Why filmmaker Ken Burns won’t do a documentary for the streaming giants

The conservatorship of Britney Spears, the college admissions fraud scandal, the accusation of sexual abuse against Woody Allen — all of these stories came back atop headlines in recent weeks after new documentaries offered fresh insight. 

The films appeared on streaming platforms Hulu (DIS), Netflix (NFLX), and HBO Max (T) to feed a growing appetite for nonfiction.

Still, legendary documentary filmmaker Ken Burns says in a new interview he’ll never make a movie for the streaming giants. Rather, he plans to keep his longtime partnership with PBS that affords him total creative control and a lengthy production timeline, he says.

“I’ve been with public television my entire thing and I’m staying with them,” says Burns, whose new three-part film “Hemingway” premieres on April 5. “They have one foot in the marketplace and the other tentatively out.”

Burns, known for expansive movies on quintessential American subjects like “Jazz” and “Baseball,” cited the marathon production schedule for his 10-part documentary series “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 or a premium cable, and say, with my track record, ‘I need $30 million to do Vietnam,’ and they would have given me,” he adds. “But what they wouldn’t have given me is 10 and a half years.”

“PBS gave me 10 and a half years,” he says. “They gave me six and a half on Ernest Hemingway.”

With hundreds of millions in the U.S. isolated at home — and many more around the world — the pandemic brought about an explosion of viewership for documentary. Last April, 34.3 million viewers watched the murder mystery “Tiger King” over its first 10 days available, making it one of the most popular original programs ever to air on Netflix, according to Nielsen. 

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

Documentary has made up a key part of high-profile production deals reached by streaming giants and creators. Last September, Netflix inked a multi-year production deal with Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle reportedly worth upwards of $100 million, which calls for a slew of projects, including documentaries. Similarly, former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama signed a blockbuster deal with Netflix in 2018 that includes nonfiction work.

Nevertheless, Burns said he prizes the arrangement with PBS free of the pressure to turn a profit, since it relies on a host of individuals and institutions who back his work.

“It’s not a financial model; it’s a grant model,” he says. “We raise money from foundations, and individuals of wealth, from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, from PBS itself.”

 “We make [the films] zero-sum games,” he adds. We’re “not allowed to put in contingency, not allowed to put in any profit margin, and it just happens.”

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

Burns spoke to Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer in an episode of “Influencers with Andy Serwer,” a weekly interview series with leaders in business, politics, and entertainment.

Filmmaker Ken Burns speaks to Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer on “Influencers with Andy Serwer.”

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

For years, he has lived and worked in the small town of Walpole, New Hampshire.

Speaking with Yahoo Finance, Burns welcomed the explosion of documentary filmmaking. He described the early days of his career in the 1980s as what he thought at the time was “the golden age” but acknowledged how the output has improved since.

“There was just an amazing spectrum,” he says. “And it’s only gotten bigger and more effective.”

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