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International Doc Workers Meet the Digerati at MIPCOM

By Michael Rose

Suzanne Meltzer, public affairs coordinator for The Marketplace (left) confers with Helen Danielson, producer.

After a week of endless meetings, screenings, seminars, lunches, cocktails, dinners, late night drinks and non-stop schmoozing, the 11,000+ buyers and sellers of programs for TV, video, cable, satellite and the Internet decamped from the semi-annual market in Cannes, France, called MIPCOM and headed home to begin the tedious task of following up.

Responding to the surge of interest in new media, convention organizers erected a temporary structure to house the almost 500 Internet companies that wanted booths. This onslaught of Web companies stimulated a hunger for information about how their presence was changing the industry, and MIPCOM organizers set up a series of conferences that addressed this demand.

One popular seminar focused on how to protect your material once it’s on the Internet.

“Rights are a huge issue,” says Michael Wetherseed, director of Reed Midem, the sponsors of the market. “Producers want to know how to manage and track any sales they make to Internet companies and what people are paying.”

Other seminars focused on what TV companies expect out of the Internet and the role convergence will play in the delivery and production of programs. While questions remained in every area, one thing that was clear was that there is a growing need for programming material.

While Wetherseed agrees that “content is still king,” he cautions that “producers have to have an Internet strategy.”

Out on the market floor, buyers and sellers explored the opportunities of Web-based entertainment and the new digital channels that are rolling out around the world. Programmers and distributors demonstrated how their shows, or content, could be spread over several different outlets now that there are an ever-growing number of platforms. This appears to bode well for documentary producers. “There is an undying appetite for factual programming,” maintains Andy Thomson, executive vice president of FACT, the recently announced Alliance Atlantis documentary production venture. Thomson sees most of the immediate growth coming from the digital channels. “The major diet of the digital channels is factual programming, and this will continue to grow,” he adds.

Thomson isn’t limiting his efforts to the emerging digital tier. Alliance Atlantis bought Thomson’s Canadian documentary company, True North, and put him in charge of guiding their efforts to produce documentaries for all the major outlets worldwide. Some observers worried that the purchase of companies like True North and GRB by large media conglomerates signaled the end of opportunities for independent producers. Thomson and others have tried to allay these fears. Small independent producers won’t disappear,” he explains, “because the outlets need fresh ideas.”

Diana Ingraham, director of US Independents, an organization that helps fledgling producers navigate their way through the market, agrees. “The risk taking you need (in programming) won’t come from a big bureaucracy. They need the creativity of individuals.”

Ingraham and her co-director, Meg Villarreal, had an epiphany several years ago and became champions for the growing number of independent producers in the US. “We happened to be at a co-production seminar and were taken aback by the quality of products being produced by independents that weren’t getting beyond our borders,” explains Villarreal. “We knew people were looking for quality product about America, produced by Americans, so we said, put on a show,”

Many established production companies build large booths and bring over a sales staff to work the floors of the market. Or they may be represented by one of the major distributors like Devillier Donnegan, CS Associates or Tapestry, who take producers’ wares to market. But fledgling independent producers coming from the States were largely on their own until US Independents arrived on the scene.

“US Independents is a good way to break in,” says Germaine Deagan, director of sales for Minnesota based Tremendous Entertainment. “You have a place to put things. At the stand we have a place to store materials, show videos, take messages and have meetings.

Whether you link up with the US Independents or come as an independent producer, however, it’s expensive. US Independents has two price tiers ranging from $2300 to $5500. A company can bring two people to the market for the lower fee but can’t use any of the VHS players in the booth. The next step up allows a company to bring three people and guarantees two hours of screening time every day. Participants in either tier can take advantage of networking receptions at the booth, share the receptionist and display sales literature.

Going solo and registering with Reed Midem costs a minimum of $2,000 for up to three people from a company to attend. This fee buys you a floor pass, a guide with the names of all the attendees and access to a room with a few tables and a warren of mailboxes where you can hold meetings and leave and receive messages.

Andy Berman, a sales representative for Tivix, an online programming database, started his TV sales career this way. “The best sales tool is the MIPCOM guide,” he says. Berman read that book, stalked potential buyers and set up meetings at their booths based on the profiles that appear in the guide.

Even some established companies like Termite Arts Productions prefer to use the no-frills, unfettered sales approach. Kathrine Anderson, VP of business development for Termite Arts, feels that a booth is a hindrance, so her company sets up meetings about three weeks before the market. Such a tactic seems to work: The company annually produces over 60 hours of programming for the Discovery Networks, A&E, The History Channel, VH-1 and TBS.

Some feel that the way a producer chooses to attend the market is less important than the fact that they go. Brandon Tartikoff, the late head of NBC, encouraged independent producer Michael Murphy to expand his horizons this way. “He said, ‘always invest in yourself,’” Murphy recalls. “If it means going to Cannes, do it.”

Jonathon Towers of the Chicago-based Towers Productions is another firm believer in the benefits of making the pilgrimage to Cannes. “You walk around here and see thousands of documentary projects,” he explains. “You see how the world works. It makes your head spin. It gives you an indispensable perspective on the world.”

Towers’ company annually produces over 100 hours of fully commissioned programming for A&E and The History Channel. He doesn’t really need to come to the market to find pre-sales or production partners. He does it because “as a producer you owe it to yourself to have a global perspective.”

Many European producers attend the market under the umbrella of The Marketplace, an organization similar to US Independents. The Marketplace is one of the many media-related initiatives funded by the European Commission’s Directorate of Education and Culture. The 200+ producers from over 35 countries who choose to go to MIPCOM with The Marketplace are able to utilize a wide array of support services provided by the organization. Not only do they have access to screening facilities, meeting areas and their own coffee bar, but they can also use the on-site lawyers, accountants, distributors and seasoned producers who are there to help them sell their work to international buyers.

Every day starts out with a seminar featuring a senior buyer from a major outlet. “Armed with this feedback, the producers are ready to hone their pitches and seriously make a case for their projects,” explains Suzanne Meltzer, public affairs coordinator for The Marketplace. Producers clearly felt these meetings served their needs. “You go to the buyers meetings to listen to what they want and what they don’t want. You can’t get this anywhere else,” enthuses Catharina Engqvist, head of sales and marketing for the Danish documentary company, AM Productions.

Government support allows the cost to be less than the standard registration price for MIPCOM or for US Independents. One person pays only $820 and three people with their own viewing facility can be set up for slightly more than $3,000.

While many of the new producers were enthusiastic, one of the consultants, John Marshall, publisher of, an online documentary resource guide, cautions, “You go to MIP for the first time as an educational experience. Make your contacts, get your face seen and open doors.” Meg Villarreal of US Independents agrees. “A first-timer should come just to educate themselves. Try to look at it as at least a three market commitment.” On the other hand, if you do start to come, you should keep coming. “If you don’t, people will think you are out of business,” explains Villarreal.

With the ability to deliver streaming video over the Internet and the universal use of e-mail, faxes, and overnight delivery, some questioned whether the need to come to markets was going to last. But others like, Michael Weatherseed, believe that MIP will never die. “People want to have a face-to-face experience. If you want to do business you want to do it with a human. And this is where the business gets done.”

The next chance for producers to jump into the Cannes whirl comes in April at MIPCOM’s twin, MIPTV. This five-day market is preceded by MIPDOC; a special two-day affair dedicated to documentaries. You have a few months to consider whether you want to learn to parlez at the Palais, but it’ s something you should think about.

Michael Rose is a California-based documentary filmmaker who regularly produces programs for The History Chanel and Discovery Channel.