June 30, 2005

British Invade RealScreen; Errol Morris Confesses to Rule-Breaking

The filmmaker Errol Morris

In a master class entitled "The Art of the Tease," held at the 2005 RealScreen Summit in Washington, DC, in February, two hooks were cited to entice viewers to watch a program: sex, greed and fear, and the Seven Deadly Sins (pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, lust). Coupled with a metaphor from THINKFilm's Mark Urman--"Films are like cockroaches--there are lots of them; some survive and breed, and some get squashed and stepped on, languish and die."--RealScreen was off to a start.

Filmmaker Errol Morris delivered the keynote address, describing himself as a rule-breaker who got to reconceive and reinvent every time he made a documentary. Being a contrarian, he has employed new and "perverse" ways to tell a story. The Thin Blue Line (1988), for example, which successfully argued that a man was wrongly convicted for murder, is concerned with truth, but it tells the story in unconventional ways. The re-creations in the film, which Morris labeled "ironic re-enactments," often depict the falsehoods people told, rather than the way things really happened. Morris did not start out making a film about a miscarriage of justice, but he "got trapped in the story" a perfect description of the committed documentarian.

Morris strives to depict the "mental landscapes" that his subjects inhabit. He does this by creating an interview atmosphere that allows them to talk freely without interruption, highlighting his belief that one cannot presume to know what someone is going to say. When former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara was interviewed for The Fog of War (2003), for example, Morris mentioned an earlier New Yorker article about General Curtis LeMay, who said that had it been a different time, his actions in Japan might have been considered war crimes. McNamara then stated on camera that he considered himself a possible war criminal for firebombing Japan.

The talk concluded with samples of Morris' television ads for Miller High Life beer--another ironic twist, since, in the age of TiVo and fast-forwarding over commercials, his were captivating mini-narratives.

One of the highlights of the RealScreen Summit was its international flavor, with abundant representation from the United Kingdom. Referenced throughout the summit was a January 2005 agreement between the UK 's public service broadcasters (BBC and Channel Four) and independent filmmakers, which changed the "Terms of Trade." Broadcasters can no longer acquire all rights to independent productions in return for production funding. Instead, the broadcaster acquires only a limited UK license. All other rights are retained by the producer. The Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television (PACT), the UK trade association that represents and promotes the commercial interests of independents, is negotiating to extend this agreement to commercial broadcasters as well.

At the opening night party, Gary Lico, Cable Ready's president and CEO, circulated written remarks by FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, who proposed protecting the independent community by instituting a quota or set-aside of "25 to 35 percent of primetime hours for independent producers or creators." A question was later raised to Wall to Wall's chief executive, Alex Graham, about whether that set-aside figure might work in the US and be equivalent to the Terms of Trade. He replied that when a similar agreement was made in the UK, it was ineffective because primetime programming is already made by independents for broadcasters, and that it sidestepped the real issue of rights, the commissioning structure and funding, all of which the Terms of Trade addresses directly.

The issue of US independents getting squeezed by commissioners was the subject of the "Producers Rant: Regaining the Balance of Power" session. Lico complained that broadcasters were essentially asking producers to be their bankers, not their partners, as some professed during the conference. Carl Hall of Parthenon Entertainment agreed that his distribution company had become a bank; producers were being asked to deficit-finance 40 percent of the program, as cash flow was a major issue.

Bo Landin, executive producer of Muddy Boots, in his master class on "Making International Co-Production Work," drummed home this point, stating that his company floated production funding for months at a stretch and that even the most successful companies with a full slate struggled to stay alive because of cash flow issues. Laszlo Barna, CEO and president of Barna-Alper Productions, said that his busy company is paid less than the equivalent amount ten years ago.

With respect to audiences and how to reach them, Nancy Dubuc, A&E Network's senior vice president for nonfiction and alternative programming, stated that marketing is more expensive than programming and pointed out how critical the former is to the success of the latter. A&E's marketing efforts focus on the expected; viewers know exactly what they will get with Dog The Bounty Hunter, for example. Dubuc emphasized the importance of thinking about marketing at the outset, rather than upon completion, a sentiment echoed at "The Art of the Tease" master class. It was clear from that class that pushing the broadcaster's brand was as important as pushing the individual program.

Participants at RealScreen made several notable observations about the nature of the audience. John Willis, the BBC's director of factual and learning, talked about two audiences: the traditional viewer, and the mobile, interactive audience that wants to personalize its media experience. Paul Sowerbutts, managing director at Diverse Production Ltd., observed that younger audiences think that television doesn't do anything, and are hungry to participate. Rebecca Batties, senior vice president of creative development and brand management at Discovery Lifestyle Networks, noticed that younger audiences don't feel obliged to finish watching a TV program, let alone finish reading a book or newspaper, given the simultaneous split concentration among the phone, computer, music and other TV channels.

With High Definition dominating the future of the producing and broadcasting fronts, the format triggered a spirited debate at the summit. Wade Sherman, senior vice president of programming for The Outdoor Channel, compared the transition from conventional television to HD to the watershed changeovers of black-and-white to color TV, silent to sound film, or rotary to touch-tone phones. John Ford, executive vice president for programming at National Geographic Channel, felt that the only question is when to pull the trigger to convert. At his channel, HD is the default for production, and one has to make a compelling argument about making a non-HD program. The Outdoor Channel is entirely HD and its promo reels help sell HD television sets at Wal-Mart and Best Buy.

However, Bill Harris, senior vice president of production and broadcast operations at A&E Television Networks, noted that his channel cannot make the HD business model work at this time. It puts a squeeze on producers, since A&E can't raise its budgets for original programming. He also pointed out that there are big lies about the consumer-sized screens and aspect ratios; it's hard to get the right monitor and cable box that work with their programming. There are also the issues of converting A&E's back catalogue, and HD programs are not Nielsen-rated.

As a convocation of key programmers, distributors, producers and industry suppliers, the RealScreen Summit is a proficient place for taking the temperature of the international business of nonfiction programming.

 

Susan Morris is a producer, director and media consultant who has worked for TRIO, BBC, Bravo, IFC, WNYC, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Trust, the Rockefeller Foundation, WNET/Thirteen and Condé Nast. She is currently producing media for the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts.< p>

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