August 24, 2009

New Doc/Reality Conference Launches in Los Angeles

This September, West Coast documentarians and reality TV professionals will get their very own conference right here in the City of Angels. The inaugural WestDoc Conference will debut September 14 to 16 at the Hilton Doubletree Hotel in Santa Monica. Founded by broadcast distributor and former IDA President Richard Propper and Oscar-nominated producer/director Chuck Braverman, WestDoc aims to be an event that provides useful, relevant, takeaway information for both emerging filmmakers and those who are midway through their careers.

The idea for WestDoc had been percolating with both men for several years. After attending numerous industry conferences around the world, Propper and Braverman felt that LA needed its own first-class event. Says Propper, "The perception has been that the decision-makers have been on the East Coast, and Los Angeles has just been known as the place where production takes place. It's not true anymore. Almost every network has offices here. For those that aren't here, we're going to bring them out."

While some might find the pairing of documentarians and reality television practitioners a strange mix, Propper and Braverman think there's a dynamic relationship between the two. "Reality television and documentary filmmaking may be apples and oranges, but they are both fruit," Propper explains. "The tools and the way stories are told are often similar. There are a lot of people who make their living doing reality, but documentaries are their passion. We believe that if you had a cocktail party and people from PBS and Survivor showed up, they'd have something to talk about."

The three-day event will include not just cocktail parties, but numerous panels and networking opportunites. Panels will be organized into two "villages," one focused on docs, the other on reality programming, and attendees will have access to both tracks. In addition to keynote addresses, there will be smaller breakout sessions with executives in order to allow for a more intimate, hands-on experience. These sessions will focus on communicating practical information from the buyers: what are the networks looking for, how can content creators submit programs to them, what kind of budgets do they work with, who are their key executives. While some of that information can be found online, Propper stresses that this is a social business, so the face-to-face time is important.

The third day of the conference will feature a PitchFest, where those who have the nerve to go public can get up and pitch their projects to a table of executives with decision-making power. The WestDoc staff hopes to curate a slate of 16 pitches of both reality and documentary ideas. The idea for PitchFest is based on similar successful events at places like HotDocs and IDFA. Propper says he hopes to have buyers from a variety of platforms, ranging from television production studios to cable networks to new media entities. They are also exploring finding a way to include international buyers.

While Propper and Braverman know that starting such an event will be a challenge, they are fired up about launching WestDoc. They've signed on several "Cooperating Partners," including the IDA, and NALIP, to help them get the ball rolling. Confirmed speakers include, among others, Thom Beers, founder and CEO of Original Productions (Deadliest Catch; Ice Road Truckers); R.J. Cutler (The September Issue; 30 Days; Flip That House); and Robert Greenwald (Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers; Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price).

"It's exciting," Propper exclaims. "We are a team of people who know, enjoy and make a living in this industry. After awhile, you know what you want to do. And there aren't too many conferences that tell you things and bring you hope, optimism and information."


Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary.