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Reality and Doc Worlds Convene at WESTDOC 2012

By Elizabeth Blozan

The network executives at the 2012 WESTDOC conference couldn't stop talking about Honey Boo Boo. They mocked her, but they envied her even more. That's because Miss Honey Boo Boo, the cheerful, chubby, infectiously charming breakout star of TLC's Toddlers and Tiaras, has what every broadcast executive spends sleepless nights longing for: that certain something viewers just can't resist, and will tune in week after week to see--what Honey Boo Boo calls being "sassified."

As in years past, last month's WESTDOC conference at the Pacific Theaters in Culver City, Calif.,  provided the nicely-sized summit for the best and brightest of the documentary and reality TV worlds. The cross-pollination included an impressive lineup of executives from Bravo, Discovery, History, Travel Channel, TLC and many other channels, along with documentary filmmakers Lyn Goldfarb (PBS' The Great Depression and The Great War), Bess Kargman (First Position), Scott Hamilton Kennedy (Fame High) and Lisanne Pajot, one of the directors behind KickStarter hero Indie Game: The Movie, the 2010 PitchFest winner at WESTDOC.


The happy-hour crowd at WESTDOC 2012. Photo: Kathy A. McDonald


Addressing what the networks are looking for in new shows, panelists kept citing the next Honey Boo Boo-not exactly new news. But what was news was that even channels like National Geographic are now trying to get "sassified" as fast as they can.

In a talk by JT Ladt, National Geographic Channel's vice president of programming and development, he explained the channel's official move away from specials towards what he called "entertainment first" programming as an "interesting job of balancing ratings with the brand."  Specials, which made up 70 percent of the channel's lineup five years ago, will now make up only ten percent of the channel's programming, in hopes of competing with male-oriented Discovery Channel and History for the coveted 25 to 54 age-range audience. National Geographic will follow the trend and head towards the proven formula for success: the "Ocu-Soap" series about men in high-stakes, blue collar jobs, like the fishermen of NatGeo's Wicked Tuna. "You could target the highly educated, affluent male audience," said Ladt, but "there aren't a lot of them...They don't watch television." The genre of American folk heroes TV viewers will tune in to watch are, as Ladt described, "bearded, tattooed guys with big heads." 

That may not be true for every channel, according to Beth Hoppe, vice president of general audience programming for PBS. In a panel about documentary programming in broadcast television, Hoppe declared, "There is no Honey Boo Boo on PBS!" She added that PBS remains determined to serve a public overlooked by cable channels falling over each other to imitate already existing shows. "Hillbillies in Alaska I feel is covered," she quipped. PBS remains one of the few outlets for one-off, feature-length documentaries through its POV and Independent Lens series.

Ladt did, however, emphasize an area that should make documentary filmmakers sit up and take notice: the rare American subculture. As Ladt pointed out, some of National Geographic's most successful shows are Doomsday Preppers, Amish: Out of Order and Meet the Hutterites. "You can't sit in a room and come up with these," Ladt noted. Pointing out what documentary filmmakers well know, Ladt maintained, "Access is king," and if even a novice producer comes to him with the right access to the right community, he'll do what it takes to guide you through the process. "There are always ways to partner people up if the producer has that access," he asserted.

WESTDOC had plenty of ideas for how to screen and sell projects outside of television. Rick Allen, CEO of SnagFilms, and Erick Opeka, vice president of digital distribution at Cinedigm Entertainment Group, discussed the digital distribution landscape in the upcoming year. The new news here is that both companies plan to experiment in 2013 with reinforcing digital sales through curated documentary series in movie theaters, capitalizing on the dramatic increase in digital projection equipment in theaters around the country.


WESTDOC founders Chuck Braverman and Richard Propper flank panelists Erick Opeka (Cinedigm Entertainment Group), Rick Allen (SnagFilms) and Stephen Nemeth (Rhino Films). Photo: Danna Kinsky


In a panel on self-distribution, Steve Michelson, executive producer of Specialty Studios, introduced the company's new Media Hub software, designed to help filmmakers reach the educational sales market. Independent producer Stephen Auerbach shared his success story using Facebook advertising to sell his 2009 documentary Bicycle Dreams. "Facebook's brilliant," he exclaimed. He had relied on nothing more than trial and error to devise a highly effective sales campaign. "You can do it all yourself and you can make a good living," he noted. "That's what I'm here to preach. Amen!"

Keynote speaker Kirby Dick's informal one-hour talk had even more fearless words of encouragement for a dauntless documentarian. The provocative Oscar and Emmy-nominated director of This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Outrage and Twist of Faith, explained that he started creating his latest film, The Invisible War, about the epidemic of rape in the US military, with no certainty of a theatrical release...or even any money. "I always enter films with a certain level of risk," said Dick, adding that he usually uses his own money to start a film, preferring subjects where it's hard to raise money, "because that's oftentimes an area where films aren't being made, and that's where a film needs to be made."

But then, Dick is something of an obstacle addict. "The one thing that's wonderful about documentaries is, it's completely unpredictable," Dick noted. "I go in obviously with a lot of experience, I have many ideas on how to make the film, but I don't know how this film is going to end--not just end in terms of the story, but what material I'm going to get, what kind of obstacles I'm going to face. And that's very thrilling."


WESTDOC founders Richard Propper and Chuck Braverman flank moderator Matt Holzman (KCRW) and keynote speaker Kirby Dick. Photo: Danna Kinsky


WESTDOC concluded with PitchFest, where attendees watched 12 filmmakers pitch shows and documentaries to a panel of tough executives. The best pitch, voted on by the audience, went to  Erinnisse Heuer for her documentary Spirit/Will/Loss, about artists overcoming extreme challenges to continue creating their art. The prize included $5,000 in post-production services from Chainsaw Edit, an all-media music license from Firstcom Music Licensing, and a $10,000 grant from Merrill Lynch. The New York-based editor confessed some surprise at the warmth and encouragement she experienced as a WESTDOC attendee. "You would expect it to be really pretentious being in the heart of LA," said Heuer. "But I have had a really rich experience-a lot of idea-sharing and a lot of support and a lot of encouragement.  Maybe it's the sun!"


Merrill Lynch executives Paul Gilbert and Peter Smaldino present a check to PitchFest winner Erinnisse Heuer for her film Spirit/Will/Loss. Photo: Danna Kinsky


Elizabeth Blozan is a freelance writer and frequent transcriber of hundreds of hours of field footage for documentaries and reality TV shows.