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true crime big business

Netflix’s Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, a fictionalization of the life of a serial killer, was the second most-watched English-language series on streaming giant three weeks after its debut in September.

Ryan Murphy, creator of shows like “glee” and “American Horror Story,” is at the helm, producing the show under a $300 million deal with Netflix.

The show’s success highlights the popularity of true crime, which can make a lot of money. The project could eventually sell for millions of dollars.

In 2020, The New York Times paid Serial Productions $25 million. Serial Productions is the company behind the popular non-fiction “Serial” podcast, whose first season he covered the 1999 murder of Baltimore high school student Hemin Lee.

The true-crime genre has long fallen prey to the small-screen popularity of documentary series like “Unsolved Mysteries” and news and documentary shows like “Dateline,” but its footprint is growing exponentially. seems to be growing.

True crime today consists of a myriad of subgenres across multiple platforms such as network and cable TV, streaming services, and podcasts. Ed Hersh, a veteran true-crime-focused television executive, true-crime-focused industry consultant, and adjunct faculty member at Syracuse University, is a leading figure in true crime, including Investigative Discovery and Oxygen. It is so popular that there are entire television networks devoted to crime stories.

According to Hirsch, real-life crime stories include scripts such as ride-along reality shows like “Cops,” the forensic science show “Forensic Files,” the limited documentary series “Making a Murderer,” and Netflix’s “Dahmer” series. Includes accompanying drama.

The true crime taxonomy can also be decomposed in other ways.

“You’re in the mind of a criminal. Why would someone do that? We know who did it. Now we want to understand why.” said Hersh.

Then there’s the actual crime story, which he calls “howdunits.” Think about it: In the Theranos scandal, founder girlfriend Elizabeth Holmes was found guilty of misleading investors about her blood-testing company. In these cases, questions such as “How could someone have gotten around this?” are considered. Hersh said.

Despite the popularity of fictionalized “Dahmer,” the biggest growth area is non-fiction, he said.

How True Crime Shows Are Developed

“Getting something on the air is a long and arduous process,” said Rob Dorfman, who founded Strong Island Films with his wife Cindy Dorfman.

Dorfmanns produces true crime films and series such as “My Uncle Is the Green River Killer” and “The Real Story With Maria Elena Salinas” for Lifetime Movie Network and Discovery ID. Most recently, he produced and directed his 2021 documentary Making an Exoneree, which follows a Georgetown University student reviewing a case of a possible wrongful conviction.

Cindy Dorfman said the real appeal of crime to viewers is that “people want to know what kills people, why murders happen, how people go missing. It’s all wrapped up in these different packages, there’s the mystery of what happened, and then there’s human psychology trying to figure it out.Why would someone do something like that?”

“There needs to be a unique entry point,” said Rob Dorfmann, because the true crime space is so competitive.

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

Based on his experience, Rob Dorfmann said television networks such as Oxygen and ID could receive orders for six episodes of the series if they approve the pitch.

“In the past, they would pick up like 10,” he said. I think sometimes they just pick up pilots.”

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

However, the cost of producing a show or film depends on whether the footage is shot using a mobile phone or more advanced equipment.

“We own all the equipment and we own the editing system. We invested in the company so we don’t have to pay for those,” says Cindy Dorfmann. “But it can cost a lot.”

A 90-minute film can cost upwards of $1 million to produce and edit, she said. “It’s expensive,” she said.

But documentaries that deal with real-life crimes generally cost less than scripted fictional TV shows and movies that have to hire writers, directors, cinematographers and stars, said industry consultant Hirsch. .

Variety reported in 2017 that FX spent between $3.5 million and $4 million per hour on drama.

How the Business of True Crime Has Changed

Hirsch said advertisers reluctantly embrace the real crime. “Audiences love it, and advertisers go where viewers go,” he said. “Advertisers like to fish where the fish are.”

Real-life storytelling is also evolving into an ecosystem, where the popularity of a story in one medium can lead to adaptations in others.

“There’s kind of a pipeline from podcasts to TV shows and from TV shows to podcasts,” says Hersh. “Podcasts influence TV shows, and TV shows influence podcasts.”

For example, Cindy and Rob Dorfmann turned the investigative podcast “Up and Vanished” into an Oxygen TV show. They also did the opposite, turning an episode they created for the TV adaptation of “Up and Vanished” into their current podcast, “Partners in True Crime.” This episode focuses on the disappearance of Oklahoma residents Molly Miller and Colt Haynes. .

“We decided, ‘Oh, we obviously have all the material we can’t talk about in an hour.’ “The podcast was a huge success. We had over 300,000 downloads in four months.”

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

“Ever since meeting Paula, the podcast for me has always been about… what our family is going through and how horrible this is and how to make sure this doesn’t happen,” said Cindy Dorfman. I got

True Criminal Ethics

As true crime grew in popularity, there was also backlash, with critics calling the genre exploitative and noting that some stories focused too much on the perpetrator.

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

“I want people to understand that this is not just a story or historical fact, it’s real people’s lives. [Lindsey] Was someone’s son torn apart, someone’s brother, someone’s father, someone’s friend [our] Alive,” Perry told the Los Angeles Times.

The Washington Post’s head of television and pop culture, Bethony Butler, said in an interview with NPR that it may be difficult to craft a true crime story without again victimizing the people at the center of these cases. .

But Cethnick is still the focus in shows like Netflix’s “The Keepers,” which explores the case of Kathy Cethnick, a Baltimore nun who was murdered more than 50 years ago.

“Throughout the entire episode, it feels like Sister Kathy is at the center of it,” said Butler.

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