January 1, 1998

My First Visit to MIPCOM

So there I was, on my fact finding mission to Cannes, strategizing my inves­tigative assault on MIPCOM '97, armed with a bikini, a champagne bellini and a laptop computer—all from the headquar­ters of the rich and famous, the Hotel du Cap. From my poolside post on the Medi­terranean, I could see the Croisette, the main drag where the conventioneers schmooze and mingle. I could see also the Palais, the convention site itself, where those same attendees sweat and hustle. Opening day of MIPCOM would be tomorrow and soon I too would be joining in the fray. My work attire would go from swimsuits to power suits, sarongs to sensi­ble shoes. But I had assumed the position and was ready for impact. My journalistic assignment? Researching the international documentary market, interviewing buyers, sellers, distributors and other television executives, gathering information for documentary makers and—of course­—locating the hottest bars and restaurants in town. A tough job, but someone had to do it.

Once I was able to make sense of the multi-floored, overheated, poorly organized mass confusion of the Palias, I took my guide book and targeted the influential players in the documentary/nonfiction programming world to get their opinions on the state of their ait. So many booths and exhibitors, showcasing their cata­ logues and titles... makes your head spin. And as for the state of things, let me tell you in advance: international docu­mentary and nonfiction viewership are at an all-time high. Pioneers like the Discovery Channel and others such as A&E and its History Channel, also National Geographic, have turned this into a $2.5 billion-a-year worldwide business. No wonder that the buyer's mantra at MIPCOM '97 was "shop til you drop!"

Because of the growing number of global television outlets—terrestrial, cable, satellite and home video—documentary programming is not merely a viewer­ friendly genre: it also makes good finan­cial sense. Documentaries aren't as costly to produce as conventional entertainment series; they have long shelf lives and strong library value; there are no celebrity egos to stroke (well, not always); and docs are able to crossover geographically and culturally.

For someone like Bait Soepnel, direc­tor of programming at SBS 6 Television Netherlands, the nonfiction genre is a pro­grammer's dream come true: "We edit it, cut it, give it a Dutch voiceover or sub­titles, bring in a host and it's customized for Holland." There's also a certain cache that quality documentary programming brings to a broadcaster or a network. "It gives your station a better image and it delivers a better, more upscale educated audience to your advertisers, " added Soepnel. Because documentaries are "good programming and relatively cheap to produce, it's a good return on our investment from a commercial point of view," he concluded.

So what are the hot trends in the international marketplace? Wildlife, sci­ence, natural history, lifestyle, technology, sports—anything with high entertainment value and multicultural appeal. Andrew Macbean, CEO of ITEL, an intemational distribution company that represents Turner Original Productions, HBO and Court TV, among others, looks for material "that is intrinsically interesting, visually compelling, with good lighting, settings and camera angles... Documentaries are now on the same level artistically as top quality dramas. We're counter-program­ming to the usual entertainment fare." Nancy Walzog, president of New York­ based distributor Tapestry International, understands the importance of good production, execution and delivery in the highly competitive documentary arena: "It used to be just the fringe documentary makers and producers, but in the last five years, it seems like everyone's jumped on the bandwagon. Companies that used to do movies-of-the-week are now doing documentaries." Reality/factual program­ ming—a.k.a. docutainment, the hybrid combining storytelling, re-enactment and dramatization—is also a hot trend.One of the more interesting titles l came across in this genre was Unapix International's new series ESPU, which stands for Endangered Species Protection Unit. It's an authentic portrayal of South Africa's special anti-poaching police unit—kind of like Cops in the bush.

When it comes to doing business at MIPCOM for documentary makers and non-fiction programmers/distributors, it's all about "the deal." The agenda here is to establish relationships and to find co­ production partners that can offer financial and distribution resources. This is an attractive arrangement because it spreads the production costs and it encourages col­laboration in the creative and marketing process. "If a producer comes to us," explains Walzog, "we'll enter into a devel­opment deal, pairing the material and con­cept together to pitch a U.S. broadcaster. We'll go into the international market looking for another one or two key foreign pre-sales and then we deficit finance the rest of the project." Her other words of advice? "Don't pre-sell without a U.S. sale in place. And if you want to sell interna­tionally, it's of vital importance to prepare a multilingual soundtrack for broadcasters to dub. Still promotional photos help, too." But the bulk of the business is still about networking, making contacts, meet­ing potential buyers, finding out what's selling, handing out your business cards, getting tips, reading the MIPCOM daily trades, circulating with the heavy hitters, socializing at parties or knocking back a few business cocktails at the Martinez or the Carlton Hotel bars. "Wander about and see what others are doing. See the array of material in the marketplace. It 's an ever­ changing environment and it's always stimulating," advises Macbean .

Did I also mention hanging out at the Hotel du Cap? Invaluable connections are made here either dining alfresco upstairs, or sunning topless by the pool. Between the fifty-two different kinds of sardines and the seventy-three different Provencal­-style tomato dishes on the buffet table, you are guaranteed either to overhear impor­tant power lunch conversations, or at least to witness powerful television executives stuffing their faces. (You might even get a topless pitch meeting with one them!) Plus, you never know who just might stroll in off the convention floor. Like Yanni and Linda Evans... in matching blue swimsuits, no less! She looks great­ not a day over Dynasty. Maybe she and Joan Collins—who's in town to launch her new series, Joan Collins—Journeys of a Life—will get into another catfight outside the Palais and create an international stir, prompting some brilliant producer to bring them back together for another series, which will be announced at MIPCOM '98 of course! (For those of you wonder­ing, Yanni was wearing a Speedo...) But back to the convention.

MIPCOM is definitely where the action is if you're looking for opportuni­ties in the international television market­ place. Some of the biggest deal-making activity and programming announcements here in Cannes have generated the biggest buzz for the documentary community. During the convention, Discovery Com­munications signed a production and rights deal worth $55 million with the U.K. company Survival Anglia, part of the recently created United Wildlife, for about 400 hours of programming. The deal is in­tended to support the global roll-out of Discovery's Animal Planet channel. Also announced at MIPCOM was a line-up of nine new natural history series created jointly by Discovery and the BBC, rang­ing from the environment to wildlife, and totaling more than 40 hours. The fruits of this partnership will also be seen in Latin America with the channel launches of Animal Planet and People & Arts. According to ITEL's Macbean, "There's an enormous appetite for product now... new paychannels in Latin America, new­ stations in Eastern and Middle Europe, and Discovery is looking for 300 hours of pro­gramming in Australia." He should know, since it was his company that negotiated the deal with Discovery. Germany's ZDF Enterprises, the programming arm of German public broadcaster ZDF, announced a three-year output deal with the BBC for a range of natural history programs including The Natural World series and the eight-hour The State of the Planet. Partnership and programming announcements have also come from Turner Original Productions and Warner Bros. International Television, National Geographic and NBC, Reader's Digest, History International and BSkyB, with much of the interest focused on documen­tary series and three-or-four hour projects rather than one-offs. Broadcasters and networks are in the documentary game for good, with "branded" blocks of programming being the name of the game.

"MIPCOM is like your one-stop shopping place," says Pamela Mitchell, director of European sales for Discovery Enterprises World wide. "For anybody looking for financing and co-production deals, MIPCOM is a critical show. It's also great for making new contacts, closing existing business deals and for getting access to the world's best producers, pro­duction houses, distribution mechanisms and programming." And if Ms. Mitchell's assumption that "everyone who comes to MIPCOM is serious, with money to buy or sell" is true, then it should also be true that those same people also come with serious money to dine. Whether it's Bacôn, Moulin de Mougins or La Colombe d'Or, there's nothing cheap or fast about the food in the south of France. Eating is definitely an art here, with so many incredible restaurants. So when you get up from the table four hours later, four courses fuller and four thousand francs poorer, at least you'll know it was worth it. Even the food at La Pizza, the hot spot for MIPCOM's power pizza eaters, is worth the rude, American-hating French waiters and lousy service, just for the opportunity to see and be seen.

And as for speaking the language? I gave it the old college try as often as I could but not without some struggle. "Excusez­-moi, monsieur, um uh, pouvez-vous me dire ou est le Hotel du Cap?" "Yeah, sure, it's down the street on the left." So much for winning points with the French.

My mission to MIPCOM '97 thus is accomplished: I came, I saw, I ate and I'm here to say that the future of the international documentary business looks very bright. The worldwide demand for quality nonfiction programming is huge. So huge in fact that next year convention organiz­ers have planned a special two-day documentary screening, called MIPDOC, April 1-2 at the Hotel Martinez. And guess who'll be there with a bikini, a bellini and a computer in her lap?

 

TREVA BRANDON, a freelance write, is currently providing continuity and other writing for United Paramount Network's marketing department.

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