February 25, 2015

New Disrupters and New Platforms Were Hot Topics at Realscreen

Left to right: Phil Segal, Erik Nelson and Julian Hobbs participating in the "Innovation Conversation" panel. Photo: Rahoul Ghose. Courtesy of Realscreen Summit.

If it's a blustery and snowy January week in Washington, DC, then the annual Realscreen Summit must be in town. But the threat of a blizzard didn't stop nearly 2,700 people—the most ever—from attending the 17th edition, at the Washington Hilton. There were many hot topics to be found for the participants from 28 countries during the four-day event—from how to monetize programs, digital platforms and disruption, to new platforms available for content, to the nonfiction podcast sensation Serial. (Serial was often cited as an old idea turned new that worked. Yes, people from the visual medium were raving about audio.)

There were, as always, plenty of players to learn about, including POP, Esquire, Raw TV, GSN, Discovery Family and TBS/TNT. There was also mind-blowing information on short docs hidden in the levels of a video game. The usual network suspects were on hand, too. Missing in action were most of the A & E Networks power structure, who decided to stay home, and the always entertaining Thom Beers of Original Productions.

As in previous years, documentaries are no longer the main focus of the conference, as the industry has changed. Yet, there were enough panels and programs to keep a filmmaker interested. "They are not the majority here, but we do cater to the documentary stream,” said Realscreen vice president and publisher Claire Macdonald. “Documentary-themed programs are important to the delegates. It's part of our DNA."

Former National Geographic president and now documentary filmmaker Maryanne Culpepper agreed. "The conference is definitely designed to meet the needs of those who are producing for TV, with emphasis on formats and salable genres. There was a nod to documentary, but the focus was on how to make what's selling now." Culpepper made it a goal to meet as many commissioning editors as possible. The Realscreen "30 Minutes With ..." sessions helped with this. "They were like master classes in that broadcasters told you what were looking for, and what worked. They were extraordinary and terrific, with lots of good questions and interesting information." Culpepper attended sessions with executives from Scripps, the Travel Channel, TBS/TNT and RLTV.

The conference keynote opened with a bit of advice to filmmakers from the leaders of the newly formed Endemol Shine North America, a producer and distributor of some of the most successful unscripted formats. It is "an exciting time with all the new platforms," said co-CEO and co-chairman Cris Abrego. They are looking for new unscripted ideas that work for their new multi-channel network, Endemol Beyond.

Funding of docs was a popular topic once again. Filmmaker Dara-Padwo Audick attended a session called “Trendwatch: Funding Factual.” On the panel were mainly distributors and filmmakers. "I have a few projects in development and wanted to do a reality check about the funding models," she noted. Her takeaway: "Co-productions are a much more popular way to go than commissions; money is tight."

The disrupters were on hand, too. The panel “Change Is Good?” jumped into how these new players—the podcasts, YouTube and all other non-traditional formats—are changing the worlds of networks, and fragmenting ratings and viewers. Networks are having to produce programming with less money for smaller audiences. Kathleen Finch, president of HGTV, was upbeat, though: "I think embracing the disrupters is the right thing to do because, while we as an industry might call it disruptive, our viewers say it's just one more opportunity to get our content. They find it when they want it."

And just how does a disrupter program for ever-changing tastes? Ivana Kirkbride, head of YouTube's unscripted originals, says they are looking to do short, five-to-ten-minute docs. "Our audience is very different from the audience you may see on linear programming,” she explained. “They may not even own a TV." Bottom line from Alan Braun of CAA: "If you build great content on any platform, people will come." Braun was also one of the few panel members excited for the future. "I am very excited about the next five years of TV. Entry barriers are less for producers. Everybody is fighting for eyeballs. Content has to be good." Marc Juris of WeTV added, "TV is still the most powerful medium we have."

Sam Barcroft (left) and Fenton Bailey participating in "The Next Wave" panel. Photo: Rahoul Ghose. Courtesy of Realscreen Summit.

“The Next Wave” panel looked at the digital platforms and how they apply to filmmakers. For VH-1’s senior vice president, Jill Holmes, "Digital is mainly a supplement to the programs on the channel. We are producing more projects and series on digital. They are not profitable but a way to get more eyeballs to the channel." Sam Barcroft from Barcroft Productions went further. If what they present digitally "succeeds, it might get to TV."

Gary Binkow of the Collective Digital Studio explained that only great content makes the leap to TV. His company was behind making an annoying YouTube teenage star into the successful TV picture Fred The Movie. His advice to producers creating digital content is to distribute through an established YouTube channel, rather than your own start-up, to build an audience.

World of Wonder's Fenton Bailey even went further, noting, “Sometimes people are happy just to stay on YouTube. It's all about the talent. " And sometimes that talent just does not translate, added Holmes. Jed Weintraub of Conde Nast "is looking to develop content on all platforms, but the story comes first."

The key to success is creating content for all different platforms in order to monetize the talent, explained Bailey. His company has a very popular YouTube channel and network. Yet, he is opening up a bricks-and-mortar gallery TV space to present their work in a different way. His advice for those with content: "Get it on a screen, any screen. Then the money will follow."

"What's the next big thing?" is always a question on filmmakers’ minds. Realscreen tried to answer it with “Innovation Conversation,” a panel of network execs and filmmakers. The podcast Serial and its factual plot came up here. "There is room for derivative programming but at some time, little green shoots start coming up through the concrete," explained Erik Nelson of Creative Differences. Serial was deemed a "different kind of experience" by Nutopia's Jane Root. Why the show's success? "With docusoaps, people feel lied to,” said Nelson. “Ultimately, the country is vomiting that up in some way."

"These are genres that are waiting to be re-discovered," added Tim Pastore of the National Geographic Channel. “You can find inspiration in other mediums." Phil Segal of Original Productions agreed: "What is innovative? Great ideas, but nobody sees them yet." So the answer, according to Julian Hobbs of the History Channel, is, "Pitch everything; you never know."

From the "Changing the World, One Episode at a Tiime" panel. Photo: Rahoul Ghose. Courtesy of Realscreen Summit.

For some filmmakers, just getting an idea funded is not the endgame. They want to bring a social issue to the forefront. “Changing the World, One Episode at a Time” explored this topic. Consensus among the producers and networks is that the programming must be entertaining. Morgan Freeman of 11th Street Productions explained, "Just telling 42 minutes of depressing content wouldn't work. You need humor; you need to strike a balance." One of the first modern shows to have that careful blend was The Real World. "We didn't try to save the world,” explained Jonathan Murray of Bunim/Murray, which created the series. “We wanted to tell stories about kids you don't normally see. Our job was first to entertain, but diversity was important."

Finding networks to buy the programming is a challenge, too. OWN, CNN and MTV have tackled some deeper stories like teen pregnancy, civil rights and animal abuse. Some of the new "disrupters" like Netflix and Amazon might be willing to jump in. "Entertainment value is hard with dark topics, though," added Morgan. Yet teachable moments can occur in series like 16 and Pregnant. "Many family conversations happened because of the show."

Simon Chinn (left) and Ethan Goldman participating in the "Documentary 2.0" panel. Photo: Rahoul Ghose. Courtesy of Realscreen Summit.

The mood of the “Documentary 2.0” session was a bit more upbeat. Getting a theatrical documentary is still hard. But with all the new platforms and the changing and cheaper technologies, "Anyone can do it," according to Ethan Goldman of Warrior Poets Entertainment. "We're producing on all new platforms; we are allowed to take more chances, with less executives who give us more leeway." "I am thrilled to see more places to pitch," added Greg Moyer formerly of Discovery and now with his new company, Blue Chalk Media. There are docs for an Xbox, in video games or, in the future, on Snapchat. And now, "There are all sorts of ways to get buzz," said Simon Chinn of Lightbox. "It's not marketing; it's discovery. Where do I find it?" added Moyer. "We are so fortunate as filmmakers. It's not just TV or theatrical. We have all new platforms to play with."

Next year's Realscreen conference moves to the Marriott Marquis in DC, and takes place January 31 to February 3, 2016.


Lauren Cardillo just produced a documentary that aired on CNN. She is currently working on a show about an Olympic swimming hopeful.