Sharing industry insights at the RealScreen Summit

Working with Executive Producers...
February 1, 2000

Working with Executive Producers

(8:45 a.m. – 10:15 a.m.)

Carol L. Fleisher,

Executive Producer, Fleisherfilms

Greg Diefenbach,

VP, program development,

Devillier Donegan Enterprises (dde)

Carol L. Fleisher has been in the documentary business for almost 23 years. She began as a researcher for the syndicated series In Search Of, and launched her own company, Fleisherfilms, in 1991. She has produced, directed and written films for Nova, TLC and A&E. Her most recent documentary, Why Dogs Smile & Chimpanzees Cry, coproduced by DDE, aired on the Discovery Channel in 1999.

Greg Diefenbach spent a decade with National Geographic’s television division before moving to DDE three years ago. He’s had a hand in expanding the volume of original programming DDE coproduces and distributes worldwide – 25 to 40 hours a year.

RS: As an executive producer, what trends concern you?

Fleisher: Networks want to own what they commission. As an independent, you are out there risking your financial, physical and emotional health doing these films. You want to have ownership of what you’re doing to a degree.

Diefenbach: The cablecasters are trying to expand their rights, and for their big projects, they’re seeking ways to get the highest production value and highest quality programming on air for the lowest dollars. That’s where a company like DDE comes into the picture.

RS: What do you like most about making documentaries?

Fleisher: I love having a job where I travel to fantastic places, meet incredible people and animals and learn all about them.

Diefenbach: The continual turnover of fresh ideas. We’re living through one of the most exciting times in history and by nature of documentary, we can tell these stories.

RS: What do you like least about making documentaries?

Fleisher: Having to constantly sell the next project and not knowing when and if it will sell.

RS: If you ruled the doc world, what would you change?

Diefenbach: I’d like to know what the future of technology will be so we could plan for it in an organized way.

Fleisher: To have a business model where good filmmakers get contracts where they have an ongoing relationship, a safe space to be creative, and where they know they’re going to get a fair deal. It would bring out more creativity if we knew we had meals coming.

RS: What lessons have you learned the hard way?

Diefenbach: If you don’t love it on paper, you aren’t going to love it on screen.

Fleisher: Be collaborative with the people paying for your films. It’s much more useful to have everyone involved.

RS: What’s the weirdest idea pitched to you?

Diefenbach: A man wanted us to do a film of him paragliding on the thermals above active volcanos. Asked if this was perilous, he said we shouldn’t worry because it would be a great story either way.

The Art and Science of the Docusoap

(8:45 a.m. – 10:15 a.m.)

Jeremy Mills

Managing Director, Lion Television

In June 1997, Jeremy Mills left the BBC to found Lion Television. A pioneer in the field of docusoap, Mills has such hits as Airport and Children’s Hospital to his credit. In 1999, Lion produced over 80 hours of network television and over 250 hours for cable/satellite. Among current productions is the series Castaway 2000 (BBC1), which sees how 30 people marooned on a Scottish island for a year cope with their lives and each other.

RS: What is the state of the docusoap?

Mills: Docusoap has become a pejorative term in the U.K. Originally it was a way to get lighthearted subject matter on screen in a way that reflected to viewers their own lives, but it has been imitated and abused so much. Lion is moving on and using the docusoap approach to explore deeper and more intense issues, emotional experiences and personal stories. In fact, we no longer believe in the term ‘docusoap.’ We prefer ‘ongoing observational interactive narrative series.’

RS: Is the docusoap washed up?

Mills: In the U.K., there are fewer series on than in the past. Outside the whole thing is just starting to take off. We did LAX (3 x 60-minute) for A&E and are in the process of creating shows in a similar format for Canada, Germany, Spain and Denmark.

RS: What’s your advice to anyone making a docusoap?

Mills: Don’t think it’s as easy as it looks. The good ones may look thrown together but they’re actually carefully crafted.

RS: What do you like most about making documentaries?

Mills: Going into doors that say ‘no entry,’ whether those are physical, emotional or psychological doors.

RS: If you ruled the doc world, what would you change?

Mills: I would make commissioners trust the program hunches of the program-makers more.

RS: What lessons have you learned the hard way?

Mills: Always listen to everyone who has an opinion, but be decisive about the option you choose.

RS: What’s the weirdest idea pitched to you?

Mills: To make a docusoap inside a library. In British libraries, nobody talks and you have to be quiet.

Directing for Documentary

(10:30 a.m. – noon)

Robert Gardner

President, Gardner Films

Indie producer Robert Gardner has chronicled the way ordinary people react to extraordinary events for over 30 years. His works include: Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning, The Courage to Care; Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land (PBS), and episodes of The New Detectives, The FBI Files (DCI) and Nova (PBS). Currently, he is series producer and episode director for Empire and Faith: The Story of Islamic Civilization, a three-hour PBS/DDE copro.

RS: As a director, what concerns you about the business?

Gardner: It’s become a volume business. There’s more of a concern to meet a format or program profile more than there used to be, and less of an appreciation or desire on the buyers’ part for handmade productions. The result is that budgets are reduced and the overall concern for the process seems to be lost. The shows aren’t as good as they used to be because so many are being made.

RS: What do you like most about making documentaries?

Gardner: The challenge of creating new ways to tell stories that have editorial integrity but at the same time are engaging to a large audience.

RS: What do you like least about making documentaries?

Gardner: It’s become so much of a business. Often you’re dealing with executives who have never been involved in the process and don’t have a lot of respect for it.

RS: If you ruled the doc world, what would you change?

Gardner: I’d make sure middle-level managers and programmers had more direct experience in the making of documentaries because they would better understand what makes a documentary good and how costs are truly reflected in the quality of the work.

RS: What lessons have you learned the hard way?

Gardner: Very often we fool ourselves into thinking that the documentary business is a warm-spirited, hand-crafted business. It’s not. It’s a big communications business.

Writing & Scripting

(1:00 p.m. – 2:30 p.m.)

Chana Gazit

Producer-Writer, Steward/Gazit Productions

For over 20 years, Chana Gazit and her husband/partner, David Steward, have been mining contemporary and historical subject matter. Four years ago the pair launched Steward/Gazit Productions. Among the company’s credits are films for WGBH’s The American Experience, including Surviving the Dust Bowl, Chicago ’68, and Meltdown at Three Mile Island, as well as a new production called The Flood of 1927 (w/t), about the worst flood in American history.

RS: How is the role of the writer changing?

Gazit: Writing is now much more appreciated as an essential element of certain kinds of documentary filmmaking. Once history became a major expression of documentary filmmaking, writing became a central component because you need to figure out how to develop a dramatic narrative for it while staying journalistically responsible and accurate to the historical


RS: What trends do you see in historical documentaries?

Gazit: For many years we felt we had no choice but to stay in the twentieth century because that’s where all the pictures and movies were. I think the trend has been to open up history to a time before 1900.

RS: What do you like most about making documentaries?

Gazit: The incredible privilege of being able to enter people’s lives. It never stops amazing me that people will allow me to come into their lives and share their experiences, feelings and thoughts.

RS: What do you like least about making documentaries?

Gazit: It’s extraordinarily labor-intensive; a tremendous amount of hard work requiring complete commitment. That’s the joy and the frustration – and it’s exhausting!

RS: If you ruled the doc world, what would you change?

Gazit: I wish I could spread my own love for the medium to more people, many of whom still think of documentaries as serious and dry and like taking vitamins.

RS: What lessons have you learned the hard way?

Gazit: The elegance of the film comes from the ability to simplify, simplify, simplify.

Effective Pitching

(1:00 p.m. – 2:30 p.m.)

Simon Nasht

Head of Programmes, Cafe Productions

When asked what makes him an expert in his field, Simon Nasht replied, ‘Bitter experience.’ His company, Cafe Productions, is a U.K. factual specialist that develops programs for the global market. Recent productions include: World of Mummies (5 x 60-minute) for TLC; Flying Into the Future (2 x 60-minute) for ARD Germany, PBS and Discovery International; Klaus Kinski, My Best Fiend, a feature documentary directed by Werner Herzog for BBC, ZDF and others, and the science magazine FutureTense (13 x 30-minute) for Discovery International.

RS: How has the pitching process changed?

Nasht: The dubious rise of the ‘public’ pitching session. Pat Ferns (president of the Banff TV Festival) has much to answer for. Documentary pitching used to be about ideas and style; it is increasingly becoming about presentation and ‘high concept.’

RS: What makes for an effective pitch?

Nasht: These days an effective pitch is short and sweet. It’s about proving you are aware or at least mindful of the broadcasters’ perceived needs. In reality, we should be making programs that the audience doesn’t know it wants, rather than giving what they (and the commissioners) are all too predictably expecting.

RS: What are the major trends for 2000?

Nasht: Make sure it has a gimmick. This year, it’s about making sure the factual program is as close to a drama as possible.

RS: What’s changed about the business?

Nasht: Producers are being asked to deal with a multitude of often conflicting issues of formula, finances and egos that have very little to do with the subject of their films and they’re not being compensated for doing the broadcaster’s work. Despite this, overall I’m quite optimistic. Five years from now, the face of broadcasting will be unrecognizable and the technology is moving much more in the filmmaker’s direction.

RS: What do you like most about the industry?

Nasht: I like the people who work in the industry. They tend to be nice people.

RS: What do you like least about the industry?

Nasht: It’s probably the only creative industry in the world where the creative people get screwed. The dice are loaded against the people who come up with the ideas and make the programs.

RS: What would you change?

Nasht: I would ban coproductions, because it’s becoming increasingly difficult to balance the competing needs across borders, languages and media.

RS: What’s the weirdest pitch you’ve ever heard?

Nasht: This may not be the weirdest, but the best I ever heard was a one-word pitch from Jonathan Stack. The pitch was ‘Psychos!’ The broadcaster said ‘Yeah’ and bought it, only to later ask if ‘Psychos’ meant a one-off or a series.

Post & Editing

(3:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.)

Jef Huey

Senior Editor, Henninger Capitol

Lauren Meschter

Colorist, Henninger Capitol

Jef Huey and Lauren Meschter have a combined 30+ years experience in post-production, mostly at Henninger Capitol, a Washington, D.C. post-production facility that services clients including National Geographic, Discovery Networks, WETA, wgbh and Partridge Films.

RS: What issues concern you most from a post-production standpoint?

Huey: Communication. With so many technical advances going on and so many ways of doing things, huge disasters can happen if everyone isn’t on the same boat.

Meschter: High def is constantly hovering over us like a cloud. Everybody is standing around waiting for the other to jump into it. We have to be careful about timing our investment in such a huge expense of equipment.

RS: What trends are affecting post-production?

Huey: The erosion of money. There are more channels but a finite amount of advertising dollars. That means every producer gets less dollars for every show they make, which causes price pressure across every facet of the industry.

Meschter: We are constantly trying to trim our efficiencies and streamline the process to get the producer through quickly while maintaining a high quality job for them.

RS: What do you like most about the business?

Huey: If our clients weren’t a bunch of fascinating and creative individuals who I enjoy spending ridiculous numbers of hours with, I wouldn’t be in it.

Meschter: What we end up doing for a client always gets a great reaction and makes me feel like I’ve made a big difference to the production.

RS: What do you like least about the business?

Huey: Price pressure is forcing people to cut corners. You’re not at liberty to do the best any more. You have to say, ‘That’s good enough,’ and I hate saying that.

Meschter: When a lack of communication leads to technical inefficiencies that we could have solved if we were informed of them earlier in the process.

RS: If you ruled the doc world, what would you change?

Huey: I would reduce the number of outlets by half. From a purist standpoint, the quality of the programming is suffering. The money isn’t there to support them.

RS: What lessons have you learned the hard way?

Meschter: Never make jokes about scratching a piece of film. We’ve all done it and it’s been the worst day of our lives.

Producing in High Definition

(3:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.)

Vince Forcier

Director of Engineering and High Definition Services, Roland House

Bill Morgan

Managing Partner, JWM Productions

Vince Forcier has been involved

in video and audio post-production for over 14 years, the last nine at Roland House, a post-production facility that counts National Geographic, DCI, Smithsonian and pbs among its clients. Roland House got into HD two years ago.

Bill Morgan worked in video production for ten years for National Geographic and Time Life before launching jwm with his partner, Jason Williams, in 1996. JWM produces non-fiction, informational and educational programming. It is currently producing two series in HD: The Treasure Seekers (13 x 60-minute) for National Geographic; and Treasure! Jewels, Gold and Greed (3 x 60-minute) for TLC.

RS: How is hd impacting documentary filmmaking?

Forcier: Everybody is thinking about it, but not everyone is producing in it yet. Everybody who is planning productions recognizes that HD provides them opportunities to deliver a higher quality image to any of their buyers in the future.

RS: How prevalent has hd become?

Forcier: High definition video has become such a strong format that clients who have traditionally shot on film are opting to shoot high definition video.

RS: What’s going to affect increased use of HD?

Morgan: Economic models that support the cost of producing these programs in hd. When Sony and Panasonic figure out a way to make hd tape cameras work as well as film then you’re going to see everyone going to hd tape. Film costs ten times more than hd tape does on a cost-

by-minute basis.

RS: What do you like most about the business?

Forcier: The problem-solving production consultation work that goes with starting a project. Every time someone starts a project there’s new technology and new techniques to learn about and integrate into that project.

Morgan: Exploring the world around us and having a legitimate forum to disseminate ideas, issues and knowledge that hopefully will be worthwhile to a large number of people.

RS: What do you like least about the business?

Morgan: Even though there are more channels coming on-line, which create more product demand, you’re seeing budgets come down and an increasingly more business and legalistic approach to this than there was five years ago.

RS: What lessons have you learned the hard way?

Forcier: The technology moves so fast that technology decisions can become life-or-death for a company. Choosing the wrong solution from an equipment standpoint can be very costly.

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.