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The 2nd International Documentary Congress: International Coproductions

By Rich Samuels

The "International Coproductions" panel, moderated by British filmmaker Andre Singer, provided a range of solid information for those exploring this sometimes puzzling world. Panelists included both filmmakers and representatives of the Learning Channel and National Geographic Television.

The world of international coproduction can be perilous. Apart from the obvious challenge of establishing the multinational relationships necessary in such a venture, one must deal with changes in corporate management, issues of rights ownership, and the sometimes glacially slow decision-making process. The markets worldwide are numerous, but so are the obstacles that must be overcome.

International coproduction refers not only to the filmmaker seeking out international partners, but also to the salability of a project to domestic markets. John Ford, senior vice president of the Learning Channel, indicated that one of the selling points for a documentary production is its international potential, in addition to a long shelf life, and appeal to the channel's adult (25- to 54-year-old) demographics.

In regards to the perils of international coproduction, Ford observed, "One of the key dangers in international coproduction is that you do not have a centered enough editorial [process] for the project to keep it high quality and 'on point.' You can end up with what we call 'Euro-pudding,"' in which many international partners demand that a project conform to their own cultural sensibilities and interests, and "the poor producer at the center of it is faced with trying to satisfy the demands of too many chefs. [The result] might be edible, but it's bland."

Representing National Geographic Television was Kathryn Pasternak, supervising producer of National Geo's coproductions department . Among its numerous projects, National Geographic Explorer, celebrating its tenth anniversary, is the tv equivalent of the organization's venerable magazine.  Like the magazine, this two-hour weekly program covers adventure, exploration, diversity in peoples and cultures, environmental issues, technology, and anthropology. Programs at National Geographic Television share a commitment to tightly focused, character-driven stories and spectacular visuals. One-third of National Geographic's productions are produced in-house, a third are acquired, and a third are coproductions.

Pasternak emphasized the critical elements in proposing a project to National Geographic: "Your treatment should help us visualize your film, and not just describe an idea or concept.  We need a budget through completion, your production and postproduction schedule, and an estimated delivery date. We want to see biographies on your principals, and if you've been able to scout and have a pitch tape, great! Another key element in the submission packet would also be a letter describing interest or commitment from a foreign broadcaster, which would be key to a coproduction. Definitely we'd like to see a work sample. Incoming proposals are reviewed by our coproductions department," she explained, "and if we Like the story we bring it to a larger story meeting, where an executive producer and several other key members of our team review them."

Ford summarized the message of the morning: "Know your audience. If you're going to market a coproduction to a domestic broadcaster or an international one-or both-it's very important that you go in the door with the key knowledge of what that coproduction partner is interested in doing, how they proceed with an audience, and therefore what kind of programs they're going to be interested in."    

The 2nd International Documentary Congress Special