February 6, 2012

The Real Truth at Realscreen: Docs Lose Ground in Cable World

The 14th RealScreen Summit was all about the numbers. More than 2,000 people attended; it was sold out. About 50 agents roamed the halls. Twenty-eight countries were represented. Four key factors are needed for a hit reality show. Three liquor bottles were placed  next to Nat Geo CEO David Lyle at his keynote session. And one show won the pitch contest. (It was called Frogwomen.)

The biggest gathering ever for the conference, the Realscreen Summit ran January 29-February 1 at the Renaissance Washington DC Hotel. The event was so big that Realscreen rented out the entire hotel, making schmoozing in the lobby without a pass--a longtime activity of thrifty filmmakers--a thing of the past. It seemed like every channel in the cable universe was there. Robert DiBitetto, president and general manager of A & E Network and Bio Channel, called the  conference "a force of nature" and "the premiere nonfiction programming event."


Networking at the 2012 Realscreen Summit. Photo: Rahoul Ghose


According to Claire Macdonald, vice president and publisher of Realscreen Magazine, the growth in the once cozy conference can be attributed to several factors: more companies from the West Coast attending, more presence from agents, and the "uptick in unscripted programming here and internationally." She added, "Word is out. We are a market, too, where business is getting done." 

Besides networking and more than a few parties, many delegates thought the workshops and panels this year took a fresh approach. You could learn about the best sizzle reels through actual case studies, hear the pluses and minuses of hiring an agent, get immersed in social media, debate the future of formats, explore how to fight for your rights, participate in speed pitching, or tune in to some fascinating industry presentations from NBC Universal Chairman Lauren Zalaznick, Nat Geo Channel President Howard Owens, or History and Lifetime President and General Manager Nancy Dubuc. 

As always, rumors were floating around Realscreen--about restructuring at the big channels, key personnel moves, and commission fees. History created an early buzz by saying its development execs had the authority to green light a project at Realscreen. Whether that actually happened is unclear.

What does all this mean to the world of docs, and one-offs? While Macdonald quoted Zalaznick and thinks "docs are growing beautifully," the reality is that they are no longer the main business of the summit. "There is still a market for big blue-chip docs," noted Kevin Bachar, the Emmy Award-winning president of Pangolin Pictures. "It is just a smaller piece of the pie than it used to be, and it keeps getting a little smaller each year. But they are still out there; you just have to be lucky and good enough to get them."

Producer Lynn Hughes agreed. "I think doc filmmaking is quickly being eclipsed by the nonfiction/reality world. It's disappointing to see how limited the options are for documentarians to distribute projects within the cable world, where docs used to be king. That being said, the opportunities to self-distribute or to work within alternative platforms has never been bigger." Although Hughes works in reality-based content and understands "that we work in a for-profit world," she said, "it would be nice though to see someone step up and offer funding for old-school programming."

Producer/publicist Michelle Delino echoed this sentiment; she learned "the outlook for traditional documentary filmmaking is looking quite grim, while reality series are increasing in popularity." Producer Flora Nicholas was of the same opinion: "There are plenty of lowest-common-denominator shows with ridiculous titles on the air at the moment." The only folks at Realscreen talking about some original doc programming were A & E!, PBS and companies like Participant Media. Still, Delino and Nicholas were invigorated by the Realscreen experience, and the access provided by the event.

What's a doc producer to do in this modern world, then? What drives all the channels are characters. Dirk Hoogstra, senior vice president of programming at History, said he "would look at any character reel." If the characters was unique and new, he would then figure out how to fit  him or her into History's programming. Reality show producer Patty Ivins of PB and J Television was of the same mind. "The consistent trend over the past few years has been a strong call for breakout characters," she noted. "Realscreen proved this trend is still going strong."  The trend is the same trend from last year and the year before. "On the whole, we are in a reality television universe," Bachar maintained.

The heads of PBS, Canada's CBC and the UK's Channel 4 were also on hand to offer some advice for the documentarians. The good news is that the panel agreed there was a place for public broadcasting in this very competitive and diverse marketplace, alongside the commercial and cable channels. PBS head Paula Kerger said, "We are trying to find the viewers that the commercial guys and advertisers are not chasing." She pointed out that right now the emphasis for PBS is hard science, the arts, children's programming, public issues and  short films.

Ralph Lee, head of factual at Channel 4, explained his company's niche in a similar way: "We have to persuade people to watch something they don't know they want." PBS is also looking for more funding through a new foundation, and trying to make faster programming decisions. CBC Executive Vice President Kristine Stewart added, "Slow is deadly. When you have great content, you need to get out there and be in front of it."

Nat Geo CEO David Lyle offered some sage guidance to all producers during his conversation with Pilgrim Pictures head Craig Piligian. He's interested in docs that rate. He's also interested in the pitches you don't think are right for Nat Geo. It may just be the right project to broaden their appeal. He would like Nat Geo to be a place "where creative producers work," and he reminded listeners that "TV should be fun."

If doc producers are interested in jumping into the reality world, Zalaznick had all the data for success during her keynote. It's not "train wrecks or guilty pleasures" that attract viewers. She pointed out the best rated reality shows, like Jersey Shore and the Housewives franchise, go beyond this. They have four strong factors in common that hook an audience: 1) "me plus," meaning a character is a slightly enhanced version of the viewer; 2) "emotional connection," in which a viewer bonds with a character over time; 3) "rooting for the underdog"; and 4) "unusual circumstances," i.e. a fish-out-of-water story. Words to remember next time you're pitching a show.

This year's Realscreen also offered a panel called "Agents of Change," about, well, agents. Do you need one? Why? How do you make a deal? What do agents do?: These were all points of discussion during the panel. But just what do the networks want? The agents were conflicted on this issue. Two agents managed to contradict each other about the needs and wants of channels. One said, Think different. The other said, Pitch shows that the network is already familiar with. What screenwriter William Goldman once said about Hollywood apparently applies to the nonfiction world: Nobody knows anything--except that reality is on the upswing, and docs, although dwindling in numbers, are still alive.


Lauren Cardillo is a DC-based filmmaker. She is currently producing programming for PBS.