By day, attendees of the fourth annual RealScreen Summit in Washington, D.C., packed sessions ranging from ‘Highest Rated Docs of the Past Year’ to ‘Breaking into Europe’. By night, they danced on tabletops and swung from the chandeliers. Well, not actual dancing and swinging – more like mingling and chatting – but delegates did have a good time.
Around 700 non-fiction producers, distributors and broadcasters – primarily from the U.S. – converged at the Hyatt Regency hotel on Capitol Hill for three days (February 13 to 15) to meet, pitch, learn and engage in debate. The overall spirit was upbeat, which is a good indication of how the industry is faring. ‘Things are more robust than I thought,’ noted delegate Michael Cascio, executive vice president and general manager of Animal Planet. ‘It may not be as healthy as it could be, but there definitely is production going on and people are still positive.’
The ongoing ad slump was the unspoken undercurrent that ran through the event, but not solely in a negative way. Kathleen Finch, VP of programming for the Food Network, explains: ‘Everyone’s budgets have been affected by the times and it was interesting to see that [producers] might be more willing and able to work on smaller budgets than they were in the past.’ Finch notes that Food Network budgets, which were previously at the lower end of the scale, are now in the same range as other channels. ‘People who said a year and a half or two years ago, ‘We can’t work on your budgets,’ now can, because we’re not alone.’
Finch sat on one of the Summit’s most popular panels, ‘Programmers Showcase: Scripps Networks’, in which she and her counterparts from Home & Garden Television, Fine Living Network and DIY – Do It Yourself Network dished on their respective channel’s wants and needs. Throughout the hour-long session, producers furiously scribbled notes and later swarmed the panelists.
Sheilagh D’Arcy McGee, senior producer with a&e’s in-house HTV Productions, says she gleaned a lot from the Scripps session. ‘I’m interested in how the programmers are viewing the landscape, and how they’re maneuvering within it to keep a competitive edge, whether they’re narrowing or broadening their niche and what sorts of things they are looking towards.’ McGee joined A&E at the beginning of 2002 after an 18-month hiatus from the industry; she was previously senior vp of programming for Court TV.
First-time attendee Eric Webb, a research specialist with Seattle-based Media Arts, said he was impressed with the whole event and found several sessions informative, particularly ‘The Art of the Pitch’ (a master class led by Louise Rosen), the two ’30 Minutes With…’ gatherings he attended (one led by hbo’s Julie Anderson, the other by the History Channel’s Carl Lindahl), and both of the ‘Pitch It’ sessions.
Adam Stepan, president of Rio de Janeiro-based Vista Nova Productions, pitched his project Underage – The Child Soldiers of Brazil’s Drug Wars in the ‘Pitch It’ forum and was pleased with the outcome. ‘There was real interest on the part of almost everyone on the panel, which was surprising, given the diversity of their brands [HBO, Channel 4 in the U.K., Nat Geo, Canal+ and Canada's CBC]. People’s suggestions were very focused and useful – they had all obviously studied the pitch and treatment, and brought very useful ideas.’
Angie Koch of Frankfurt, Germany-based Neuzeitfilm, who pitched her film Breakin’ the Rules: The History of American Counterculture, was less satisfied. ‘Many people said congratulations on a great pitch, but did not show a deeper interest. We have to follow up,’ she says.
After the business of the day was done, Summit delegates had the chance to blow off some steam and quaff a drink or two (…or three, or four) – on-site on the event’s opening night, courtesy of Connecticut-based distrib CABLEready, and at the Capitol Brewing Pub on the second night, thanks to Discovery.
One delegate summed up the event as being ‘like summer camp – you get to see and hang out with all the friends you don’t see the rest of the year.’ (Perhaps next year we’ll see some dancing and chandelier-swinging. )