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Dealmakers Gamble in Las Vegas: A Report from NATPE 2001

By Sridhar Dasari

As the plane descended, I could see New York, Paris and Monte Carlo framed in the same window. It was Las Vegas—dazzling lights, towering skyscraper facades and, for one week, home to television’s foremost dealmakers.

NATPE 2001 (held January 22-25), the largest television market in the United States, was holding court. Savvy television producers, new media pioneers and first-time exhibitors from all over the world converged on Vegas to pitch new television product, create co-production deals with the studios and majors, and attract television broadcasters to stylized kiosks to sell, sell, sell!

I also carried a viable program that I hoped would attract some interest: a documentary which I co-produced entitled Waitress. With trailers, one-sheets and a massive list of buyers in hand, I made my way into the Las Vegas Convention Center. My two previous excursions to NATPE as a reporter helped me develop a realistic goal: create relationships with prospective buyers and international distributors so that I could contact them after NATPE and sell them my independent documentary product.

I also used the opportunity to go to NATPE to ask veteran producers about the current state of the documentary and reality-based television industry.

The Pitch: Do Your Homework

NATPE 01 opened with the annual Pitch Me! Session, where television hopefuls pitch executives like Sean Perry from the Endeavor Talent Agency; Meryl Marshall Daniels, Chairman & CEO of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and President of Two Oceans Entertainment; Stephen Chao, President of USA Cable; and Tom Noonan, president of Entertainment at UPN. The winner of this competition gets a free trip to Los Angeles and a series of pitch meetings with key development executives. Pitch Me! is always an entertaining way to kick off the market, as the pitches are delivered not only to the panel but also to an audience of tenured television executives who brandish everything but tomatoes.

The real pitches of course at the conference are made behind closed doors or well before the conference. The NATPE market reinforces the fact that the art of making a successful pitch requires just as much marketing and business savvy as it does creativity. NATPE is a large and chaotic market. The programs on sale range from The Erotic Cooking Show to Rituals of the World, from A Britney Spears Biography to Bollywood Goes Alpine. The producers already landed a broadcast slot for these shows with a solid pitch before going into production. The pitches to get these shows made, however random they may be, have similarities, as Steve Janson, President of Janson Distribution points out: "Follow the formal guidelines as specified by the network you're pitching, but just be aware that most deals are the result of conversations over lunch or dinner or drinks in Cannes at MIP-TV or MIPCOM.

“Seasoned veterans are producers who have been around long enough to have developed relationships with key network executives,” he continues. “As such, there is no substitute for experience, no shortcut to becoming a seasoned veteran. Know the market. Do the homework necessary."

As the market becomes more global, the programming seems to be more similar. Booth after booth peddled programs about storms, medical emergencies, secrets and the biggest, greatest or oddest anything. These programs are out there because they’re relatively easy and inexpensive to produce, they’re dramatic and they translate and sell well over different territories. There’s an appetite for reality programming, even if it is recycled. One week you could be watching a segment on spy satellites or cloning on 60 Minutes, and the next week you could see different versions of the same two stories on Forbidden Secrets, a new series slated to air on PAX. Of course, there are just as many,

if not more, unique and dramatic stories that can be made into documentaries. To get any story made or sold, you have to have the right pitch.

Robert Cosgrove of Merv Griffin Entertainment pointed out at a panel discussion on pitching that it’s a good idea to do the homework in terms of finding and pitching any idea to see if it’s all that you perceive it to be. “The first big mistake that everybody can make at one time or another is to get so excited about your idea, do so much work in a preliminary way and then find out there are 50 versions of your idea already out there,” he emphasizes. “At least explore whether anybody even likes your idea first with a few preliminary meetings with an agent or a production company."

The Looming Strike

The looming Writers Guild and Screen Actors Guild strikes may be an additional boon to the business of reality television, as shows like The Mole, Survivor II and Who Wants to be a Millionaire? have proved their popularity. Broadcasters are looking to fill programming slots with reality content, and they will be looking to the independent producer for programs. IDA Trustee Steven Rosenbaum, CEO of CameraPlanet.Com/BNNtv, put things in perspective: “The strike is a complicated emotional quandary for reality producers. On one hand, certainly opportunities will arise from it; on the other hand, the reason there's a strike looming is because there are inequities for the creative community that need to be resolved. So I support the spirit of fair play for creative work, and I think that we need to address the issues that both the WGA and SAG are raising."

Owning Your Show vs. Commissions

Producers are still faced with difficult issues regarding financing and owning documentary product, even as the demand for reality product seems to be increasing. “I would think the future is bright for reality producers, strike or no strike,” Janson observes. “The genre has proved itself as a ratings winner, and the programming is inexpensive. But this doesn't necessarily translate into good news for independents, because the studios and majors will want to own the franchises themselves, as with every other nonfiction genre on television today.

“The real problem for independent producers of nonfiction programming is the copyright and equity issue today,” he continues. “Most of the nonfiction/documentary production business now is work-for-hire. The cable networks prefer commissions to co-productions, and they need to own the content, including the copyrights and worldwide distribution in all media and formats."

Under the work-for-hire business model, some independents are losing ownership rights and the rewards that come with it. At a panel entitled How to Finance Your Factual Program, Bruce Klein of Atlas Media offered sage advice about self-financing television product, in some instances in order to retain ownership. “What I’m essentially talking about is putting up the money before you have a network, or even a distributor signed on,” he explains. “It’s not for everybody or for every project, but in some cases -- perhaps contrary to conventional wisdom -- a scenario in which a producer funds most, if not all of his budget actually makes good business sense. Most nonfiction projects, as long as they’re produced cost-effectively, eventually make money. Consider doing what it takes to fund all or part of your production yourself; it’s a good bet that if you hang in there over time, you’ll always find enough buyers to recoup your investment. And of course you’ll be building a library, which is a genuine asset.”

The reality is that competition to sell documentary product is tough, as more and more producers have the resources and know-how to make documentaries. But the good news is that the number of documentary buyers is increasing (MIPDOC reports an increase of 117 buyers for its conference held recently in Cannes). The challenge for the independent producer is to focus on selling or marketing programs that are useful to commissioning editors and to own a part of that program as it plays across global airwaves.

Internet Hype or Fury?

NATPE 01 didn’t lack for booths and seminars dedicated to new media. The new media wave is very much for real, and it is up to each individual producer to use new technology to maximize prospects. There are opportunities that were not there just two years ago., for example, provides independent producers with affordable marketing and branding opportunities over the Web. will not only create a website for your documentary product; but the website is set up within an on-line market place for buying and selling of film/television product. The on-line trade show provides a vehicle for sellers to showcase their films and buyers to see what is out there, without the phone calls or travel.

Carry On

NATPE is always a learning experience. I established relationships with international distributors and domestic buyers who expressed interest in my documentary. The conference proved to me that the opportunities to produce, market and sell documentaries are now in the hands of more people. I am sure that producers who know how to tell a story with solid writing, intoxicating cinematography, exhaustive research and interviews and a well-conceived business plan can sell their documentaries at NATPE and other markets.


Sridhar Dasari is an independent documentary producer living in Los Angeles. He can be reached at