July 2, 2003

Conspiracy Theories, Mating Rituals and Untraditional Traditions: TRIO Channel Looks for Offbeat Docs

From Haidi Lee and Peter Von Ziegesar's 'Prom Night in Kansas City,' which aired on TRIO Channel's 9 Sharp strand last March. Courtesy of TRIO Channel

It wasn't too long ago when documentary films were relegated to the realm of PBS programming and occasional network specials. The emergence of cable television and alternative programming over the past decade-and-a-half has changed the broadcast options for viewers and documentary filmmakers alike. Led by cablers such as HBO, the Sundance Channel,  Independent Film Channel, Showtime and Bravo, these programmers have provided outlet and exposure for some of the most varied and novelistic documentary programs to date.

One the more innovative cable channels to emerge recently has been TRIO, a programming service of the Universal Television Group, a division of Vivendi Universal Entertainment, the US-based film, television and recreation entity of Vivendi Universal, a global media and communications company.

TRIO  bills itself as an "entertainment cable television channel reflecting all of the popular arts: music, fashion, film, stage and pop culture in its programming" and reaches over 17 million households through subscriber digital cable and satellite services.

So what does this mean to documentary filmmakers? International Documentary caught up with Kris Slava, TRIO's vice president of acquisitions and scheduling  over the past two-and-a-half years. Slava agreed to discuss the nuances of acquisitions relative to documentary filmmakers.

 

How would you define TRIO's "mission statement " as it relates to documentary programming?

Kris Slava: We are interested in documentaries as an emerging cultural genre. Our subject matter is Pop Culture, but very broadly defined by everything from Almost Elvis (Elvis impersonators) to American Mullet (the haircut) to Cinemania (cineastes). We are also interested in conspiracy theories, mating rituals, untraditional traditions, counterculture, body, image, sexuality. We like strong, idiosyncratic characters. We look for one-hour docs with a notable POV, often one that is oblique, irreverent or skewed. We're an American network, so we like American subjects best, even though we do buy a fair number of British films.

Although we are not afraid to be serious, TRIO is most often smart and irreverent. In the realm of docs, we more often go with lighter subject matter, rather than issue-driven social or political films. On the occasions when we do go with more serious subject matter, it is often because the individual film has broken through and begun to influence the greater cultural discourse.

We also acquire a limited number of feature-length documentaries, although these tend to be "name-brand" titles or by significant, established filmmakers.          

And we have broken all these rules when something appeals to us for some strange reason.

 

How do you acquire your programming?

We deal with a large number of distributors, large and small, domestic and international, independent and major. We also attend festivals and markets, and deal with individual filmmakers. We watch the UK scene carefully and buy a fair number of films from UK distributors and broadcasters.

 

Are you open to submissions?

Yes.

 

How do you like filmmakers to submit their work—individually or through an agent or producer's rep?

It makes it much easier if you come through a distributor or rep. Because we have a small staff, we're not set up to  handle a huge number of independent submissions—but we still do our best to consider all comers.

 

Do you have any format requirements?

Most of our films are a "television hour." We have commercials.

 

What kind of rights do you acquire?

Exclusive television rights for US, possessions and territories.

 

What is the payment structure typically like?

Because we're small, we usually need to spread the payment out over a year.

 

Are you involved with any theatrical distribution?

Not currently.

 

Do you have any advice for first-time doc filmmakers?

The key to any story is finding a strong, intriguing main character.

 

Do you accept shows that have had a theatrical or televised run in the past?

Yes we do, but these tend to be the "name brands." In smaller films we are more inclined to seek a US or world premiere.

 

How many submissions do you get over the year?

Too many to count.

 

How many do you accept?

We will buy 40-50 one-hour docs this year, but this was our first year.

 

Do you commission or fund projects from well-known filmmakers? Or neophyte filmmakers with a good treatment and business plan?

This is our first year dealing with documentaries, and thus far we have only commissioned "original specials" on specific subjects, which I regard as a different genre from documentary films. Thus far, we haven't commissioned or funded any films by well-known filmmakers, but I would be very surprised if this didn't happen in the next year or two. It will be much longer before we commission films by neophyte filmmakers, simply because we have so little money and that is a far riskier way to get product. There is also the issue of personnel—we simply don't have enough people to oversee a number of projects by neophyte filmmakers.

 

Do you ever offer finishing funds?

We have done this in a very minor way. I would expect that we will do more of this in the future, though it will continue to be relatively rare.

 

Any subjects you don't want submitted?

No films on porn actors, directors, producers; there are just too many of these around. We are also not too interested in straightforward profiles of musicians, actors, artists of any stripe; this tends to be a little "on the nose" for us.  As I mentioned before, earnest documentaries on political/sociological subjects will be of interest to us only if the film have made some kind of splash on the media scene.

 

A previous editor of International Documentary, Kathleen Fairweather is the host and producer of Building a Better America, a PBS show out of New Orleans that explores new construction technology in the revitalization of historic neighborhoods. She can be reached at dvdiva@sbcglobal.net.

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