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The Future of True Crime Documentaries: Purpose in Projects

True crime has evolved from a niche interest to a major force in television, mirroring society's deepening fascination with the darker aspects of human nature. This shift reflects a growing demand for stories that not only thrill but also probe deeper into the psychological and social dimensions of crime. As producers and creators, the future of true crime documentaries lies in striking a balance between delivering gripping narratives and responsibly handling sensitive subjects, writes Billy Arthur.


A close up of a Sony Cinema Camera with an interview subject out of focus in the background

Introduction

The true crime genre has seen an extraordinary evolution, transitioning from the fringes of media to becoming a dominant force in contemporary television. Shows like "Making a Murderer" and "The Jinx" have not only captivated audiences with their riveting narratives but have also redefined the standards of documentary storytelling.


However, this surge in popularity has brought us to a critical juncture. Alarmingly, the race to produce compelling content has led some filmmakers to push ethical boundaries, sometimes seeking signatures on access agreements from grieving families just days after they've suffered a loss. This practice signifies a troubling overreach, a step too far in the quest for sensational stories.


These documentaries, while delving into the depths of human psychology and societal issues, now face a new challenge: to recalibrate their moral compass. The current societal shift towards a hunger for true crime content, blending the thrill of mystery with insightful exploration, demands a heightened level of responsibility from creators. They must not only craft narratives that are engaging but also deeply respectful and ethical.


If true crime is to continue as a medium that contributes positively to society, we as producers must commit to doing better. We might even witness an evolution away from the current state of true crime documentaries, moving towards a more empathetic and ethically grounded approach. This is not just about telling stories; it's about respecting the real-life impact these stories have and honouring the dignity of those they portray.


The Rise of True Crime in Popular Culture

The ascension of true crime documentaries and series to the forefront of popular culture signifies a shift in audience preferences. This genre, historically centred on sensationalist retellings, has evolved to embrace a more investigative and empathetic approach. Landmark series like "Serial" and "The Jinx" have paved the way, focusing on in-depth analysis and storytelling that respects both the facts and the human element involved. 


Recent additions such as Netflix's "The Keepers" or HBO's "I'll Be Gone in the Dark" have continued this trend, offering not only gripping narratives but also shining a light on the broader social and systemic issues related to the crimes featured. This new wave of true crime documentaries reflects a growing public interest in understanding the complexities behind criminal acts, prioritising a comprehensive and nuanced exploration over mere entertainment.


Deepening Social and Psychological Aspects

Modern true crime documentaries are distinguished by their in-depth exploration of social and psychological themes. This shift from a purely narrative focus to a more analytical approach is evident in series like "Mindhunter," which examines the psychological profiles of serial killers, and "Confession Tapes," which questions the reliability of confessions under duress. These documentaries provide a platform for exploring broader societal issues, such as the criminal justice system's flaws and societal factors contributing to crime. By offering a multifaceted view of crime, these series not only captivate viewers but also encourage critical thinking about the intricacies of human behaviour and social justice.


Balancing Storytelling and Sensitivity

In the realm of true crime documentaries, it's high time we shift our focus: the people affected by these crimes must come before the narrative. Filmmakers must radically rethink their approach, treating the subjects of these stories not as mere content fodder but as human beings deserving of utmost respect and care.


This means working closely and empathetically with survivors and families, allowing them to steer the narrative. It's about more than just 'adding depth' to a story; it's about ensuring that these individuals' experiences are represented authentically and respectfully, without sensationalizing their trauma.


Films like "Dear Zachary" set a benchmark in this regard, intertwining a gripping story with a dignified portrayal of its subjects. We need to see more of this — a commitment to ethical storytelling that goes beyond mere fact-checking to truly honoring the real-life impact of these events.


Innovative Storytelling Techniques in True Crime

The evolution of true crime documentaries has introduced a plethora of innovative storytelling techniques. But here's the crux: these methods, whether they involve re-enactments, interactive narratives, or mixed media, must prioritize empathy and sensitivity. Take "American Murder: The Family Next Door" as an example — its use of actual social media posts and texts offers an intimate, raw glimpse into real lives, not just a story.


Similarly, while immersive audio and visual techniques, like those in "Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer," add intensity, they should never overshadow the human aspect of these tragedies. It's not just about creating a dynamic viewing experience; it's about crafting narratives that are both impactful and considerate, that remember at their core are real people, often still grappling with the repercussions of the events depicted. This innovative storytelling must serve a greater purpose — to support and respect the sensitivities of those involved, both during and long after the production lights dim.


Audience Engagement and Reaction

Audience engagement in true crime documentaries has reached new heights, largely influenced by the advent of social media and online forums. Viewers not only watch these documentaries but also actively engage in discussions and speculations about the cases presented. This interaction is evident in series like "Making a Murderer," which sparked widespread online debates and even led to the formation of dedicated discussion groups. Such engagement reflects the power of these documentaries to not just entertain but to provoke thought and encourage public discourse on justice and crime. This level of engagement also demonstrates the changing role of the audience from passive viewers to active participants in the narrative.


While audience engagement on platforms like TikTok and social media has heightened the popularity and discussion around true crime documentaries, it also raises concerns. The real-time sharing of theories and information about active cases can sometimes turn them into media circuses, potentially impacting ongoing investigations. This phenomenon was observed in cases like the Gabby Petito disappearance, where extensive online speculation and amateur sleuthing on social media platforms added to the media frenzy. It illustrates a double-edged sword of digital engagement: while it fosters community and awareness, it can also complicate legal processes and affect the people involved in the cases.


The Role of True Crime in Advocacy and Awareness

True crime documentaries have increasingly become a platform for advocacy and raising awareness about critical issues. They often highlight systemic flaws in the justice system, wrongful convictions, and overlooked or mishandled cases. Documentaries like "The Innocent Man" and "The Central Park Five" have had significant impacts, not only bringing attention to individual cases but also prompting discussions about broader legal and social reforms. This aspect of true crime underscores its potential as a tool for social change, transcending mere entertainment to effect real-world impact.


The Future of True Crime TV

The future of true crime television is poised to be shaped by emerging technologies and evolving audience expectations. With advancements in virtual and augmented reality, future documentaries may offer even more immersive experiences. Additionally, the growing demand for ethical storytelling and diverse perspectives is likely to influence the kinds of stories that are told. This evolution promises a genre that not only entertains but also educates, challenges, and inspires viewers, continuing to blur the lines between entertainment, journalism, and social commentary.


The evolution of true crime documentaries reflects a profound shift towards in-depth, responsible storytelling. These documentaries now serve not only as a source of entertainment but also as platforms for social commentary and advocacy. The future of this genre lies in embracing innovative storytelling techniques, ethical narratives, and audience engagement, all while being mindful of the real-life impacts of the stories told. As the genre continues to evolve, it promises a richer, more immersive, and socially conscious viewing experience, blending the lines between entertainment and impactful storytelling.


 

Billy Arthur, a young man with short brown hair.

About the Author

Billy Arthur is the 21-year-old Managing Director of Enderley Pictures, a Royal Television Society and BAFTA-award-winning production company renowned for its premium, critically acclaimed documentaries, which have sold around the world. He most recently Executive Produced 'Forging Fate: The Disappearing Art Dealer', due for release in Spring 2024.


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