The biggest business of true crime

The Netflix show “Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” a fictionalized account of the serial killer’s life, became the streamer’s second-most-watched English-language series three weeks after its debut in early September.

Ryan Murphy, creator of shows like “Glee” and “American Horror Story,” produced the show as part of his $300 million deal with Netflix.

The show’s success underscores the popularity of true crime, where big money is involved. Projects can end up selling for millions of dollars.

In the year In 2020, The New York Times paid $25 million to Serial Productions, the company behind the popular non-fiction podcast “Serial,” whose first season covered the murder of Baltimore high school student Hye Min Lee.

While the true-crime genre has long been popular fodder for the small screen — including documentaries like “Unsolved Mysteries” and the news and documentary “Day” — its footprint seems to be growing exponentially.

True crime now consists of seemingly countless subgenres, spanning multiple platforms including network and cable television, streaming services, and podcasts. It’s so popular to have entire TV networks devoted to true-crime stories like Detective Discovery and Oxygen, says Ed Hersh, a veteran TV executive, true-crime industry consultant and adjunct faculty member at Syracuse University.

Hersh said they include true-crime stories like “Cops,” the crime-science show “Forensic Files,” the documentary limited series “Making a Murderer” and drama series like Netflix’s “Dahmer.”

The taxonomy of true crime can be broken down in other ways as well – there are more “whys” than anything else.

“You enter the criminal mind. Why would someone do it? We know who did it. “Now we want to understand why,” Hersh said.

Then there are true crime stories, which he calls “howdunits.” Consider: The Theranos scandal in which Elizabeth Holmes, the founder, was found guilty of misleading investors about her blood testing company. Those issues are like, “How does one get out of this?” He examines the questions. Hersh said.

The biggest area of ​​growth, he says, is nonfiction, despite the popularity of the fictional “Dahmer.”

How true crime developed

“It’s a long, arduous process to get something on the air,” says Rob Dorfman, who founded Strong Island Film Production Company with his wife, Cindy Dorfman.

The Dorfmans have produced true crime films and series for Lifetime Movie Network and Discovery ID, including “Uncle Green River is the Killer” and “True Story with Maria Elena Salinas.” Recently, Georgetown University students produced and directed the 2021 documentary “Making an Exoneree,” a re-examination of wrongful convictions.

Cindy Dorfman describes the appeal of true crime to audiences who “want to know what makes people kill, why murders happen, how people disappear.” It’s all wrapped up in these different packages. There is a secret to its creation. And then there’s the human mind—trying to figure it out. Why would someone do such a thing? “

Because there is so much competition in the true crime scene, “you have to have a unique entry point,” says Rob Dorfman.

“What is your unique story that no one else has?” he said. “It’s like anything else — you’re competing in the marketplace.”

Based on his experience, Rob Dorfmann says that television networks like Oxygen or ID can pick up a six-episode series if they approve a pitch.

“It used to be less than 10,” he said. But with the economy and economics of the television industry, they want to see it do well first. Sometimes they take up a pilot.”

Budgets for those episodes can range from $400,000 to $600,000 per episode.

However, the cost of making shows and movies can vary depending on whether you’re using your phone to record or more sophisticated equipment.

“We own all our equipment… and our editing systems. We’ve invested in our company, so we don’t have to pay for these things,” Cindy Dorfman said. “But it can be very expensive.”

If you’re doing it right, making and editing a 90-minute film costs more than a million dollars, she said. “It’s expensive,” she said.

But true-crime documentaries generally cost less than scripted, fictional TV shows or movies, which require you to hire writers, directors, cinematographers and stars, said industry consultant Hersh.

Difference In 2017, FX reported that FX spends between $3.5 million and $4 million per hour on its dramas, while Ryan Murphy’s “American Crime Story” spent about $6 million.

How the business of true crime has changed

Advertisers have accepted a true crime of negligence, Hersh said. “The audience loves it, and the advertisers go where the audience goes,” he said. “Advertisers like to fish where the fish are.

True crime storytelling has turned into an ecosystem, with the popularity of a story in one medium driving adaptations in others.

“There’s a podcast-to-TV show and a TV show-to-podcast pipeline,” Hersh said. “Podcasts inspire TV shows and TV shows inspire podcasts.”

For example, Cindy and Rob Dorfman turned their investigative podcast “Up and Vanished” into an Oxygen TV show. They turned their episode of the TV adaptation of “On and Off” into the current podcast, which focuses on the disappearance of Oklahoma residents Molly Miller and Colt Haynes. .

“We decided, ‘Oh, we’ve got all this stuff that you can’t cover in an hour. So let’s dive deeper. And the only way to dive deeper was through a podcast,'” Cindy Dorfman said. “The podcast was very successful. We got over 300,000 downloads in four months.

The podcast includes interviews with Miller and Haynes family members, particularly Miller’s cousin Paula Fielder, who has been trying to solve her disappearance for nearly a decade.

“After meeting Paula, the podcast has always been for me … what the family is going through and how horrible this is and how we can stop it from happening,” Cindy Dorfman said.

The ethics of true crime

As true crime has risen in popularity, critics have called the genre exploitative and pointed out how some stories focus on the perpetrators.

Eric Perry — a relative of one of Dahmer’s victims, Errol Lindsay — of Netflix’s “Dahmer” said on Twitter. The show was “exciting.”

“I want people to understand that this is not just a story or a historical fact, these are real people’s lives. [Lindsey] He was my son, my brother, my father, my friend [our] It will,” Perry told the Los Angeles Times.

Bethony Butler, who covers television and pop culture for The Washington Post, explained in an interview with NPR that it can be difficult to make true crime stories without bringing back the people at the center of these cases.

But in a show like Netflix’s “The Guardians” — which explores the case of Kathy Cesnik, a Baltimore nun who was murdered 50 years ago — the focus is on Cesnik.

“Throughout the episodes, you feel like Sister Kathy is in the middle of it,” Butler said.

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