How to pitch your project to get on Netflix
Image logo asset courtesy: Netflix

As an award-winning independent documentary filmmaker, I can testify that getting your movie on Netflix is incredibly difficult and legitimately next to impossible. Landing your documentary on Netflix is like catching lightning in a bottle; it never happens. That is unless you know how the doc industry works and how to get in front of a decision-maker. Even then, your chances are slim to none. But I’m going to tell you how I was able to pitch my documentary to Netflix with no agent, no inside connection and no handouts. Keep in mind: It took over a decade to do it independently, but here’s how I got my upcoming doc in front of Netflix.

The dream of pitching to Netflix

Pitching Netflix is every filmmaker’s dream. It’s arguably why we get into the business. Netflix helped usher in the Golden Age of documentary in the 2000s and made docs much more accessible to the general public. As the years in my documentary career went by, so did the hopes and dreams of landing one of my documentaries on Netflix. That was until I got to peek behind the veil of the machine in 2021.

Breakthrough at DOC NYC

In 2021, our fourth feature documentary film, “Warrior Spirit” (2021) was selected for DOC NYC, which is America’s largest documentary film festival. Getting into DOC NYC is hard, almost as hard as getting into Sundance or SXSW. At DOC NYC, there were tons of streamers premiering upcoming documentaries, everyone from HBO to Showtime, Hulu, Netflix and more. There were very few indie docs there like ours looking for acquisition deals, but we had arrived at the largest documentary festival in America.

The Industry Guide

Unfortunately, we didn’t land an acquisition deal at DOC NYC, but we did get into contact with some of the reps for major streamers like ESPN’s “30 for 30.” At the end of the festival, we were given a valuable contact list of industry executives called the Industry Guide, which had contact information for streamers, financiers, agents and more. The Industry Guide was like a holy grail — a black book of sorts. We could now try to reach out to potential streamers and financiers on our own.

Contacting Netflix

There were two contacts from Netflix on the DOC NYC 2021 Industry Guide, but they did not include a phone number or an email contact for those two reps. It just had their names and job titles at Netflix. It’s very hard to contact them without a proper introduction. Frankly, they don’t want to be bothered unsolicited, but at least now we had some names to try to reach out to.

Developing a new project

Fast forward to 2022, and we are in development for our new project, which, for the purpose of this article, we will call “Dummy Round,” as it’s still in the works. DOC NYC was hosting a marketplace of sorts for upcoming documentaries in the development stage called Industry Roundtables. If you are selected, you get to bring your project to DOC NYC and pitch it to the interested streamers and financiers.

Pitch forums and opportunities

There are other major festivals and grants that host similar pitch forums, including Gotham Spotlight on Documentaries, Hot Docs Forum and more. This is a great way to get your project in front of the gatekeepers in the industry. These forums put you in an environment similar to a speed dating meet up, where you have 5-10 minutes to pitch your project to key players who can help provide the resources to bring the project to life.

Pitching at DOC NYC 2022

Our project, “Dummy Round,” was selected for the DOC NYC 2022 pitch forum, and we were on our way back to New York, this time with hopes and dreams of landing a major deal with Netflix or another big streamer. Before the pitch forum in New York, I was able to sleuth the internet to acquire the contact emails of the reps’ names I had from Netflix in the DOC NYC Industry Guide we received the previous year.

The cold email

I decided to cold email them to see if I can get a response. Now, keep in mind that the project in development had very strong commercial appeal, high stakes and a celebrity attachment. The story itself made headlines around the globe, and we have exclusive access to one of the people directly involved in the story. In our eyes, this made the project pitch worthy to a major streamer.

To my surprise, Netflix responded to our email with interest in the project and wanted to set up a Zoom call for a pitch. It was before we shot a pitch reel, but I still thought we could get a deal based on our access to the story. At that time, Netflix was going through a major downturn and cutting the staff by 20%, which didn’t make for a good time to pitch unsolicited, but you have to shoot your shot.

The Zoom call with Netflix

Netflix dragged their feet on setting up the Zoom call and rescheduled more than three times. It was very frustrating, to say the least, but we did get our call scheduled with one of their execs in the nonfiction department; we will call her Sara. Our Zoom pitch call with Sara was about thirty minutes long, and we explained our unique access to the story and the plot line we had developed for a documentary. Sara was courteous enough to hear us out and watch a pitch reel we made out of news and archive footage already available on the internet.

The first thing she pointed out was that all of our footage was archive news footage and asked where was the footage that we shot with our main character. At the time, we didn’t have much of our own footage to show. It was naive of us to take the pitch meeting without more preparation and our own footage. Netflix ended up passing on the project then.

Needless to say, we didn’t land the deal, but we did accomplish our goal of getting our project in front of a decision-maker at Netflix.

Pitching at Industry Roundtable

Fast forward to November 2022, and we head to New York to pitch at the DOC NYC film festival for the Industry Roundtable pitch forum. This time, we were prepared with our own pitch reel. We shot interviews with our protagonist and put together a new five-minute sizzle reel that had all of our exclusive footage and characters we were bringing to the table. We also had our film prospectus and press kit to go with it, which consisted of pictures of the characters as well as a couple of page documents describing the project.

At the Industry Roundtable, the festival director previews all the development projects to the execs attending the festival. This can include agents, financiers and streamers. Then, the executives choose which projects they want to hear pitches from face-to-face at the DOC NYC film festival. We were selected to pitch to Hulu, ABC News, Submarine, Vanity Fair and Season 5. No Netflix reps were in attendance.

We attended DOC NYC Industry Roundtables in November 2022 and pitched to the execs. Unfortunately, no one ended up financing the project from those meetings. However, we did get one smaller news magazine special show-type offer based on a connection we made at the DOC NYC pitch. It was frustrating to be that close and not get an offer. So, it was back to the drawing board.

New opportunities

Several months later, we got in contact with a production company that had produced documentaries for Netflix through a mutual friend. This ended up being our best opportunity to finally land the deal with Netflix. The production company had a track record for producing feature docs for major streamers and immediately got our project in front of his connection at Netflix, and they took an interest in our project. Sometimes, it is truly about who you know.

One thing led to another, and we had another Zoom meeting with a producer who had a number 1 documentary on Netflix in the summer of 2023. And that’s when all the stars aligned. With two reputable producers by our side that had done business with Netflix already and our project being pitch-ready and relevant, we were able to finally attract an offer from Netflix, and “Dummy Round” is in production and will be coming to Netflix in 2024.

Never give up

To get the job done in the documentary industry, you must persevere and believe in yourself. It also takes some connections and the right project. Luck and timing are also very important when you’re an outsider looking in. So, if I could offer you just one piece of advice here, it’s to always keep going.