Report for Banff – TV on the Rocks: It’s Banff Time Again

Paul Hamann and Rudy Buttignol are breaking the rules. Hamann, BBC Production's head of documentary and history, and Buttignol, TVOntario's creative head of documentaries, independent productions and science, are the commissioning editors on stage at this year's Banff Television Festival Two...
June 1, 1998

Paul Hamann and Rudy Buttignol are breaking the rules. Hamann, BBC Production’s head of documentary and history, and Buttignol, TVOntario’s creative head of documentaries, independent productions and science, are the commissioning editors on stage at this year’s Banff Television Festival Two in a Room pitching contest.

They’re going to talk beforehand, so would-be pitchers take note.

Now, Banff president Pat Ferns may not be pleased about this. Part of the fun of Two in a Room for the past two years has been watching the commissioning editors – instructed not to pow-wow beforehand – juggle philosophies on stage, trying to find a theme and approach for a coproduction they both could live with, perhaps even throw some real money behind. But while the dialogue can be lively, the outcome can sometimes be disappointing (see sidebar, p.24).

With this in mind, Buttignol and Hamann made plans to chat ahead of time at input, the international public-broadcasting conclave, held this year in Germany. ‘We’ll go into the session on the same wavelength, and not end up choosing the most tepid project because it’s the only place we find to agree in an hour,’ says Buttignol. ‘No one wants to have to shoehorn a project to meet their corporate objectives.’

Besides the pre-Banff tête à tête, the BBC/TVO combo has other things going for it. Both are commercial-free broadcasters with comparable program tastes and audience sensibilites.

Points of differentiation include size of budget: Hamann has £30 million to spend this year, and commissions more than 95% of his programming; whereas Buttignol has about CDN$1 million, and commissions about 50% – pretty much David and Goliath.

‘Our whole network doesn’t operate on [Hamann's] budget,’ notes Buttignol. ‘But we bring the added weight of the Canadian funding system to the table.’

So what are they looking for at Banff?

Hamann is responsible for over 200 hours a year on bbc1 and bbc2, including the strands Inside Story (investigative and observational films, 45 to 50 minutes each), Timewatch (historical one-hour episodes), Rough Justice (investigative one-hour episodes), Reputations (biographical one-hours), and Modern Times (observational films of 40 minutes).

He’s not entering the exercise with a particular strand in mind. ‘I’d rather let the creative minds work,’ he says, ‘but what we want are ideas that are truly one-of-a-kind. `Untrodden ground’ is the key phrase. Too many things are repackaged. I’m interested in working with talent.’

Buttignol, who commissions about 13 hours of feature-length doc product for tvo per year, and acquires another 20, also doesn’t want to be particularly prescriptive. He’s looking for ‘a documentary that bears the stamp of its maker, not the stamp of its commissioning editor. I want to see and hear the voice of the filmmaker. bbc has a reputation for these kind of projects, and so do we.’

In terms of subject preference, Buttignol is hooked on social docs: ‘Man’s inhumanity to man and variations thereof.’

As for money, tvo spends anywhere from US$10,000 to US$50,000 per hour for a feature-length doc, which, if the project is deemed Canadian-made, can trigger incremental financing from public production funds.

For the BBC, Hamann says the licensing range is too diverse to pin down. ‘We do everything from total funding for a pilot, to US$10,000 to make it stand, to complete buy-ins.’

As for editorial tastes, Buttignol’s favorite special effect, he says, is the cut. The `sexiest’ thing about documentaries is time compression, so longer-term projects are something TVO considers seriously.

Finally, if a one-on-one pitch outside of Two in a Room is a consideration, Hamann is shopping for the ’99/’00 season, while tvo still has room for one or two programs for spring ’99.

Hamann says he’s open to Banff pitches for everything from traditional long-form films to two-minute vignettes. ‘A 30-part one-minute series on the tree, or a two-hour feature – most things people class as documentary we would embrace. I’m excited to be there. I was impressed by a lot of what I saw last year and by the Canadian documentary filmmakers I met. I want to see more of them.’

See also:

Banff: Two in a Room Follow-up

Banff – Don Hewitt

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.