Somebody has slipped up, badly. Unless I’m mistaken, there is actually a gap in the schedule of international documentary events. MIP-ASIA ends on December 12, in Singapore, and NATPE doesn’t start in New Orleans until January 25.
Even allowing for travel time and the insertion of a workshop or two, that’s acres of empty days stretching ahead. Nothing to look forward to but normal life – paying our taxes, insuring the car, eating sandwiches for lunch and emailing all the people you met in the last five weeks. You may even be obliged to watch some television.
But things are not as bad as they seem: further research shows ‘the gap’ to include time off for Christmas and New Year. Now, there is a view that taking breaks for these family events is wimpish in the extreme. It’s true, such opinions are usually expressed by sad people who failed to fill their MIPCOM appointment book, but I don’t agree with them anyway.
Unless we occasionally touch base with the house-spouse and the tousle-haired infants, we risk losing our sense of what it is all for. Nobody would actually choose this kind of schedule. We must have been forced into it by our overwhelming sense of financial responsibility. Not forgetting, of course, our deep respect for the documentary genre and our desire to ‘give something back.’
At the same time, we all know that while we are at the front, slogging it out in the trenches of the Palais des Festivals, some Roger Draftdodger is back at the office banging climbing-spikes into the greasy pole. He’s the one who, when you return exhausted and trembling from a Midnight Sun Coproduction Conference in Novosibirsk in January (bad planning), says something cheery about you having a great tan and did you buy some of those babushka dolls and how many bottles of vodka did you get through?
That, at least, is what he’ll merrily shout across the office as you re-appear direct and jet-lagged from the airport, determined to achieve maximum visibility. His remarks mean to imply that you are a slacker, have no taste or judgment and drink like a fish. But instead of pulling out your souvenir Kalashnikov (no Babushka dolls here!), you grin like a fool and mutter something about dear old Roger holding the fort. In private, just between us, he’ll let slip that one colleague or another is angling for your job (or the good bits of it), or that the CEO was seen having lunch with your closest competitor. (So that’s why the creep left Novosibirsk two days early!)
The serious side to all this is the globalization of broadcasting and production, creating a viable international market for the financing, commissioning, buying and distribution of documentaries and factual programming. This will result in maintaining high quality, while reducing budgets and, in consequence, saving the universe as we know it. Try telling that to Roger and he’ll nod in agreement, eager for you to be away from the office, globalizing, as much as possible.
But nobody wants to be serious when they could be schmoozing, which is why so many of us do the grand tour of markets, festivals, forums and workshops. And do it willingly. Because no matter how effective our communications systems, nothing beats meeting someone in person, looking them in the eye and deciding whether you like them. In some industries, the social glue is expense accounts. In ours, oddly, it seems to be decency. Perhaps because, like most smaller creatures, we need the protection of the flock or swarm (or mob) and understand the interdependency it demands. (See any National Geographic production).
So, we are either a particularly social industry, or we are terrified of being left out of the loop. To miss the big events is to learn what a cold, lonely place the world is. People start talking about you in the past-tense and looking thoughtfully into their wine glasses when your name is mentioned. The big concern, of course, is that you may have become a Roger and will betray all the secrets of our code. But there is also the fear of something worse. If you are a kindly soul you will help yourself and others by being completely up-front about your predicament.
Thus, your final act, before you pack the pile of dusty, black conference bags into your car and re-claim the Discovery Channel furry animal fridge magnets from the coffee-room, should be to send a mass mailing to your entire email list. Something simple and heroic will do, like: ‘Hi, chums! I’ve been fired. I will never see you again, ever.’ Note, there is no pretense that you are moving on to new opportunities (there are none) or to spend more time with your family (who would believe it?).
The alternative message is too pathetic to contemplate. It usually runs something like: ‘I’ll be at Banff as usual, though now in my new capacity as CEO of Newdawn Associates, and I’m looking forward to a little tte-ˆ-tte to discuss ways in which we can collaborate. My schedule is filling up fast, so maybe we can squeeze a window on Thursday from 16.00 to 16.05. Or maybe we could have dinner.’ Better just to write: ‘I need a job.’
So as that great character of archive-based historical docos, V.I. Lenin, would say: ‘What is to be done?’ Well, nothing. That’s the way it is, forever and ever. An endless round of planes, hotels, `meetings’ and air-conditioned cattle markets. Incomprehensible pitches delivered in a language last spoken on the planet Vog before the great eruption. Cheap white wine (everybody else’s receptions) and expensive top-of-the-range wine (your reception). Big Macs when you’re alone, steak tartar when you’re not.
Colleagues from TV Tibet would understand the path to events enlightenment: to overcome, first you have to accept. But then they are not forced to take time out for Christmas and New Year.
John Marshall runs JMA, a consultancy focused on international documentary coproduction. This quarter his trips include Copenhagen, Novosibirsk, Toronto, Cannes, Los Angeles, Sheffield, Warsaw, Amsterdam and Aberyswyth. He’ll spend Christmas in Brighton. Sleeping.