Factual content industry professionals from across the globe descended upon Washington, DC in time for the 18th annual Realscreen Summit.
Though weather at this time of year can be unpredictable, temperatures were relatively balmy in the American capital, in the aftermath of a major snowstorm that blanketed much of the U.S. East Coast the weekend before the Summit. This year’s event saw 2,351 delegates from 29 countries shifting from last year’s venue of the Washington Hilton to pack the newly secured Marriott Marquis Washington DC in order to conduct business and examine the trends and ideas set to lead the non-fiction and unscripted genres into the future.
Among the topics to emerge from the Marquis over the course of the four-day event was frequent mention of “fewer, bigger, better,” a trend that had its first Summit nod when opening keynote speaker Courteney Monroe, CEO of National Geographic Global Networks, stated that the media conglomerate is currently undergoing a period of transformation and investing in pricier premium content through A-List creative partnerships, like the Morgan Freeman-hosted series The Story of God.
“We’re certainly investing heavily in change. It’s not going to happen overnight and we can epically fail,” Monroe explained, “but I would rather fail swinging really big in a bad ass programming space that we’re super passionate about.”
The following day in a keynote of her own, Marjorie Kaplan, president of content at Discovery Networks International, would echo the sentiment of fewer new hours and larger, more expensive programming ideas, while stating that these programs don’t necessarily need to be extravagantly expensive – content producers can develop the big idea for less, too.
“We know that there are networks out there that are spending a lot of money on content and I think that’s exciting for content creators,” explained Kaplan. “Some ideas deserve to be expensive and some ideas are very simple and graceful and don’t need lots of money to execute.”
Rather than “shifting focus away” from reality-oriented fare, networks in the non-fiction world have instead revived their commitment to premium documentary content. After a few years of relative inactivity in the space by traditional non-fiction nets, broadcasters are now more than ever willing to place more skin in the game and turn high-end feature docs into big programming events.
In a session entitled “Revenge of the Doc,” Vinnie Malhotra, Showtime Networks’ SVP of documentaries, unscripted and sports programming, argued the need for selectivity in the premium documentary field, while joined by Beth Hoppe , chief programming executive and GM, general audience at PBS; Tim Pastore, president of original programming and production at National Geographic Channels; and John Hoffman, EVP of documentaries and specials at Discovery Channel.
History’s newly minted president and GM Jana Bennett, meanwhile, stated during her February 2 keynote interview that the network would once again see content driven by historical references, with plans for a resurgence of big, ambitious documentaries that “look back” at the past 30 years.
At the “Working with ‘The New Normal’” panel, meanwhile, executives from TLC & Discovery Life Channel, Scripps Networks Interactive, ITV America, 495 Productions and United Talent Agency deliberated over whether success can be squeezed from ideas that are derivative, simple or both.
“If viewers like it, why not make a clone of that? I think making derivatives, when you have figured out who your audience is, super-serving them that content is a winning game,” stated Kathleen Finch, chief programming, brand and content officer for Scripps Networks Interactive. “Especially because the repeat business has gotten so much softer.”
The burgeoning technologies set to conquer the factual entertainment space in the near future were once again placed front and center at this year’s event. While a panel dubbed “Platform Power Players” detailed how content creators and distributors can monetize both short- and long-form content within a digital space, further sessions described the financial benefits and storage detriments of shooting in 4K/Ultra HD and marrying non-fiction storytelling with the futuristic medium of virtual reality.
Other Summit sessions, meanwhile, featured influential industry veterans assessing the current state and potential future of the unscripted genre, such as a conversation with legendary WME agent Mark Itkin and interviewer and Bunim/Murray founder Jonathan Murray, and an incisive presentation from former Endemol Shine and FremantleMedia exec Gary Carter, entitled, “Disruption as Catalyst: How to Ride the Waves of Change”, which Carter has since shared via LinkedIn. Meanwhile, a panel titled “What Just Happened?” discussed the growing pains experienced by the unscripted genre over the past year while honing in on the fundamental need for producers and networks to work collaboratively.
“If we’ve got a chance to maintain the success of this extraordinary thing called television, it’s got to be about collaboration between buyer and seller because we’re in it together completely,” said All3Media CEO Jane Turton.
Aaron Lewis from Brooklyn-based prodco ModernEpic was crowned winner of this year’s annual pitch competition, the Summit Showdown, claiming the top prize for his documentary Very Messy and Very Beautiful, which shadows a young boy who undergoes experimental neurosurgery to treat a particularly violent case of Tourette’s syndrome.
The documentary narrowly beat out three other contenders including the six-part Return to Jonestown, about the aftermath of the 1978 mass suicides overseen by cult leader Jim Jones; series Life After SEALs, on former Navy SEALs in various high-octane careers; and the Vice-stylized The United States of Drones, which investigates the social, political, cultural and military implications of drone technology.
Finally, five production companies departed from the Realscreen Summit with development deals worth US$20,000 each through the FYI Development Lab Contest – now in its second year. The competition, which is a partnership between the lifestyle network and realscreen, aims to provide production outfits with the opportunity to develop original unscripted programming for FYI. Winning projects hailed from World of Wonder, Nancy Glass Productions with Vern’s Sweatshop Media, Goodbye Pictures, One Louder Productions and Dynamo Productions.
(All photos by Rahoul Ghose)