Designs of a Salesman

With the economies of practically every territory chugging through a sluggish winter, broad- casters are under great pressure to make every dollar count. To survive in this business climate, prodcos and distributors of factual fare need to carefully shape their offerings to win those hard-to-come-by sales.
February 1, 2003

With the economies of practically every territory chugging through a sluggish winter, broadcasters are under great pressure to make every dollar count. To survive in this business climate, prodcos and distributors of factual fare need to carefully shape their offerings to win those hard-to- come-by sales. Distribs planning to attend this year’s MIPDOC and MIPTV markets (March 22 to 28) in Cannes, France, are tapping into proven genres and coming up with some innovative ways to get their shows noticed in the marketplace.

Chief among the trends is the demand for feature docs, particularly those with current affairs or history-focused stories, and programs that cross genres, such as crime with science.

AAC Fact International is betting it can benefit from the raised profile of features as a result of 2002′s breakout doc Bowling for Columbine (New York-based Dog Eat Dog Productions and Toronto, Canada’s Alliance Atlantis), says London, U.K.-based managing director Peter Worsley. He explains that AAC Fact, the doc unit of Alliance Atlantis, is bringing to Cannes Prisoner of Paradise. The 96-minute one-off by Montreal, Canada-based Média Vérité (a copro with the BBC in the U.K., and PBS and The History Channel in the U.S.) details the moral dilemma Jewish-German entertainer Kurt Gerron faced when pressed into making Nazi propaganda newsreels while in a concentration camp. Worsley says that, like Columbine, Paradise raises profound issues about how reality and truth can be massaged.

It is product that has an audience, he contends. ‘Buyers say there aren’t enough good films out there, and that is something we’re trying to deal with. ‘There is a lot of product but not enough films’ is how someone put it,’ Worsley explains. ‘Now, broadcasters are all very choosy, very specific about what they want to buy,’ he adds.

Berlin, Germany’s First Hand Films has built a profile on being a boutique distributor of ‘extreme niche’ feature docs. MD Esther van Messel says demand for the five-year-old company’s creative documentaries is booming, noting that last October’s MIPCOM, where she launched Israeli filmmaker Yulie Gerstel’s US$290,000 My Terrorist, ‘was the busiest market we’ve ever had.’ She is hoping to have an equally successful trip to Cannes this March with features such as Think German!, a 90-minute look inside the neo-Nazi movement, by Ludwigsburg, Germany-based Gambit Film.

Meg Villareal of Springfield-based U.S. Independents, an umbrella group that handles marketing for some of the smaller PBS affiliates, agrees that feature docs are experiencing a resurgence in popularity and expects them to be in high demand this season.

At MIPDOC and MIPTV Villareal will manage the maiden visit of the five minority consortia of the PBS family, whose mandates are to support programming in their communities. The five are: the Hollywood-based Latino Public Broadcasting, the San Francisco-based National Asian American Telecommunications Association, the Lincoln-based Native American Public Telecommunications, the Honolulu-based Pacific Islanders in Communications and the New York-based National Black Programming Consortium. Villareal says they will offer feature docs on topics such as jazz and Native American culture. She adds, ‘There is a great [international] interest in the many faces of America, especially how these communities reflect back in [their] countries of origin,’ such as in Asia and Latin America.

Current affairs, the doc genre that earned the most screenings at last year’s post-9/11 MIPTV, remains high on distribs’ marketing agendas, especially with the looming possibility of a full-scale war between the U.S. and Iraq. Paris, France-based Tele Images is bringing a wide assortment of topical examinations of key global players, such as In the Shadow of Saddam, a 52-minute look at the dictator’s regime by Austrian pubcaster orf, and Inside North Korea, a 52-minute doc by the BBC and Paris, France-based Artline Films that analyzes the so-called Hermit Kingdom. ‘Right now people are very enthusiastic about that kind of program,’ says Marie-Laure Montironi, executive VP of international business.

Richard Life, head of factual co-production at London-based distrib Channel 4 International, says that ‘traditionally, it’s always difficult to find current affairs subjects that work across territories, because most broadcasters’ output is dominated by a domestic agenda.’ With international stories again proving popular, especially in the U.S., he is shopping Russian Siege (w/t), a look at the Chechen terrorist attack in Moscow last fall, from London-based Mentorn (Beneath the Veil). ‘We felt there was more to say about that story, and it had international resonance, especially post-9/11,’ he explains.

Life notes that it sometimes helps to link current events and history docs to anniversaries. ‘For the right kind of program it is a way to bring an audience to it; it is a reason to do that show.’ He cautions, however, that a handy time-peg isn’t enough to make a doc worth viewing. ‘Unless that program is backed up with new content and stories, the fact that it is the 60th anniversary of a particular event is not enough to justify that program.’

History, in all its guises, remains topical, notes Linda Ekizian, vp of marketing for Washington, D.C.-based Devillier Donegan Enterprises. At MIPTV she will unveil the newest additions to DDE’s ‘Empires’ series: Peter and Paul and the Christian Revolution (2 x 60 minutes) and Kingdom of David: The Saga of the Israelites (4 x 60 minutes), two religion-themed PBS productions in her catalog.

Increasingly popular too are programs that cross genres. AAC Fact’s 6 x 50-minute Dead Men’s Tales: Medical Biographies, for example, combines forensic science with profiles of the famous (Van Gogh) and infamous (Hitler). Produced by Washington, D.C.-based Big Rock Productions for Discovery Health in Canada and the U.S., it taps into the popularity of laboratory who-dunnits like North American drama hit CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and, by extension, untapped revenue streams, explains Worsley. ‘The challenge for us is to break beyond

the cable channels and get onto the generalist free-tv channels,’ he says.

Both Bethesda, U.S.-based Discovery Communications and Boston, U.S.-based WGBH International are pursuing a market approach that relies on bundling.

Discovery VP of programming Joe Kennedy says his sales force has been pushing program packages since October. He says the goal is ‘to drive our buyers to see the full range in particular genres,’ such as natural history. He adds, ‘Hopefully, we’ll continue to capture more of their share of acquisitions.’ One natural history concentration centers on extinct species. The ‘Wild Discovery – Extinct’ package comprises three one-hour titles: Washington, D.C.-based DF Paynter Productions’ Island of the Pygmy Mammoth; Tucson, U.S.-based Al Gyuro Productions’ Mastodon in Your Backyard: The Ultimate Guide; and Sydney, Australia-based Becker Entertainment’s End of Extinction: Cloning the Tasmanian Tiger.

Alternatively, Boston, U.S.-based WGBH International thinks smaller is better. Being launched at Cannes is Nova News Minutes, a slate of shorts, explains Tom Koch, who heads the distrib unit. Made by New York prodco ScienCentral and WGBH’s ‘Nova’ team in cooperation with ABC News, Minutes comprises one to three-minute docs that detail a very specific aspect of science.

‘These are complete documentaries,’ Koch insists, ‘designed to describe a science breakthrough or elucidate an aspect of science.’ He says they are constructed as ready-at-hand backgrounders to run alongside stories on regional ABC newscasts. They also work as promotional pieces, Koch notes, since they carry ‘Nova’ branding and ‘tie back into what ‘Nova’ will be broadcasting in an upcoming series.’ ScienCentral has already wrapped 240 Minutes, and another 150 are in production.

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.