May 1, 2000

Mind Your Own Business! RealScreen Convention Offers Economic Tips for Filmmakers

Chana Gazit of Steward/Gazit Productions talks about writing for docs; RealScreen group publisher Shelley Middlebrook and Viacom's Peter Bardhle; Marc Smolwitz from Turbulent Arts discusses theatrical distribution.

Beads of sweat ran down the starving filmmaker's face. He held the crisp Anamorphic sub-master between his teeth as he struggled around the Convergence Jungle, trying not to think about what his wife would say when she learned they had to mortgage the house...again.
Suddenly, he saw it.
A lamp.
A magic lamp.
He scrambled to grab it and rubbed it incessantly, conditioned as he was to force people to listen to him. Slowly, the Genie came out. Flipping mindlessly though his appointment book, he asked. "And who are you?"

"I'm the filmmaker."
"What do you want?"
"I want a conference where people listen to me."
"And what else?"
"It'd be nice of they had some money."
The genie had no patience for people who rubbed his lamp to ask for small favors. Turning back into smoke, he spat out, 'Go to RealScreen and leave me alone."

It was a good advice, because "listen to the filmmaker" seemed to be the theme at the second RealScreen convention, celebrated in Washington, DC this year. Close to 700 participants, mostly independent producers, broadcasters and distributors, met over three days on topics specific to the business of filmmaking. According to "RealScreen" magazine publisher Mary Ellen Armstrong, the biggest trends in filmmaking today have to do with the economics of creation. "Producers, especially those who primarily supply television, are actually becoming very savvy business people." said Armstrong. "They don't see it on a product-by-product basis. They actually approach this with a plan, because when someone supplies 40 or 50 hours a year, that's not an art form, that's a business... If you want to do it tor a living, then you have to know things, and that's where we come in."

Karen Hanley, Vice President of business and program development for Briteside Television, agrees. "It's un exciting time for producers." she says. "The development of new content platforms is putting them on a more level playing field with those who actually commission their product."

Not level enough, said producers who attended a breakfast panel with executives from Discovery Channel, National Geographic and A&E, among others. Here, question after question demanded an explanation for the companies' continuing low budgets and refusal to pay additional premiums for High Definition products and ancillary material.

The executives' response included several versions of "The economic business model is just not there." "There's a continued difficulty in terms of how to make the economics work," says GRB Entertainment's Gary Benz. "It is not getting any easier, there's a lot more channels and a lot more buyers. It just makes it harder to find financing for the lower-budget quality productions."

But, says Vivian Schiller, CNN Production's new Senior Vice President and General Manager, 'A broadcaster can say, 'Well, we pay roughly 250k an hour,' but I can tell you, if somebody walks in the door with a fabulous show that you've got to have, you're going to pay more than that. Everybody is afraid to throw out numbers because you want some room to wiggle around, but in the end, it's about the show.

"The tact is if you look at the people—the producers—who are making money, they have one thing in common, which is they've figured out a way to market themselves," says Schiller. "There's no question. Art will always exist, but art is not going to find an audience unless the artists know how to market themselves."

"That's why lRealScreenl is not about the art or the aesthetics of filmmaking," says Armstrong. "It's about the money."

This year's lectures reflected that with small sessions on very specific topics, such as ancillary markets, producing in high definition, stock video strategies and the hot topics of the event: convergence and financing through co-production.

Yet, for all the talk about money, the atmosphere was far from high-pressure. "We've been to MIP before," says Lynn Child, an independent producer who came from South Africa. "What you get there is a really incredible feeling of the size of the industry. What I really like about this is that by containing people in one environment, over a couple of days, we have really been able to talk to people, as opposed to meeting with them for ten minutes."

Vivian Schiller adds, "I'll tell you what I love about this RealScreen conference: It's only the people that I want to see and none of the people that have nothing to do with what I'm doing. Here we're all together, in a much more relaxed environment that unlike at a market like NATPE, I can actually, sit around and have dinner, not only with my colleagues at other networks, but with the filmmakers."

According to Benz, "The value here is that this market is about filmmakers. To me as a distributor, spending time with the filmmakers is terrific. You don't have those people at NAIPE, so I came here to spend time with filmmakers..."

"It's true," confirms Cheryl Leno, a senior producer at Team Video International. "l think they're [the cable companies] finally realizing they need us. They don't have the resources at their networks to be able to produce documentaries and such, so they realize there has to be a give-and-take about the kinds of things that they need and the kind of resources that we need in order to do our work. We're becoming more of a community."

And a global one at that. In addition to the United States and Canada, this year, close to 13 percent of participants came from Europe. Filmmakers from Latin America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and China completed the mix. Says Child, "You realize that no matter what country you're from, when you sit at a table, people are talking about the exact thing you talk about in Africa all the time... you realize we're... just filmmakers trying to do our work."

 

Anjanette Delgado is an independent producer and writer living in Miami.

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