Gambling on Factual

This year's NATPE conference in Las Vegas drew the crowds, but seemed a bit tamer than usual. At least the Hooter's Girls kept the action lively...
January 31, 2001

Although NATPE organizers reported 18,500 attendees for this years market in Las Vegas (January 22 to 25), the enormous floor space swallowed what crowds there might have been, making it feel as though every day was the last day of MIP. While everyone’s schedules seemed just as full as they might have been in Cannes, the 785 exhibitions didn’t drum up the panicked enthusiasm so common on the floor of the Palais.

That emptiness wasn’t lost on those who dragged themselves away from the slot machines and blackjack tables to take in the displays, with one of the most consistent topics of conversation turning to the location of the market in coming years. Rumors put NATPE in the neon glow of the Vegas strip for one more year, and then back to New Orleans for two… or was it ten… or even to Atlanta. Only time will tell.

Another rumor which seemed to become entrenched is that of Discovery’s pending sale. Although the international cablecaster maintains that the whispering is unfounded (see RealScreen,February 2001), industry insiders nod knowingly at the topic, saying it’s only a matter of time.

On the floor itself, the ex-syndie market has taken a distinctly factual turn, with a high percentage of exhibitors laying claim to at least some doc(ish) programming – although most tending exclusively towards reality. Possibly best received (or at least drawing the biggest crowds) was Lion’s Gate/Fisher Entertainment’s Who Wants to Date a Hooter’s Girl, although the gathering was probably more reflective of the on-site appearance of Hooter’s Girls themselves than prospective buyers. (Isn’t bringing a Hooter’s Girl to Vegas like bringing sand to the desert?) Perhaps cautious of this programming turn, several execs warned producers about jumping on the reality bandwagon. During the ‘Destination America’ session (which offered suggestions for producers from pitch to close), CBS VP of alternative programming, Ghen Maynard, observed that the key to success in the U.S. market was to produce programming that was ‘distinctive, not derivative.’

The ‘How to Finance Your Factual Program’ conference was particularly well attended. Featuring advice and case studies from Olivier Bremond of Marathon, Bruce David Klein of Atlas Media and Steve Rosenbaum of, the session challenged doc producers to rethink their motivation. Rosenbaum urged producers to ‘take control of their destiny,’ but only after first deciding on what kind of a filmmaker they wanted to be – whether that meant they only had one film in them, or many. Using Third Date as an example (an US$85,000/episode series which BNN produced for N.Y. broadcaster Metro), Rosenbaum offered several financing suggestions, including where to cut corners on the budget and where not to compromise. With the disclaimer that he couldn’t be held responsible for what might happen, Rosenbaum told producers to not be afraid of walking away from the bargaining table if the deal wasn’t to their liking.

For his part, Klein urged producers to consider the self-financing model, even if ‘it sounds crazy.’ Klein’s path to independence means starting small and gathering assets over time which will continue to pay dividends over the long haul. The alternative, he warned, is consistently working-for-hire.

Bremond said the key to his success has always been international coproduction. A typical Marathon deal will have three international partners, will raise between 10% and 15% of the budget domestically, and pick up at least 50% in the U.S. As both Bremond and several audience members pointed out, however, coproductions sometimes mean loss of creative control.

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.