The Netflix show “Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” a fictional account of the serial killer’s life, became the streaming giant’s second-most-watched English-language series three weeks after it premiered in September.
It’s helmed by Ryan Murphy, creator of shows like “Glee” and “American Horror Story,” who produced the show under a $300 million deal with Netflix.
The show’s success underscores the popularity of true crime, where big money can be made. Projects can eventually sell for millions of dollars.
Back in 2020, The New York Times paid $25 million for Serial Productions, the company behind the popular non-fiction “series” podcast, whose first season covered the murder of Baltimore high school student Haimin Lee in 1999. event.
While the true crime genre has long been a popular fodder for the small screen — including docuseries like “Unsolved Mysteries” and the news and documentary show “Date Line” — its footprint seems to be growing exponentially.
True crime now consists of a seemingly endless number of subgenres, spanning multiple platforms, including web and cable, streaming services and podcasts. It’s so popular that it’s been so popular that entire television networks are dedicated to true crime stories like “Investigative Discovery” and “Oxygen,” said Ed Hersh, a veteran TV executive, an industry consultant focused on true crime and an adjunct faculty member at Syracuse University. “.
True crime stories include reality shows like “The Cops,” the criminal science show “Forensic Files,” the documentary-limited series “Making a Murderer,” and scripted shows like Netflix’s “Dahmer” series, Hersh said.
The classification of true crime can also be broken down in other ways – besides whodunits, there are also “whydunits”.
“You’re getting into criminal minds. Why would anyone do this? We know who did it. Now we want to understand why,” Hersh said.
There are also true crime stories, which he calls “howdunits.” Think: Theranos scandal, where founder Elizabeth Holmes was found guilty of misleading investors about her blood-testing company. The cases explore the question: “How can someone get away with this?” Hersh said.
Despite the popularity of the fictional “Dahmer,” the biggest growth area is non-fiction, he said.
How true crime shows developed
“Broadcasting content is a long and laborious process,” said Rob Dorfmann, who co-founded the production company Strong Island Films with his wife, Cindy Dorfmann.
The Dorfmanns have produced true crime films and series for Lifetime Movie Network and Discovery ID, including “My Uncle Was the Green River Killer” and “True Story with Maria Elena Salinas.” Most recently, they produced and directed a 2021 documentary, Making an Exoneree, which follows Georgetown students re-investigating possible wrongful convictions.
Cindy Dorfman explained that the appeal of true crime to audiences is that “they want to know what makes people kill, why it happens, how people go missing. It’s all wrapped up in these different packages.” The mystery of what happened. And then there’s the human psyche—trying to figure it out. Why would anyone do such a thing?”
Because there is so much competition in the real crime space, “you have to have a unique entry point,” Rob Dorfmann said.
“What unique storyline do you have that no one else has?” he said. “It’s like anything else – you’re competing in the market.”
In his experience, Rob Dorfmann said that if TV networks such as Oxygen or ID approved the promotion, they might take over the order for the six-episode series.
“In the past, they used to pick up 10,” he said. “But given the economy and the economics of the TV industry, they want to see if it’s doing well first. Sometimes they just pick up a pilot.”
Budgets for these episodes can range from $400,000 to $600,000 per episode.
However, the cost of producing shows and movies can vary, depending on whether you’re using your phone to shoot footage or a more sophisticated device.
“We own all our equipment…we own our editing systems. We’ve invested in our company so we don’t have to pay for these things,” Cindy Dorfmann said. “But it can be very expensive.”
If you do it right, it can cost more than $1 million to produce and edit a 90-minute film, she said. “It’s expensive,” she said.
But industry consultant Hersh said true-crime documentaries generally cost less than scripts, fictional TV shows or movies, where you have to hire writers, directors, cinematographers and stars.
Variety reported in 2017 that FX spends between $3.5 million and $4 million an hour on its shows, with Ryan Murphy’s “American Crime Story” costing close to $6 million.
How true crime is changing
Advertisers have reluctantly embraced true crime, Hersh said. “The audience loves it, and advertisers go where the audience goes,” he said. “Advertisers like to fish where there are fish.”
True crime storytelling has also evolved into an ecosystem where the popularity of a story in one medium may lead to adaptations in other mediums.
“There’s a podcast to TV show and TV show to podcast pipeline,” Hersh said. “Podcasts inspire TV shows, and TV shows inspire 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 produced for the TV adaptation of “Up and Vanished” into their now podcast “Partners in True Crime,” focusing on Oklahoma resident Molly Miller and the disappearance of Colt Haynes.
“We decided, ‘Oh, we’ve got all this material that you obviously can’t tell in an hour. So let’s dig a little deeper. The only way to really get to the bottom of it is through a podcast,'” Cindy Dorfmann said. “The podcast has been very successful. In four months, we’ve had over 300,000 downloads.”
The podcast includes interviews with Miller and Haynes’ family members, especially Miller’s cousin Paula Field, who has been trying to resolve her disappearance for nearly a decade.
Cindy Dorfman said: “My podcast since we met Paula has been… about what this family is going through, how horrible it is and how we can stop this from happening.”
The ethics of true crime
As true crime has grown in popularity, so has the backlash, with critics calling the genre exploitative and pointing out that some stories focus too much on the perpetrators.
Eric Perry — relative of Errol Lindsey, one of Dahmer’s victims — says Netflix’s “Dahmer” on Twitter The show is “Reinvented”.
“I want people to understand that this is not just a story or historical fact, these are real people’s lives. [Lindsey] to be someone’s son, someone’s brother, someone’s father, someone’s friend, deprived of [our] life,” Perry told the Los Angeles Times.
Bethonie Butler, who covers television and pop culture for The Washington Post, told NPR that it’s difficult to produce true crime stories without re-victimizing the people at the center of these cases.
But in shows like Netflix’s “The Guardian,” which explores the case of Kathy Chesnick, a Baltimore nun who was murdered more than 50 years ago, the focus remains on Chesnick.
“Throughout the entire episode, you really feel like Sister Cathy is the center of it,” Butler said.
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