IDFA ’15: Ryan Harrington on Discovery’s doc plans

As Discovery's newly-appointed director of acquisitions for docs and specials, the former Tribeca Film Institute exec tells realscreen what brought him back to the buyer's table, and what he's looking for now that he's there.
November 19, 2015

Ryan Harrington is no stranger to documentary conferences and festivals, having worked with A&E Indie Films in a production management capacity for nine years, and with the Tribeca Film Institute, first as director of documentary programming and then as VP of artist relations, since 2007.

But when he arrives at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam (IDFA) later this week, it will be in a new capacity – as director of acquisitions for documentaries and specials for Discovery Channel. It’s a position he’s held since August, and one he’s approaching with great enthusiasm.

“It’s such an amazing time in the documentary landscape,” he tells realscreen in advance of his trip to Amsterdam. “Coming back to this side is a way for me to have a bigger impact in our community, and that all has to do with Discovery – the reach it has and the weight that the network is putting behind this new documentary initiative. It’s a real return to supporting storytelling and storytellers. It was an opportunity I couldn’t turn away from and the work we’re embarking on here is really exciting.”

“Coming back to this side is a way for me to have a bigger impact in our community, and that all has to do with Discovery – the reach it has and the weight that the network is putting behind this new documentary initiative. It’s a real return to supporting storytelling and storytellers.”

To outside observers, Discovery’s renewed push into the feature doc space began with the appointment of former HBO exec John Hoffman as executive VP of docs and specials. From there, the global non-fiction brand acquired Louie Psihoyos’ much-anticipated follow-up to the Oscar-winning The Cove, Racing Extinction, at Sundance – a project that has received much buzz well in advance of its global premiere via Discovery networks in more than 220 markets on December 2.

Now, bringing on Harrington to further build the Discovery doc team is another sign of the net’s intention to, as Discovery Channel president Rich Ross promised at Realscreen West in June, “have by far the most aggressive documentary and special business on television by next year.”

Of course, with Netflix and HBO scoring major hits in the doc sphere, other nets ranging from Showtime to CNN ramping up their documentary acquisitions, and a “back to brand” strategy being embraced by global cable networks who built those brands with blue-chip, the playing field for premium content is becoming increasingly crowded. But Harrington says the emergence of new players in the game is resulting in a renaissance of sorts.

“Obviously there’s a lot of competition now that didn’t exist a few years ago, so I think it’s a great time to be a buyer, as there’s no lack of great work being made,” he offers. “Being part of a team that’s developing a brand within a much larger brand for documentary film is very exciting, as these kinds of opportunities don’t come around a lot.”

As for what Harrington will be looking for when he hits IDFA and other conferences and festivals over the course of 2016, including the upcoming Realscreen Summit, he says he’ll be in the market to acquire between six to 10 docs for 2016-2017, but that number can potentially expand depending on what’s on offer.

racing extinction

Racing Extinction

“We’re examining the landscape every day, so if the right project comes along, that rule can be broken because we’re very flexible and nimble in terms of how we approach the work,” he says. “I want us to be dedicated to finding the best projects out there that fit the Discovery brand, and if the right projects come along, we’re comfortable enough to explore increasing the amount of films that we’re able to invest in.”

He has also been regularly scanning the Discovery producer’s portal for potential projects, and says, “We look at all of those pitches that come in.”

As for what makes a project the right fit for the Discovery brand, Harrington points to Racing Extinction, which enjoyed a high profile presentation in New York City last night (November 18), and festival favorite Sherpa, which is slated to air during Discovery’s “Elevation Weekend” stunt in April, as fitting the brand’s various touch-points.

“Looking at our logo – planet Earth – our films can have anything and everything to do with that,” he says. “The way that we define that is story-driven films made by distinct filmmakers that are telling stories in the science and technology space, in the adventure space, and also what you’ll see in the coming year is a real commitment to telling stories about the environment.

“And I mean that in a very broad sense – we’re not just looking to tell stories about climate change, but we want to tell stories about nature and natural history, what man is doing to help and harm the Earth.”

Harrington says those projects can come in the form of feature docs in the 60, 90 and 120-minute vein, or as limited series.

And although Discovery is a global non-fiction brand with the capability of rolling out a film in all of its markets simultaneously, Harrington says that his team is open to looking at international copros with broadcasters in other markets – again, for the right projects.

“We can work in many ways – as long as it’s first and foremost a film that works for our U.S. audience, which is what we primarily curate for,” he offers.

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