True Crime Docs Continue to Draw International Interest Amid Oversaturated Market

Despite an ongoing pandemic, political unrest and frequent natural disasters due to global warming, viewers worldwide have not tired of true crime documentaries about horrific murders and inconceivable heists. True crime docus are enjoying unprecedented levels of global success. And while the marketplace may be saturated, the competition to find, produce and distribute the next story of a killer, fraudster or crypto criminal is intense. This year’s slate of true crime doc offerings at Mipcom is proof.

Distribution company Abacus Media Rights (AMR) is taking 14 true crime titles, including “Murdered at First Sight,” “Love You to Death” and “Murder: Fight for the Truth,” to the Cannes television market.

“More and more channels and platforms are taking on true crime content,” says AMR managing director Jonathan Ford.

“It’s content that supports a binge viewing model in two ways. One way is if it’s a serialized piece, viewers want to get to the end and know what happened or find out who was caught. Or [the genre] supports binge model viewing if it’s an episodic series where viewers love an episode and want to know what the next episode is about. What’s the next case about? Then they end up watching three or four in a row.”

In September, AMR sold the four-part docuseries “Butchers of the Bayou” to Amazon Prime Video in the United Kingdom and Ireland. The series, about two serial killers in Baton Rouge, La., was licensed by A&E for the rest of the world. Despite having sold the docuseries, “Butchers of the Bayou” will be on the Croisette.

“We are at Mipcom with ‘Butchers of the Bayou’ to say to channels, ‘This is what we’ve done with this series. Do you like it? Because we are making other things in this space,’” says Ford. “It’s an indication of the type of quality of the product that’s available from us, that has sold, has been successful and that we are going to be doing more of.”

Woodcut Intl. will also be at Mipcom to prove its dedication to the form. The distributor will be touting existing projects “Surviving a Serial Killer,” “How I Caught the Killer,” “The Killer Within” and “K(nox): The Rob Knox Story.”

“It’s a competitive time in true crime for broadcasters,” says Koulla Anastasi, commercial director for Woodcut Intl. and Woodcut Media. “So if there are channels and broadcasters out there who are keen to find distinctive, really well-made crime docs, we want to  get in touch because we’ve got lots of ideas, and we are keen to work with new channels.”

Anastasi adds that while the company is going to the Cannes-based television market to find additional territories for finished content, Mipcom represents a chance to make presales and work with new distributors.

“We have a number of regular U.K. partners and U.S. partners that we work with, but we are looking to pull together our co-funding deals so we can greenlight productions for the year ahead,” says Anastasi. “We work in that co-pro, presale model, which is how a lot of true crime [content] is produced these days.”

While violence and trauma are at the core of crime docus, they do not appear to upset audiences. Instead, the subject matter seems to be a diversion.

“Historically, what we have found, over the past 15 or 20 years, is that in times of difficulty, when the world around us is slightly chaotic, crime content does quite well,” says Anastasi. “People don’t necessarily want to watch the news. They are looking for an escape. For a lot of people, true crime is — it’s an awful phrase — but it is a guilty pleasure.”

Ford, based in London, says while watching “Butchers of the Bayou,” he could “imagine a hot, sweaty Louisiana, where this serial killer is walking around stalking people.”

“It gave me this image of this place that I’ve never been to or experienced,” he says. “So, it’s sort of lean-back watching, which takes you out of reality and lets you consume another world. There’s also an element of satisfaction in these crime shows when the culprit is brought to justice.”

Lion TV will be at Mipcom with a three-part docuseries titled “Stolen,” transporting audiences into the art world. The series features three true stories about art theft and international crime.

Although the popularity of crime docs is universal across platforms and has turned the genre into a tentpole for traditional broadcasters and streamers, Lion TV’s head of factual, Tom Watt-Smith, says that the genre is in the midst of a shift.

“What’s happened in the last 12 to 24 months is that true crime series have moved into fraud and con men and actually moved away from the serial killers and murder docs,” says Watt-Smith. “The area that I am most interested in is the art of the con, the psychology of it, the idea of masterminds, the gray area of lawyers and undercover ops and the loss of justice. So, I think that’s where the genre is at the moment. That’s what’s intriguing to most audiences right now.”

Although Woodcut Intl. is still a firm believer in murder-based content, Anastasi foresees inevitable change given the current climate.

“Because of the incessant difficult news month after month, I’m curious as to whether that will start having an impact and whether slightly more uplifting content will prevail in these difficult times,” says Anastasi. “I’m not sure, but it’s probably not the right time for the very, very dark crime.”

Ford anticipates an increase in crime stories based around social media.

“That’s what the younger audiences are now experiencing, so putting the context there is appealing,” says Ford.

Like Lion TV, Studio Canal will be at Mipcom with a heist-based series. The company will launch “Air Cocaine,” about the case of four Frenchmen who were charged with transporting 700 kilos of the drug from the Dominican Republic in a private jet.

While it may seem that there is no end to stories about theft, cons and murder, Alix Lebrat, Studiocanal’s COO of TV series, says the competition to find stories worth telling is “fierce.”

“It’s really competitive because these stories already exist, and several producers might be working on the same one at the same time without knowing it,” says Lebrat. “So you really have to be the first get the best story, then add something really unique in terms of storytelling. You need to be ambitious in terms of production value because this is also what is going to make a difference on the market.”

Whereas once the story of a murder would be told in an hour, multi-episode series are now the norm for the most ambitious true crime fare.

“That’s what the market is looking for at the moment,” says Lebrat. “The audience likes to have cliffhangers. They like that kind of narrative more and more. It’s a trend, and we plan to follow it.”

The fascination with true crime has never been stronger with audiences, and there’s no shortage of criminals and their victims, but whether the genre will remain a staple in viewers’ screen diet is anyone’s guess.

“Will these true crime shows keep growing beyond where it is now? A bit,” says Ford. “Will the demand for true crime stay at the level it’s at now? Yes.”

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