For three days last week, Washington, D.C.’s Hyatt Regency Hotel on Capitol Hill was a bustling hub of documentary activity. The fourth annual RealScreen Summit (February 13 to 15) attracted 688 attendees in total, including 250 broadcast/film reps, the event’s highest attendance to date.
The overall vibe was positive from the start, as delegates were keen to look ahead to economic recovery, rather than back at the industry-wide slump. And even though the focus of the event is business, the interactions were more cooperative than cut-throat. Says first-time attendee Peter Kiss, of Budapest-based Marker Film, ‘We learned a lot about how the business works. It is a great workshop and networking place. And, the good thing is that you can go to anyone to chat about your work, or problems, or questions in an informal way.’
The following is a summary of some of the Summit sessions.
The Summit’s keynote address was passionately delivered by CNN International Networks President Chris Cramer, who dubbed doc-makers and journalists international society’s modern day town criers. American adults ask an average of six questions a day, he noted. ‘What a thrill it would be if you managed to crank that number of questions up by just a few.’ Cramer also scolded filmmakers, together with the globe’s broadcast and news outlets, for the decline of international topics aired. ‘They’ve failed to make the important interesting,’ said Cramer, quoting a previous comment by Cry Freetown filmmaker Sorious Samura. He went on to praise the BBC and CNN for upholding ‘the best practices of the doc business.’ Cramer’s recipe for a healthy business in the future: partnerships.
For Cramer’s full speech, CLICK HERE
Programming in the Shadow of September 11
A healthy attendance greeted this session. Panelist Steve Rosenbaum of BNNtv in New York, U.S. revealed that a U.S. network executive recently told him the outlet wasn’t doing terrorism stories anymore because they had ceased to bring in high ratings, but Vivian Schiller of CNN Productions remained optimistic that international subjects will maintain a hold on schedules. Hilary Bell of Channel 4 claimed U.K. viewers were interested in escapist programming, but overall the events of September had little impact on U.K. programming.
Reality TV: What are Some of the Surviving Shows?
Panelists opened the session by assuring attendees the genre had a history and, therefore, wasn’t merely a fad. Jana Bennett, exec VP and GM of Discovery Communications (soon to be BBC director of television), went on to predict that the self-consciousness of contestants on shows such as Survivor will lead to the demise of the genre, because viewers are no longer observing ‘real’ people. David Grant of Fox Television Studios also noted that the drive for ratings has led to greater extremes in reality shows, which will eventually turn away viewers. The inevitable debate about good taste concluded with a shaky consensus that any attempt to influence the outcome of a program was unacceptable.
Grant also spoke of the difficulties of appeasing advertisers with products placed within programs, citing one company that complained its car didn’t standout enough against the sky. Both he and Mark Itken of William Morris agreed that sponsorships would become increasingly important in the future, especially with the rise of technologies such as the TiVo Box. ‘The 30-second forward button is better than drugs were in the 1970s,’ said Grant.
30 Minutes With…
The ’30 minutes with sessions’, a new innovation this year, were a hit. Hosted by the likes of HBO’s Julie Anderson, National Geographic’s Janet Han Vissering and Canal+’s Anna Glogowski, they brought the industry heavyweights up close and personal in small, intimate meeting rooms.
Glogowski spoke of the changes going on at Canal+ and emphasized the pay-TV channel’s focus on docs about feature films – particularly those that give new insight into the subject, rather than just going behind-the-scenes. Han Vissering described Nat Geo’s efforts to reach a younger audience with shows like Earth Pulse, while the History Channel’s Carl Lindahl touched on his channel’s desire to target male viewers. Anderson spoke of HBO’s current focus on prison films and gave a glimpse of what’s in store in 2002 – including a film about notorious White House intern Monica Lewinsky, called Monica in Black and White, which is set to premiere on March 3.
The Summit pitch sessions allowed eight brave producers to present their projects to a panel of commissioning editors and a room full of their peers. Gioia Avvantaggiato, of Rome-based GA&A, pitched her project Viminale: Mussolini’s Last Ship to the natural history/science/history panel consisting of Nat Geo’s Christine Kuppens, the BBC’s Krishan Arora, Discovery’s Andrea Meditch and Sterling Digital/Rainbow Media’s Katherine Carpenter. Following the pitch, Avvantaggiato said, ‘Discussions are open with several interested parties that may or may not lead to contracts. However, it looks good so far.’
International Funding Options
Diane Weyermann of the Sundance Institute and David Weinstein, who represented the National Endowment for Humanities, did an excellent job of explaining their respective funding bodies, but it was Patricia Phillips of Toronto-based Alliance Atlantis Communications who received a perfect score for outlining how to get around the complex restrictions inherent to Canadian funding initiatives. Midway through her explanation, Andre Singer of Café Productions, Bettina Hatami of Discovery Networks Europe, and Heinrich Mayer of Interspot Film, held up cards awarding Phillips 6s, across the board. Former Discovery exec Chris Haws, now with the World Bank Group, moderated the panel.
Outlook in Asia
Moderator Janet Han Vissering, senior VP of programming and operations at National Geographic Channels International, sought to bridge the style gap – both on-screen and off – between East and West. Producer Keiko Bang of Bang Productions in Hong Kong revealed that 50% of her sales are in Asia, because the preferred story structure is slow and chronological, which doesn’t sell well overseas. She also suggested producers educate Asian buyers about different approaches to storytelling: ‘There’s no history of narrative documentaries, so Asian broadcasters think there’s either news docs or wildlife docs.’ Off-screen, the approach to budget details differs greatly between East and West. ‘Asian broadcasters are more interested in the relationship with the producers than the details of development and budget,’ said Bang.
Treatments & Demo Reels
If evidence was needed that the RealScreen Summit is about the business of documentary filmmaking and not the art of documentary filmmaking, it was found in this master class. Here, speaker Jeff Tuchman, director/writer at Documania Films in New York, U.S., revealed several hard-earned lessons, one of which was that pitching a film as ‘important’ isn’t a good sales tactic. ‘Broadcasters want to know if it will fascinate viewers,’ advised Tuchman. He also recommended digital capture and Final Cut Pro editing for creating demo reels, one of several nods to Apple‘s software, indicating the growing relevance of this editing tool to the documentary film community.
The Art of the Pitch
Louise Rosen, managing director of Louise Rosen Ltd. (also VP and GM of Blue Planet Entertainment) led this master class, offering practical advice ranging from how to maintain exclusivity (don’t reveal your sources to potential investors until the ink is dry on your contract) to the best length for a pitch package (three pages max). She also cautioned producers to remain flexible during negotiations, to ensure their projects’ survival – ‘live by the sword, die by the sword’.