Skip to main content

RealScreen Rashomon: Annual Doc Summit Represents Many Things to Many Attendees

By Jeffrey Tuchman

 Filmmaker Albert Maysles, one of the keynote speakers at the 2004 RealScreen Summit. Courtesy of RealScreen

I think the best description I've heard of the RealScreen Summit is that it resembles the now iconographic "bar scene" in the first Star Wars movie—creatures from many worlds coming together at the television equivalent of an intergalactic crossroads, bridging boundaries of language and culture, meeting, feeling each other get the picture.

Now in its sixth year, RealScreen has become a "must attend" event for many producers, programmers and distributors of nonfiction television programming. While begun as a cable-only venue, this year's conclave drew almost 1,000 delegates from both basic and pay-cable networks, PBS, the broadcast networks, the independent film and TV production worlds, as well as international commissioners and distributors, equipment manufacturers and archive specialists. There were delegates from some 18 countries—the largest summit so far.

This diverse group was enticed to Washington, DC (or, more specifically, Arlington, Virginia) in the dead of a cold, wet February to participate in a flurry of panel discussions on topics ranging from international co-production to feature docs to marketing and distribution, as well as a host of genre programming showcases. There were the ever-popular master classes, "30 Minutes With" meetings and the highly entertaining Pitch It! session, as well as some new features—among them a legal clinic and a high-definition marketplace.

Why do all these different people from so many different worlds take valuable time away from work, travel long distances and shell out serious money to attend this three-day whirlwind? What entices programmers, or filmmakers who have spent their careers not in cable—but toiling in the fields of public television—or people who neither make nor buy programming?

As an independent documentary producer myself, I was curious how my colleagues viewed the summit. I started with first-time RealScreener Elena Mannes, an award-winning filmmaker whose illustrious career has been spent producing and directing documentaries for public television. For Mannes, RealScreen was truly an expedition into foreign territory. It started with Food Network Senior Vice President Brooke Bailey Johnson's keynote address, Reality Bites: The Fine Line between Entertainment and Information. "Given my background in PBS, it was very interesting to hear someone from the cable industry talk," Mannes notes. "She [Johnson] talked about how entertainment- and ratings-driven cable is, which is so very different from the world I've worked in."

Mannes came with two specific agendas: first, to explore the possibilities of foreign co-production for the PBS series she's currently developing on music and science, and second, "I wanted to see what other venues besides PBS might be reasonable outlets for the kind of programs I do." On both counts she was pleasantly surprised. "The panels, especially the feature doc and science ones, gave me a broad overview of strands both on foreign and US channels. It was very useful for me in the sense that I got a broad view of the market that I didn't have before."

Los Angeles-based filmmaking couple Sandy Guthrie and Scott B. of Antenna Films work together producing documentary hours mainly for cable. For them, forming relationships is a real draw of the conference. "RealScreen is a great venue for the little guy," Guthrie maintains. "What it's helped us do is to form basic human relationships with people with whom we might later want to work. You have to have good ideas, but it makes a big difference when you've met them [network representatives], found out what they're interested in, and you're no longer just a faceless voice on the phone." Guthrie and B. found this particularly important in beginning to explore the world of international co-production. "The world of nonfiction programming is pretty spread out and what's really valuable is being able to meet peers and programmers from all over the world. "

For me, RealScreen is so much about understanding the vast international landscape of doc television. I found the 30 Minutes With sessions (small group discussions with commissioning editors) particularly helpful in learning how to approach ARTE, France 5 or the BBC.

But more than that, I go to RealScreen to connect, or reconnect, and the informal atmosphere permits a kind of intimacy that is difficult to come by in the traditional pitch meeting.

Steve Anderson, president of APL, an independent documentary company in New York City, articulates it nicely. "For me RealScreen is a venue of reconnection...a place to see, in a neutral environment, some of the people you do business with, some of the people you would like to do business with in the future, in a situation that's a little bit less guarded, more comfortable."

Anderson even felt that way about the standing-room-only Pitch It! session, in which a selected group of producers get five minutes each to show their stuff to an impressive panel of commissioning editors. "It's one of those times," said Anderson, "when each one of us in the audience is rooting for everyone doing the pitching."

Anderson made quite a name for himself at the 2003 RealScreen when he won the first ever Pitch It!. And he coached this year's winner, producer Scott Tiffany from Time Frame Films, who won with his controversial pitch for America Cracked: Life and Times of a Psycho Surgeon.

On the other side of the table, I spoke with some network executives. They're being pitched 365 days a year without leaving the comfort of their offices, so what brings them here?

Lynn Kirby is vice president of alternative programming for Court TV. For her, the opportunity to meet with a broad range of existing and potential vendors in one place is a strong suit of the summit. "RealScreen has a distinctive character," she notes. "Its value is that it's a very focused event for bringing together producers and broadcasts in the documentary/reality arena...much more than NATPE or MIP. I like that it's smaller, more intimate and just focused on nonfiction."

But for another network executive, Susan Leventhal of A&E, RealScreen's greatest value comes in broadening her perspective on the industry she knows so well. "We have to stop at least once a year and see what's going on," she says. "Every year I say, ‘I don't have time, I'm too busy,' but then I go and I remember that there's a bigger world out there and it makes us a little more responsible in terms of holding up our end."

For her, the panels were particularly illuminating. "The Production Company panel was really interesting. As a person inside a network, it was helpful to hear how production companies are feeling working with cable networks, how hard it is, what their margins are, how the networks are needing to develop new models for making money, and how that puts different pressures on suppliers to deliver."

One of the features of RealScreen is the inclusion of those who neither produce nor buy programming, but who provide invaluable services to the television community. Sylvia Strobel, senior partner in Lehmann Strobel, a St. Paul-based entertainment law firm, is a long time attendee (and sponsor) of the RealScreen Summit. This year she spearheaded a new feature—the RealScreen Legal Clinic. "The folks at RealScreen said, ‘We want to do something different—a legal clinic, a service for a limited number of attendees.' So two people from our firm came, and we had a certain number of allocated spaces that people signed up for in advance. We were booked!"

Many of the inquiries, Strobel says, dealt with international co-production, which was a focus of the summit this year. "This is a model that everyone is looking at now, especially as many of the domestic sources of funding have become more competitive, particularly in the public broadcasting realm. But even with long-form nonfiction in cable TV, it is often the only way to cover the cost of production."

While international co-production has gained in popularity, for many it is rocky terrain. "We had a number of producers from other countries come and talk with us about some of the thornier legal and business affairs issues in dealing with US networks," Strobel notes. "And likewise, US producers wanting to know about some of the complications of dealing with production and networks in other countries."

For those seeking Strobel's counsel, the value is obvious, but what does she get out of it? "One of the great values of RealScreen for me is the networking. Often I end up functioning as a middleman connecting producers, companies and networks who may have complementary interests but don't know each other. Most folks feel comfortable talking with me because I'm not making a pitch for I can make a lot of connections that way. The face-to-face contact is so important in this day and age where so much gets done by e-mail."

And while Strobel had her hands full with back-to-back consultations, she did find the time to attend one of the highlights of this year's RealScreen—Albert Maysles' closing keynote presentation. "It was truly inspiring. He talked about filmmaking as a personal journey for him, a very different perspective from many producers for whom documentary is their business. He played clips from his amazing films, and people were very moved."

While it may be hyperbolic to say that RealScreen is all things to all people, it does seem that whether it's connecting, reconnecting, taking the temperature of the industry from year to year or checking out the competition, folks from every area of the nonfiction television universe find something that keeps them coming back year after year.

Oh, and just so you don't think there's no room for improvement, many people I spoke with said they'd like more time set aside for one-on-one meetings so those meetings wouldn't always compete with the panels; some suggested an incentive program to attract young filmmakers who may otherwise be unable to afford to attend; and virtually everyone I spoke to expressed nostalgia for the old Capitol Hill venue of years past. Personally I agree, though I'm hoping to convince the folks at Brunico (the organizers of the summit) to move it somewhere warmer...Cancun, maybe?


Jeffrey Tuchman is an independent documentary filmmaker living in New York City.