions each year learn the ropes with the help of online guides, then play their hand starting in virtual table games and tournaments. Given the sheer number of people learning and playing poker each year, you’d think creating a solid documentary wouldn’t be such a high charge. 

Instead, there hasn’t been a satisfying poker documentary released to audiences—despite the fact that hits like Rounders (1998) and Molly’s Game (2017) have stood the test of time. So, what’s behind the failure of releases like Grinders (2011) and Bet Raise Fold (2013)?

It seems that poker projects take too close a look at the game’s most sensationalized aspects without actually delving into what actually makes the game so unique and beautiful, including elements like using probability to inform strategy, learning how to read opponents online or in-person, and knowing how to control emotional tilt.

Urban Legends

The idea of exploring urban legends with documentaries isn’t anything new—unfortunately, the vast majority of these projects fail. That’s because they tend to tilt into fully biased territory, often leaning on sensationalized rumors and interviewing individuals known for saying whatever is on their minds. It’s entertaining—but it doesn’t make a good documentary. Even projects like ‘Tiger King’ have suffered from this type of highly exaggerated and dramatized approach. 

Cropsey (2009) is one of the more notable documentaries that was positively received when it was released but has later come into question. The project blends the urban legend of Cropsey, a deranged boogie-man known to New York City residents, and the true-life story of Andre Rand, a criminal active on Staten Island. Using an array of horror film tricks and treatments, audiences were treated to an extremely biased true crime story with an ending that falls short of any meaningful conclusion.

Celeb Bios

There seems to be an overwhelmingly popular trend of releasing celebrity biographies in the form of documentaries. Here, the issue isn’t about whether celebs have compelling stories worth exploring. Instead, platforms like Netflix and even HBO have allowed their topics to steer projects. In other words, many celeb bios are marketing team projects before they’re investigative or critical documentaries.

There’s Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé, which is billed as a documentary that’s entirely written, directed, and narrated by the starlet. Is this documentary filmmaking—or full-length self-promotion? The same can be said about the newly released Beckham, which skirted (and sanitized) the more pressing and dramatic moments in the player’s career. 

The issue here is that a biopic or documentary shouldn’t be self-scripted. First, this creates a huge bias toward the creator. Second, it prevents filmmakers from uncovering truly vulnerable and raw moments. For example, one successful celeb bio is ‘Selena Gomez: My Mind & Me’, which achieved acclaim because it was the result of a filmmaker (Alek Keshishian) following Gomez for six years, then editing the footage himself—not handing creative control back to the doc’s subject.

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