Documentary

Realscreen Summit: From pitching docs to surviving danger zones

Finding good stories that people really care about and networks can build their brand around remains at the heart of commissioning decision-making for the executives who took part in a ...
January 25, 2017

Finding good stories that people really care about and networks can build their brand around remains at the heart of commissioning decision-making for the executives who took part in a pitch panel at the Realscreen Summit Jan.24.

At CNN, Amy Entelis, EVP, talent and content development, said they are primarily focused on releasing five to seven docs per year. The subject matter can vary, but whatever it is, it has to be something that connects with CNN’s audience, she said.

Amongst the company’s new slate of docs for 2017, is a feature (no title given) on Elián González – the five-year old boy who was at the center of an American-Cuban custody battle that garnered global attention in 1999. The story of his life, and what happened after he returned to Cuba, is being shown during an era of new Cuban-American relations.

“We have to contextualize them [docs] for our audience, so we ask everyone on our shows to talk about our projects. We can only do that then a certain amount of times per year,” she said.

“We have to contextualize them [docs] for our audience, so we ask everyone on our shows to talk about our projects. We can only do that then a certain amount of times per year.” – Amy Entelis

Jon Bardin, director, documentaries and specials at Discovery Channel, agreed with Entelis, saying there are only so many titles the company can rally behind, and at Discovery, it is interested in features that boost the Discovery brand.

To that end, Discovery continues to put its energy into environmental features, including Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman, which premiered at Sundance 2017. The doc follows in the footsteps of past environmental titles Discovery picked up, including Racing Extinction, about the endangered species black market, and the man-made water crisis in America’s West in Killing the Colorado.  

Shifting into the world of public broadcasting, Bill Gardner, VP, programming and development at PBS, said they try to shed light and context on what is currently going on in broader American culture. As a public broadcaster, PBS is focused on building relationships with the many communities they serve and engaging with voices are not often heard by mainstream media.

PBS has six theatrical releases a year, with a focus in local community TV stations that can help build anticipation for the release. This strategy was used for Stanley Nelson‘s 2015 documentary film The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and Rory Kennedy’s Oscar-nominated Last Days in Vietnam.

“It’s great when something like Hamilton’s America blows up…but it’s also about impact, and who we can touch and the ways we can do that,” said Gardner.

The Danger Zone: Navigating productions in hostile terrain. 

In a world wrought with hostilities, dangerous alliances and even more dangerous terrain, a group of filmmakers working in these life-threatening environments took to the Realscreen Summit stage to discuss what drives them to risk their life for a story.

“If I thought the film could make a difference, if it could hasten peace, make it easier for people to participate in aid, I do it. I don’t do it for adventure, not interested in adventure,” said Jon Alpert, co-founder and co-director of DC TV.

Alpert has an extensive career shooting in hotspots like Nicaragua in the 1980s and during the Gulf War. He said working in geopolitical hot spots has always been difficult. What does make it easier nowadays for those in the field are the changes in technology. That’s made production equipment lighter and smaller, so it is easier to maneuver.

“Because we are filmmakers, we perhaps have a slightly predatory edge to us. We want to make successful programs. There is a tremendous reward in doing something risky and getting away with it if it’s authentically risky.” – Harry Marshall

Even though Alpert has often worked with news outlets as a journalist, he said being part of a news outlet doesn’t make it safer to be shooting than if someone is producing material for an entertainment program.

“You have to play by the same rules. They don’t differentiate between your outlet if they see you with a camera and they don’t want you to film it, they don’t want you to film it. Doesn’t matter who is sponsoring you, you have to make the same decisions to keep yourself alive,” he said.

Harry Marshall, creative director at Icon Films, the producers behind Animal Planet’s wildlife documentary series River Monsters, said risk assessments are done, but some situations arise in the environments you’re shooting in that can’t be calculated.

“You might pick up a disease. You might have problems with men with guns. You might have problems with the weather. We’ve had earthquakes. The risks are immense and doing a risk assessment is difficult. There are so many unknowns,” he said.

Calculating that risk is not just about the big events, but often hidden or less obvious dangers like dehydration or car crashes, said Levison Wood, explorer, photographer, broadcaster and bestselling author.

During the production of Walking The Nile for Channel 4 in the UK, guest journalist Matthew Power died from severe heatstroke in Uganda. He had joined Woods who was attempting to walk the entire length of the Nile river.

The sudden death of Powers created an ethical dilemma as to whether to continue on and finish the series or pack up and call it a day. “It’s something that plays on your mind,” he said.

Ultimately, the show did air, but the death of Powers was not advertised, said Woods.

Marshall said there is a reward to filming in danger zones: authenticity.

“Because we are filmmakers, we perhaps have a slightly predatory edge to us. We want to make successful programs. There is a tremendous reward in doing something risky and getting away with it if it’s authentically risky,” he said.

(Photo by Rahoul Ghose)

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.

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