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Doc Buyers Learn Less is More at NATPE

By Michael Rose

The outlook for program sales at the 39th annual National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) conference this January in Las Vegas looked grim. The consolidation of TV outlets meant fewer buyers would attend. This, combined with the sluggish economy and the uncertainty among programmers in the post–September 11 world, prompted the organizers to brace for a bumpy ride.

Before the doors opened on January 21, it was clear that this year’s convention would be rough. Citing the need to reign in costs, most of the big domestic syndication companies, long the mainstay of this confab, had decided to bolt the convention floor and set up shop across town in suites at the Venetian hotel.

The biggest exhibitor among those left behind at the convention center was TV France, which recreated a French village with café tables and trompe l’oeil scenes that masked the meeting room, where producers hoped to allure buyers to make deals. France was joined by similar national efforts from Denmark, Spain, Japan and Italy, all of whom sought to test the mettle of their programming in America.

After taking a cursory walk around, I hesitated to see how things were going at the IDA booth in the Documentary Pavilion. I was certain that the mood would be sullen and the booth deserted, with tumbleweeds from the Nevada desert blowing down the aisle.

But I was wrong. The desertion of the major syndicators didn’t keep the documentary buyers from showing up. “All over the world, people are interested in snapping up our programming,” said IDA office administrator Sarah Pattison, who set up and managed the booth. Potential buyers and co-production partners mobbed around the modest three-walled booth that IDA had erected to house its contingent of producers. The stand gave producers a meeting table, a phone, a rack for brochures and an instant support network of fellow filmmakers who were willing to share their experiences. NATPE President and CEO Bruce Johansen, who trolled the convention getting feedback from attendees and rallying support for next year’s New Orleans-bound NATPE, felt the value in attending NATPE for the small independent was the contacts that could be made. “You have access to the movers and shakers that you never have anywhere,” he pointed out. “It’s the best way to get introduced to the business on a global basis.”

This is exactly what St. Louis-based Brent James discovered when he came for the first time last year. “In St. Louis, I’ll never run into people buying or co-producing docs,” he noted. “They’re here.” One thing James found out was that distributors and buyers are more likely to acquire completed programming than something that is just a pitch. Determined to come back with the goods, he went home and went to work on creative financing: He cut a deal with a local cable company that has a production fund and combined that with some self-financing and deferrals. The result: his Storyville Pictures now has two projects finished and ready to market. Graffiti Limbo traces the story of the growth of this public art form and Rodeo Junkies follows two rookie riders on the rodeo circuit. Midway through the convention, he had interest from distributors and an offer from a buyer.

The 31 percent drop in attendance didn’t worry James at all. “This year, [NATPE] being smaller has helped. I’ve been able to go up and talk to people and catch them when they have time to talk.” Another IDA member experienced the same responsiveness from the buyers he approached. Prior to coming to the convention, North Carolina-based John Tricas used the NATPE website to research whom he should meet. “But once that list was done,” Tricas said, “I walked up and down the aisles to see if people’s interests fell in with my subject line.”

Not all of the IDA booth-mates were individual producers. Tapestry International, a long-time distributor of factual programming to outlets like PBS, the Discovery Channel and others, decided to set up shop under the IDA umbrella. Tapestry’s Sarah Phillips was surprised at the amount of traffic at the Documentary Pavilion, and she was able to meet some new people and talk to them about their projects before they got underway.

“It’s good to talk to distributors and channels when you’re in development,” Phillips explained. “You can get their help in tailoring [your project] for the world market, and you can find out about programming slots they have available and what needs they see in the future.” She cautioned that it is a “tight market” right now, with a freeze on many programming and acquisition budgets. If you think you want to test the world market and get to know who might be interested in your programming ideas, the IDA will once again be sponsoring an umbrella booth at next year’s NATPE in New Orleans. It just might be time to take a trip to the Big Easy.


Michael Rose is an independent documentary writer and producer who also writes about the nonfiction production world for several publications.