October 12, 2009

Crossing the Bridge: WestDoc Stages Reality/Doc Summit

According to the buzz at the bagel bar, the first-ever WestDoc Conference exceeded everyone's expectations, thanks to a remarkable lineup of panelists...who were often hanging out at the bagel bar.

"There was a more relaxed schedule and atmosphere here than you see at other conferences," said filmmaker Chuck Braverman, who co-founded WestDoc with Richard Propper of Solid Entertainment. "The heavy hitters are out in the hall here schmoozing and networking. You don't see that at the other conferences." 

Braverman and Propper created WestDoc as the first forum designed specifically to serve documentary and reality TV professionals. "These two genres are very closely related," Propper asserted, "and no one's addressing this bandwidth."

Based on how crowded the panels were, it's an idea whose time has come. "I think we're going to have to find a bigger venue," confided Braverman, squeezing past the crowd at the "Power Programmers" panel, where broadcast execs revealed the secrets behind getting shows on their channels. 

 

WestDoc attendees at the Pitchfest Pitch. Courtesy of WestDoc Conference

WestDoc's power lineup included executives from Independent Lens, Sundance, NBC, ABC, Fox, Documentary Channel, Discovery, Bravo, TLC, Animal Planet, History Channel, National Geographic, ESPN, WE, Planet Green, The Travel Channel and MTV. Just about the only outlet that didn't fly an exec to Santa Monica was that NASA channel that broadcasts from a camera on the side of the Space Shuttle.

"The most senior executives are coming to this event," said filmmaker Peter von Puttkamer of Gryphon Productions, who works with Discovery, Animal Planet and History Channel. "And they're sitting down with the people. They're even going to the cocktail parties."

WestDoc also featured power filmmakers. On the doc side there was Ondi Timoner (DIG!; We Live in Public), Robert Greenwald (Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price; Outfoxed) and Kirby Dick (Outrage; This Film Is Not Yet Rated).

On the reality side, there was TLC's executive vice president Steve Cheskin (the man who invented Discovery Channel's "Shark Week"); Tom Rogan of Authentic Entertainment (Ace of Cakes; Toddlers and Tiaras); and even William Morris vet John Ferriter (the man behind the deal behind Who Wants to Be a Millionaire).

The keynote speakers were R. J. Cutler (The September Issue; 30 Days; American High) and reality's current king, Thom Beers (Deadliest Catch; Monster Garage). Beers gave a very candid talk about everything from how he built his empire to what gets him chased off the road by the end of every season of Ice Road Truckers (seems he just can't resist that footage of truckers peeing...while driving). Cutler dished the dirt about making The September Issue and dancing the divide between documentaries and reality. 

 

Left to right: Steve Burns, Executive Vice President of Content, National Geographic Channel; Thom Beers, CEO/Executive Producer, Original Productions; Michael Hoff, CEO, Hoff Productions. Courtesy of WestDoc Conference

 

The most popular panel for the doc crowd was "How to Get on PBS If You're Not Ken Burns," which decoded the maze of roads that lead to PBS. The conference also featured case studies of Food, Inc. and Anvil!: The Story of Anvil.

Just as Propper and Braverman had hoped, the doc and reality communities had plenty to commingle about. "The crossover to me is an easy one," said Biggest Loser producer J. D. Roth of 3 Ball, explaining why he called up director Kristopher Belman after seeing his LeBron James doc More Than a Game. "I think he'd be great in reality television," Roth exclaimed. "A good storyteller's a good storyteller."

This is just what Marissa Aroy wanted to hear. She won an Emmy for her PBS doc Sikhs in America, but she's suffering from grant fatigue. "I live up in the San Francisco Bay Area near Berkeley with a bunch of longtime documentary filmmakers," Aroy explained. "They had great careers, in the '70s, '80s. That kind of PBS career documentary lifestyle does not exist anymore." That made her "reality curious." Before she left WestDoc, she managed to snag 15 minutes alone in the lobby with Steve Burns, executive vice president of her favorite channel, National Geographic.

Which was great, as far as Burns was concerned. "We rely on the wonderful ideas and innovations of great independent filmmakers," Burns maintained. "I think that Chuck and Richard have done a great thing bringing WestDoc to LA. I was pleased to come."

 

Left to right: Richard Propper, Co-Founder, WestDoc Conference; Karin Martenson, Director of Programming, WestDoc Conference; Charles Nordlander, Vice President, Development and Planning, History. Courtesy of WestDoc Conference

 

Even vets like Puttkamer made hookups in the lobby. "If you've been at it for a while you do know the people," he explained. "But it's nice to sit down with people you haven't seen for a while and do face-to-face meetings." Before he left WestDoc, Puttkamer had turned an e-mail pitch "no" into a lobby "yes."

Day three of WestDoc was dedicated to a "Pitch Fest." Although Richard Saiz of ITVS and Tom Neff of Documentary Channel seemed open to just about any one-off with a great story, the fate of series still seems to hang on colorful characters who stir things up.

But fans of "observational" documentaries will find comfort in what an MTV exec had to say in the "Future of Reality TV" panel. According to senior vice president Brent Haynes, kids today are tired of "overproduced" shows. So MTV invested heavily in The Buried Life, a new series about community service--produced by doc folk. 

You can hear what you missed with the audio version of WestDoc, which will go on sale on the WestDoc website in November.

For a complete list of panelist bios, click here.

Elizabeth Blozan is freelance writer and director of the documentary Rebel Beat: The Story of LA Rockabilly. She can be reached at betty@betty-vision.com.

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