A talented independent producer contacted me with a great story and impressive footage for a documentary about an aboriginal tribe in Brazil: the Canela Indians. Unlike other disappearing ancient cultures throughout the world, the Canela have survived, in part, due to their commitment to conflict resolution and enthusiasm for extramarital sex.
Although the Smithsonian Institution was supportive during the original shooting stages of the production, producer Steve Schecter came in search of additional support to create a viable television program. Specifically, Steve needed a marketing plan for his film, help creating marketing materials (a concise proposal, trailer, etc.) and representation of his film with an eye towards licensing his film prior to completion.
Schecter’s needs, like those of an increasing number of producers, presented both opportunity and challenge: first, what value could we add to the production to help with its completion, and second, what return might we expect for our efforts?
Adding value to a completed project is comparatively straight forward. So, what about adding value earlier in the process, in development, when producers need it most? Understanding development from both a distributor’s and producer’s perspective, we look to add value to projects from conception stage through production. For example, things like support for creating trailers, marketplace feedback, cash flow support, pre-selling/coproduction deal making, and of course, the holy grail for doc makers: cash.
The return on our commitment to support producers has yielded a modest incremental increase in our existing facilities business and important new license-fee based revenue streams – in many cases, from programs that otherwise might not have existed.
But, as other facilities companies have learned, this strategy is neither cost nor risk-free. Evaluating, investing, distributing and tracking projects is a full-time discipline separate from running a facility. And the rewards often do not come for many years or, in some discouraging cases, not at all.
In addition to representing works from outside producers, we must also leverage our time with buyers to provide our original production group with market intelligence. By listening to the needs of the programmers, we have a better shot when developing our own properties. This helps us balance the risk of operating our distribution division against our long-term objectives. And, since we develop our own properties when embarking on in-house production, and supplement our staff with outside producers, we actually bring work to the production community, not take it away.
As more slots are being filled with reality programming globally, enormous opportunities will become available for documentary-makers. And as the sands of this business shift we continue to examine new ways to add value and remain viable.
Take Steve Schecter and his film about the Canela Indians of Brazil, for instance. We’ve been able to create marketing materials, pre-sell the film both domestically and internationally, provide cash flow assistance to his production, and invest in the film. Steve is now nearing completion, and we have both benefited from a film that might otherwise still be in the raw footage archive of the Smithsonian, under ‘Primitive Cultures: Conflict Resolution; Enthusiastic Extramarital Sex.’
Steven Schupak is general manager of Henninger Development & Distribution, and Henninger Productions – divisions of Virginia-based Henninger Media Services.