Diving the Future …or giving it a shot

My head is spinning. Does anyone have a crystal ball?...
November 1, 1998

My head is spinning. Does anyone have a crystal ball?

Tapestry is continuing to grow, and with growth comes a lot of soul-searching and sleepless nights. As I write this, my pen is hovering above a ten-year lease to build a new full service multi-media production and distribution facility in New York City. But what will the next ten years bring? For companies in the documentary business, it’s hard enough to plan next year, let alone the next ten.

Of course, I worry about the mundane stuff like paying the rent, upgrading computer systems, deciding what new editing equipment to buy, and weighing the ten-year cost savings from using fluorescent light fixtures against my personal aversion to anything but halogen. But what really gets me staring at the ceiling at 3:00 am are the big unknowns of the future; the scary, but very real issues I urge everyone in the documentary community to explore at the upcoming RealScreen Summit.

There is probably no time in our industry that has posed greater challenges. We need a brutal assessment of our industry and a frank reality check on what each and every one of us needs to do to be successful in it. Here are some of the questions I’d like to put on the table.

Who will be our clients, our competitors, and our partners in the future? Typical models of who does what have already been shattered. Our clients are becoming competitors, our competitors our suppliers, and alliances are forming in the most unlikely places. How can we best manage our current relationships and cultivate new opportunities? We all chase Discovery, the BBC, Canal+ and National Geographic. Who’s it going to be in three years? In five years? In ten? What Internet companies or telcos will become the content providers of the future?

What will happen to independents? Are we seeing the end of mega-mergers and consolidations or is this just the beginning? Indies are currently competing with production entities and distributors who are already aligned with broadcasters, leaving less room in the schedule for anything other than that from ‘within.’ But, there is a difference between being independent and being alone. One would have to be crazy not to look at opportunities to forge meaningful long-term alliances with other organizations. But, being an independent producer/distributor is becoming a fairly unique attribute these days; one I don’t underestimate as I try to position Tapestry in the market.

Large corporations have jumped on the documentary band-wagon and are churning out voluminous hours of reality programming. We can’t compete with that, nor do we want to. But we’re also seeing indications that the big guys are becoming somewhat disillusioned by what we documentary people already know. It takes a lot of hard work to make a buck. You can’t just be in it for the money. Tapestry has been in the documentary business for 11 years. For us, documentaries are not a fad, but the foundation of the company.

Is the digital age going to fractionalize the market so much that no one can support original production? On one hand, the multi-channel environment has already put the squeeze on prices. On the other, the digital environment is going to demand much higher technical quality at greater expense. Something’s got to give.

Will documentaries continue to have a place in the world television landscape? An unqualified yes. They’re affordable and they travel well. The good ones have a long shelf life. Viewers like documentaries because each story is unique. We’re now getting a lot of copycat, flavor-of-the-month programming marketed as documentaries. We need to push programmers to be original, to take risks and to give viewers more credit.

How will we continue to thrive? Hopefully, due to our track records, some good luck and faith that quality and originality will somehow endure. And the willingness to jump off the high dive not knowing how much water’s in the pool.

I’m looking forward to being a part of the RealScreen Summit. This is tough stuff with no easy answers. Documentaries have now become big business. We need to face up to it and to find a way to help keep our business healthy.

And it’s more productive than counting sheep.

Nancy L. Walzog is president of New York-based production/distribution company, Tapestry International.

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