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RealScreen Summitt

By Roger Warner

At $1,200 for two days, not counting workshops, RealScreen Summit ("Bringing The Best in Non-Fiction Together") doesn't exactly put out the welcome mat for grassroots filmmakers. Held in Washington, DC, the week after Sundance, at the end of January and beginning of February, the summit doesn't draw red-hot doc filmmakers and their posses of agents and theatrical distributors, either. To narrow the demographics even further, if you're looking for mind-blowing film screenings and wild parties afterwards, you probably don't want to go to RealScreen, either. It's a working conference, not a festival, and it's held in an upscale but unremarkable hotel in Washington, DC--the "city of northern charm and southern efficiency," as John F. Kennedy once quipped.

But to list those qualifiers is not fair to RealScreen, a useful and well-respected professional gathering. If you're in the business of buying and selling docs for television, and what you need is a low-key, practical event where you can get a lot of business done, then you'll probably want to consider putting RealScreen Summit on your calendar.

Organized by Brunico Communications, a Toronto-based company that also publishes RealScreen magazine, the conference had 1,000 attendees, half of whom were returnees from the previous year. (This was its eighth year.) According to executive publisher James Shenkman, 700 attendees were from North America and most of the rest from Europe. By job profile, 300 people worked for broadcast and cable companies and most of the rest for production companies. That is to say, the sellers outnumbered the buyers by about two to one, and the atmosphere was cordial, serious and attentive.

As always, most business gets done in hallway meetings and private lunches. But RealScreen distinguishes itself with two signature classes of events: "Speed Pitching," which focuses on the art of spiel, and "30 Minutes With ...," in which upper-level executives, most of them from cable channels, introduce themselves, talk about what they're looking for and open up the floor for questions. 

And give the conference organizers due credit for their timely emphasis on what they call "broadband broadcasting." This is as good a catch-all term as any for the rapidly emerging Internet-based distribution alternatives, including but not limited to video iTunes, Google Video and other outlets. And the word "broadband" begins to suggest the big-pipe technologies that are reshaping how documentaries get made as well.

The first battles of a major format war are underway, and the first casualties are being carried off the field--standard 4:3 aspect ratio DV among them. Long live DV's successors...but what exactly are they? That's a story for another day. But suffice it to say that Discovery HD Theater turned a few heads with its announcement that it wouldn't accept hi-def programming with more than 15 per cent footage shot in HDV, which it considers faux-hi-def. And you should have seen the shooters drooling over the tapeless HD Panasonic cameras being shown in the conference hall. There's a technological revolution underway--and to keep up with it, and to watch the trends carefully, is a good reason to go to conferences like RealScreen Summit.

As long as you're on an expense account, that is ...


Roger Warner is a filmmaker and writer based in Ipswich, Mass.