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NATPE 1999

By Sridhar Dasari

It's about the buzz. It's about the seminars and the Internet. It's about the co-production possibilities, and the blues and Cajun food. But most of all, it's sales and contacts for further sales.

Sales and pre-sales, the bottom line for a producer attending NATPE '99 (held in New Orleans last January 25-29). The focus here, though, is the independent documentary producer, someone with 1) an innovative idea for a documentary, 2) a program or series of obvious quality, and 3) an understanding of how your work is viable for the commissioning editors you will meet. With those ingredients in place, the successful producers begin their marketing strategy and research before arriving at the conference. Best not to leave such things to determine on the spot: because the first thing to be noticed about the NATPE bazaar is that it's... well, bizarre.

The first day at NATPE consists generally of elbow rubbing. Throughout downtown New Orleans, from the hotels on Canal Street to the Convention Center, there's the invasion of program executives, executive producers, free-lance artists, the press, actors and the paparazzi, inflating the city's population by tens of thousands of people. Once bags are unpacked, most people head directly to the convention center to pick up a programmers' guide and conference directory, the two essential road maps to manage the conference's itinerary.

The first day's festivities include a 5K run, and an ornate Welcome Reception sponsored by the William Morris Agency and held in the Grand Ballroom of the New Orleans Hilton Hotel. At this opening reception, food and drink are aplenty and business cards begin exchanging hands. This reception and the many swanky parties held throughout the convention are opportunities to meet and solidify relationships with possible buyers or create co-production deals with other producers in a relaxed setting.

A truly humorous way to conclude the first day of the conference is the third annual "Pitch Me!" session: 15 contestants get a chance to play in the major leagues when they get three minutes to creatively pitch their television project to a panel of judges, including Mike Darnell of FOX, Suzanne de Passe of de Passe Entertainment, Brian Graden of MTV and David Tenzer of CAA. The real benefit, of course, is that there are 2,000 tired (and tipsy) producers and programmers eavesdropping on the pitch session! First place prize is a trip to Hollywood to pitch the winning idea to key executives.

The Exhibition Floor

There were 690 exhibitors occupying 410,000 square feet at NATPE '99. With the ongoing diversification throughout the media. NATPE becomes a mirror of the changes taking place in the domestic and international markets. Yet, you could walk for miles each day and probably still not absorb every single booth within the convention center.

The sheer number of exhibits doesn't reflect the chaos and creativity at each stop. In the Buena Msta booth—or was it a movie set?—hosts invite attendees to sip espresso and rest their feet; they can also gawk at the paparazzi engulfing Regis and Kathy Lee. Byron Allen walks by and talks to Jerry Springer who is attempting to attract buyers to the Polygram Television/Universal Booth by creating the wrecking "buzz" that is becoming his trademark. And while strolling along the many paths leading to the booths, it would not be not unusual to run into the likes of Traci Lords, Pamela Lee Anderson, Drew Carey, Leeza Gibbons and Joan Lundun. With each celebrity attached to a booth selling the program in which they appear, obviously the job of the celebrity is to attract buyers to their network's booth. It's the networks' way of flexing their muscle.

But the competition is just as tough for the independents. Location of the booth is so important, not simply where people will find you but also whose booth happens to be next to yours: booth #2260 featured scantily clothed, gorgeous women to hype a new program Perfect 10, in which these models face daily challenges (at the beach or volleyball court)—I felt fortunate not to be with NHK, the Japan Broadcasting Corporation, whose booth had to compete with its Perfect 10 neighbor.

In the middle of the convention hall, between the Independent Producers Pavilion and the pavilions for television networks of Britain, Canada and France, sits the Documentary Pavilion. The Pavilion is literally 1/5th the size of the Paramount booth and contains individual booths for 18 independent documentary producers. It's the first year that NATPE has had a documentary pavilion, where IDA joined the Canadian magazine RealScreen in promoting the genre. With MIPCOM, MIPIV and now MIPDOC recognizing that around the world documentaries are commercially viable programming, NATPE was sure to jump on this bandwagon. Other documentary producers are spread across the convention floor, far beyond the boundaries of the Pavillion: for example, programming executives from Discovery Communications, PBS and WGBH spend much of their time not hosting their booths but taking meetings with independent producers (including those from the Documentary Pavillion) who are looking to produce programming via a pre-sale from such recognizable names. Joe Levin, president of Vision Enterprises, staffs his own booth. One of the five documentaries that he is trying to sell (Rituals of Mystery) plays on the monitor, on display before what seems to be steady traffic. The size of Levin's booth, fairly standard for an independent, is about 17o the size of that of a network, let's say the size of a Volkswagen minivan, but Joe didn't have any flowers.

"It's overwhelming . . . I have to admit," Levin stated. "When you arrive in the morning and see the size of your booth in comparison with the entire market, you can begin to panic. But then again. I still think that there's a system here: regardless of the size of your space, if you're very focused about what your product needs to achieve, and clear about your marketing direction, then size doesn't really matter."

That "focus" includes months of proactive research and planning prior to the convention. Levin continues, "We sent, a good two months prior to NATPE, more than 600 mailers to almost everybody we felt could be clients. The people we targeted are really focused clients, and we kept on pounding them with faxes and e-mails. That generated about thirty meetings that we've had here today—and we still have more set up for tomorrow."

Tom Koch is Director of WGBH International. "l think WGBH is clearly identifiable, people in the documentary business know who we are, so indeed they come by. My operation is the internal distribution group in which we also do co-productions and so forth. We've been in the co-production business for 25 years so this is just an extension of a business that is always going on." WGBH's presence at NATPE is two-fold: 1) to sell programming and 2) to create co-production deals with independent producers. Koch stresses the importance of being at NATPE: "We now have a public face to many producers who historically used to go around the world to do co-production deals. We produce ideas, generate ideas and we are continually traveling around the globe and talking to partners. This gives us an opportunity to see producers with whom we have an ongoing relationship, to see one another so we can put a face to the conversations. This process takes all year long. We don't show up at NATPE with the idea that this is going to be the single point where all of our sales will be made. It's a year-long process."

Even the larger outfits must do legwork in advance of the convention to attract possible deal makers. Koch heeds his own advice to independent producers: "Start your contacts well in advance, make sure you've talked to people well in advance. Independent producers, including WGBH for that matter, are relatively small compared to the major commercial distributors and producers that are here. If you start doing a lot of legwork and phone work well in advance of coming here, then this is an opportunity to put that public face on who you are."

The Booth

One method of putting a public face to your name is by establishing a noteworthy booth. Like with any market, promoting yourself is the name of the game. One company that has established a booth that is now almost as recognizable to buyers as a brand name is GRB Entertainment. The booth resembles a rectangular space shuttle, adorned with company logos on all sides. Surrounding the entrance door are several monitors displaying the company's products. Standing at the booth's entrance, a visitor can view each of GRB Entertainment's documentaries on the monitors without moving another step. One-Sheets are also available (see above).

The GRB booth is also equipped with several offices, each with a computer, phone, fax machine and more monitors: a storage room contains hundreds if not thousands of videotapes of company programming. It's literally an office-away-from-the-office set-up for the sales people.

Fundraising and the Pre-Sale

Meanwhile, back at the Documentary Pavilion, Bailey Daniels, International Sales Executive for Ellis Enterprises is tearing down her company's booth. It's the last hour of the last day of the conference. For three solid days, Bailey has been in meetings with prospective buyers and prospective networks who will provide up-front money for her company to produce more documentary programming.

"We have a company that's been around for 35 years. And we have many long-standing relationships, particularly with Discovery Channel and Discovery Int'l Networks. Generally we get a commitment in advance before we go into production. At least for us, there's definitely such a thing as a pre-sale."

With Ellis Enterprises's track record, pre-sales are realistic options for Bailey and her staff. "That's the only way to do it. For some reason, buyers pay more for a presale then on a finished acquisition, which has always amazed me because if you are buying a finished product, you get to see how great it is; but if you are doing a pre-buy, it is pretty risky. The key is that you have to have a relationship, a track record. It's very difficult for a independent producer with no track record to do a pre-sale because it's such a risk to the buyer." For some budgets, buyers will pay up to five times as much for a pre-sale deal from a producer they know.

But a pre-sale is a much more difficult option for documentary producers such as Cynthia Hill, attending NATPE '99 in hopes of selling her tobacco farmers documentary at next year's convention. She financed her project through several family foundations in the North Carolina area. "This is something I've really wanted to do for a really long time, trying to figure out what it is that ties these people to this crop. And also what they're going to do now that all this legislation has passed and they really can't make a living on this anymore." Her goal on her first visit to NATPE is to learn how best to sell her documentary to domestic and international markets. "I'm choosing whether or not to go through a distributor or sell the documentary to specific markets myself through NATPE next year."

NATPE seems especially effective for producers to target prospective buyers with whom a deal can be cut at a later date. Tot get a list of the buyers that attended the conference requires calling NAIPE offices in Los Angeles to purchase the list, available a few weeks before the conference. As far as finding the buyers who are most interested in the documentary programming that you have for sale, Tom Koch leaves some good parting advice. "There's no secret about who these people are there are only so many broadcasters in the world, and there are just so many people. It's just a matter of picking up the telephone and calling, asking questions, whether you're calling in the U.S., whether you're calling in Venezuela or whether you're calling in England. You can identify these people fairly readily. There are plenty of sources that are public domain that you can use to find out who the buyers are."

Which brings us back to where we began: If you have quality programming, that you know is needed out there, then with research and marketing. NATPE is a very vital convention for you (to say nothing about the city of New Orleans!).


Sridhar Dasari is a Los Angeles-based documentary producer whose latest work has been for LMNO's productions of The Greatest: Hoover Dam for TLC and Guinness Primetime for Fox.