February 10, 2009

Cablers Confab: Realscreen Rolls on, Despite Recession

The weather and the economic news outside may have been dreary last week, but the mood inside the Renaissance Hotel in Washington, DC, was warm and optimistic at the 11th annual Realscreen Summit. In spite of the recession, close to 1,100 people from across the United States and around the world gathered February 1 to 4 to listen to the heartbeat of  the nonfiction industry, participate in master classes, network with colleagues and pitch their projects, and sit in on panel discussions. 

According to Realscreen Magazine publisher Claire McDonald, the number of exhibitors increased this year, as well as paid attendance, which was up about eight percent. Yet, the summit was not unscathed by the economic doldrums. "Some of the larger delegations were pared down," McDonald notes. "A large production company that might have 10 people in the past might have sent five this year." Some of the usual suspects were missing, too, such as Bravo, the Food Network, Spike, and feature doc distributors, as well as a few production companies.

Yet, the weak economy actually encouraged some to pony up the fee for the conference. "Marketing is always critical, especially during a recession," offers lawyer Sylvia Strobel, who attended her eighth Realscreen. "Many companies pull back on marketing and development during an economic downturn, which is the exact opposite of what a company should do." She terms Realscreen a success for her in terms of meeting new and current clients. Broker Debra Kozee of C & S Insurance is in the same sales state of mind: "It makes sense to make more of a marketing and sales effort in a down economy." However, in these tough economic times, she thinks broadcasters "want to work with proven producers with a track record, and there seemed to be little opportunity for new people."

Among the big names on hand as keynote speakers were Thom Beers of Original Productions, David Zaslav and John Ford of Discovery Communications, Ann Julienne, formerly of France 5, and David Haslingden of the National Geographic Channels. Zaslav, talking about the state of the Discovery networks, admitted that TLC and Discovery had lost their way for a bit but are now back on track. The next big push are in the Animal Planet and Discovery Science outlets.

David Zaslav (left), president and CEO of Discovery Commuications, in conversation with Original Productions' CEO Thom Beers at the Realscreen Summit. Photo: Jeff Adkins/Adkins Exposures. Courtesy of Realscreen Magazine

Haslingden challenged producers to make more global programming, too: "Content that travels is key, and the producers who can do that very well will prosper, and those who don't, won't." He also reminded the packed ballroom to consider how new technologies, Internet, Video on Demand, and mobile sources can contribute to their programs' success even though no one yet has quite figured out how to make money successfully on the Internet.

Gary Wortman of Fiveson Entertainment thinks that Zaslav and others "were all as candid as you could hope for in an open forum." The message of many speakers was that networks are still spending money on programming. "I was glad to hear that most companies see this economic downturn as a chance to gain market share," adds Wortman. "There is so much gloom and doom around the world and in TV. NAPTE was that way, but not here. The message is, We're not cutting production budgets."

Producer Dara Padwo-Audick got the same financial message: "Sure, we're not rolling in money, but good programming has a place." The mood of many programmers mirrored this idea: In bad times people tend to stay home, spend less money and watch more TV;  viewer stats support this. So just what are the channels looking for right now? Some programmers accentuated character, story and emotion; others didn't. Series are more desirable, not one-offs. And definitely watch the network first; you don't want to pitch something already on the air.

The big name many were interested in finding out more about was the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). A new Discovery channel, it's motto is "Live Your Best Life." OWN is looking for shows that empower, educate, entertain, enhance and connect. According to Zaslav, "It's a big challenge, that we can launch a network that is true to her [Oprah's] message."

It's not just the big names and sessions that attract people to Realscreen each year, however. "Hands down, it's the best networking experience for anybody in the nonfiction world," McDonald maintains. Many filmmakers and commissioning editors prove the point by spending hours in the hotel's lobby, bar and restaurants, networking constantly. For some, all that chatter upstairs made the actual conference downstairs appear smaller. Hal Gessner of CBS Eye Too Productions felt the summit was a little less crowded than the past few he's attended, but still believes it's a great place to "meet people we ordinarily do not see, such as people from the West Coast." What would he like to see changed? "More places where people could sit and take meetings." 

McDonald knows it's a challenge to find the balance between the demand for that kind of networking and sessions. "A great deal of our success has been predicated on delivering top-notch content," she maintains. This year Reaslcreen called on both Ford and Julienne to help recruit that talent and guide content. Why did Ford agree to get involved? "Realscreen is a great gathering of producers and networks in nonfiction," he explains. "I wanted to help it out. I helped plan sessions, and select moderators and presenters." His goal was "to make it worthwhile for everyone attending."

One of the new panels was called Greening Your Production: Best Practices in Sustainable Filmmaking. Larry Engel and Pat Aufderheide both of American University presented green guidelines for filmmaking. Attendance was not overflowing, but both were pleased with the turnout. Engel was also happy that the summit tried to do its green part and cut "material consumption by giving every attendee a reusable bottle. I hope more can be done in the future, including improved high-speed Internet so that during sessions we can take advantage of Skype, IChat and other video/audio conferencing. This would allow not only for greater international interaction within sessions but also reduce travel and other carbon-intensive activities among participants."

As a veteran filmmaker, Engel also finds that Reaslcreen and the invited programmers always "give us a good sense as to what they are currently looking for." Libby Richman of Half Yard Productions said the 30-minute sessions "are always productive." This year those sessions included people from the History Channel, public television, various Discovery Channels, MTV Networks, A & E, G4, international interests and more. 

Independent Producer Tien Pasco of StoryLab Films made this her first Realscreen, and agreed on the value of those sessions: "You got to hear from various program development people about what kind of shows they were looking for." Her favorites were the execs from The Science Channel, National Geographic International and Sundance Channel. She also enjoyed the annual session where producers get feedback on their pitches. She choice to take part in those events because "I felt they were probably the most straightforward, candid and accessible and not just canned promotional-speak from a network executive." One of the other essential things she learned at these sessions is that nobody pitches on paper anymore; you need to put together a good tape with your proposed talent for any pitch you do.

Four-time Realscreen participant Padwo Audick of Creative Strategies loved the international feel of the crowd and spent much of her time at the conference finding distributors for her already-shot film about Bhutan. She felt it was a great success, and learned two key things: "There is a great willingness to collaborate on projects, and you have to work harder to get funding and be more creative about putting that finding in place from a variety of sources."

Some of the best career advice came from Thom Beers during his standing-room-only One on One conversation. Beers has hit it big with Deadliest Catch, Ice Road Truckers, Monster Garage and other testosterone-driven programming. If you want to succeed, he said, "Stick to your passion, and suck it up. It's not an easy business." Ford added, "Things are changing rapidly, and not for the worse. It's important to be innovative and flexible to succeed."

Lauren Cardillo is an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker based in Alexandria, Virginia. Her company, Fusilli Films, LLC, produces and develops projects for a variety of nonfiction clients. See www.themotherroad.tv.

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