Long before they sold the rights, Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi bootstrapped their film project.
This profile is part of “The Fortune Entrepreneurs” list. See the full package here.
Filmmakers Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi touched a nerve when their wildly popular miniseries, Making a Murderer, was released on Netflix nflx last December. The addictive 10-part show follows the trials and tribulations of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man wrongly sentenced to 18 years in prison (spoiler alert: Avery is now serving time for another crime). Making a Murderer has quickly become one of Netflix’s most buzzed-about shows, spawning armies of amateur sleuths and activists calling for Avery’s release.
But prior to its streaming-only debut, the “true crime” series was far from a slam dunk. Demos and Ricciardi—real-life partners who met at in film school—spent a decade working on the show. They bootstrapped the project, at one point even moving to Manitowoc County, Wis. for three years in order to follow Avery’s trial. Along the way, the twists and turns of the story took them in unexpected directions—including getting served with a subpoena demanding that the directors submit some of their footage for use in the trial (the duo prevailed). Eventually, after pitching the show to the likes of HBO and PBS, they sold the rights to Netflix.
Fortune caught up with Demos and Ricciardi to hear more about the laborious process behind Making a Murderer, what’s next for the filmmakers and where they liked to eat in Manitowoc County. The dialogue below is an excerpt from that recent conversation.
Fortune: Do you consider Making a Murderer an entrepreneurial endeavor?
Demos: In a way it was an entrepreneurial endeavor, yes. We made something out of nothing. We had no money, so we borrowed some money and put a lot of hard work into it and found partners along the way. And we put out something that the world has really responded to.
What was your toughest day over the 10-year period of making this show?
Ricciardi: When I received calls on my cell phone from one of the lead investigators on the case asking where I was so he could serve me with a subpoena. Lots of things were going through my mind at that point. We were already financially-strapped, but I have a legal background. How would we come up with retainer [for legal representation]? I just wasn’t sure how we were going to be able to fund and respond to this—they were seeking categories of our footage [for the trial]. We had about 300 hours of it. If the state had prevailed that would have shut us down, because we just didn’t have the infrastructure [to provide the amount of footage they were asking for]. Ultimately, the judge ruled in our favor.
Demos: As I think about all of the challenges and obstacles over the years, this also comes to mind: We were developing this at a time when the market was very different. We believed that there was an appetite for this kind of in-depth storytelling and the experience you can only offer in long-form. But we really had to stick to our guns and just believe that there would be a home for this and there would be a market for this. And we just kept making it.
What is about the series that you think has made it so captivating for viewers?
Demos: It has lots of things viewers haven’t seen before: primary source material, depositions, interrogations. I think that’s very captivating to people. There was a hunger for that. There’s so much crime and true crime out there but if you’re really involved in a case and show up at the courthouse, it doesn’t feel like it does on TV. I think it’s clear that the series very much offers viewers an experience that’s positioned to stick with them after they turn it off. It says a lot that they’re talking about it three weeks later when others have seen it.
Ricciardi: Unfortunately, we live in a culture and society where people are murdered every day. When we chose this story, we were not choosing to cover a murder trial. We chose it because of Steven’s unique status as an exoneree. We recognized this status as very special. It’s the story of an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances.
How has he [Steven Avery] reacted to the series?
Ricciardi: He tells us about getting letters of support, and he’s diligently trying to read and respond to every one of them. But he hasn’t been able to watch the series—he put in a request to his warden and social worker but it was denied. It’s hard to know what he is able to really track in terms of the response. He calls us from prison on a recorded telephone line. But he has heard from people who have written letters of support that they had positive things to say about the documentary.
What’s next for you both?
Demos: We’re hoping to do something a little shorter next time around. We’re keeping our options open.
Lastly, what was your go-to place to eat in Manitowoc County?
Ricciardi: It was really difficult because we were both pescatarian then, and now it would be even harder because we’re vegan. But there was an authentic Thai restaurant on 8th Street. You just had to get your dish mild—spicy was incapacitating.