Record attendance, dynamic sessions and a pitching forum with a twist characterized the fifth annual RealScreen Summit, February 5 to 7, and proved to doc-makers that all is not lost in an industry hard-bitten by gloomy markets and global instability.
A total of 776 attendees from 18 countries made the trek to unseasonably cold Washington, D.C., up from 689 the year earlier. About 250 delegates came, came from various broadcasters and 400 hailed from the independent production community. Roughly half took in the summit for the first time.
John Willis, VP of national programming at Boston, U.S.-based pubcaster WGBH, threw down the gauntlet at the opening keynote, encouraging producers to drive docs into bolder territory and resist the pull toward formulaic ‘McDocs.’ Optimistic yet cautious, he noted that for more than a decade the refrain ‘docs [are] on death row’ has been echoing wherever factual specialists meet, but the business continues to reassert itself.
Friday morning’s keynote speaker, Robert J. Wussler, president of Atlanta, U.S.-based Ted Turner Pictures, offered up his perspective as a 30-year TV veteran. He said that now more than ever broadcasters of all stripes need to remember that ’cause programming’ is good for business, noting the acclaim U.S. network CBS received for airing 9/11. The two-hour doc, shot by Jules and Gedeon Naudet, pulled in 39 million viewers when it aired on March 10, 2002.
The ’30 Minutes With’ sessions – intimate gatherings led by one commissioning editor and limited to 35 delegates – proved among the summit’s most well-received events. The two hosted by HBO VP of original programming Lisa Heller were so popular that a free-for-all over seating nearly erupted. Kirk Johnston, CEO of Toronto, Canada’s Steel City Productions and winner of the draw for a half-hour one-on-one meeting with Heller, maximized his time by getting the general info about HBO at the session and saving his specific questions for his personal meeting.
Among the other attendees who walked away from the Hyatt Regency with a few satisfying check-marks on their to-do list was Joe Kennedy, a producer at London, U.K.-based Mentorn.
‘It was a hell of a good time for me because I was able to deal with so many people in one place,’ says Kennedy, who locked in support from Washington-headquartered National Geographic International for Ancient Cataclysms, a 3 x 1 hour high-end history/science series coproduced with the U.K.’s Five and the U.S.’s PBS. Kennedy, who won a ticket to the event from U.K. distrib Channel 4 International, adds, ‘It’s so important to meet [broadcasters] in this setting, because you can pass the project by them and, hopefully, have them on the same page in terms of the editorial direction.’
With so many industry types gathered in one place, the summit had its share of buzz. One rumor that turned out to be true was the resignation of John Ford from his post as president of new media at Silver Spring, U.S.-based Discovery Networks U.S.
‘I felt it was time to move on,’ the 12-year Discovery employee says, explaining that he is spending some time with his family before rejoining the work world, either in television or possibly public policy.
The pitching session was again one of the highlights of the summit, with four brave filmmakers taking the stage. This year, commissioning editors also rated the pitches, providing producers with valuable insights into the do’s and don’ts of presenting a program. For details, turn to page 32.
The summit ended on a high note, with Friday’s session ‘Programmers Showcase: PBS’. Commissioning editors Margaret Drain (‘American Experience’), Susan Lacy (‘American Masters’), Cara Mertes (‘POV’), Stephen Segaller (‘Wide Angle’) and Susanne Simpson (‘Nova’) provided the low-down on what they are seeking from the independent community, offering hope to keen producers.