2001 REALSCREEN SUMMIT:
The third annual RealScreen summit
was held February12-14 in McLean, Virginia. The meeting is one
of the biggest conclaves for independent producers,
distributors, broadcasters, financiers and marketers of
nonfiction programming. Over 500 producers vied for
the attention of programmers from NBC, CNN, Court TV, Discovery,
National Geographic, BBC, Britain's Channel 4, The Food Network,
and many other international networks, in one huge flea market
for television documentaries. Guest speaker and
movie-star-turned-producer Richard Dreyfuss told the audience
producers face the same relationship with the broadcasters that
actors face with the studios: "It's a dance between
seduction and serfdom."
As a photojournalist who has been
involved for the past five years in the fight for editorial
rights, it was fascinating to see producers facing the same
battles we have been waging. While more and more
networks emerge on cable and satellite, many with their own
online components, there is increasing pressure on filmmakers to
sell all rights to their material, so the network can slice and
dice the content for its different components. At the same time,
pressure is being exerted to lower the cost to the network for
the material being acquired.
Being caught in this crunch, the
filmmakers pressed the broadcasters to give some idea of what
the tolerable profit range was for the producer. After trying to
evade the question, one of the panelists admitted that a decade
ago the average profit range built into the budget for
productions was in around 15%. That has now shrunk to 7%.
The major news at the conference was that the broadcasters have moved away from the series buy, to single "one-off" programs. For the producers this spells trouble. With budgets for an hour of programming (the cost of pre-production, production, writing, off-line and on-line editing, then the requirements of satisfying the network Errors and Omissions people) now running in the $100,000 range, the best way for a filmmaker to cover his or her costs is to create series. This means the cost of amortization can be spread over 13 shows. So, if there is loss on one show, it can be made up by another. With a single show, it becomes problematic to achieve any profit. It was clear that the explosion of broadcasting hours has created both opportunity and challenges for filmmakers.
An overview of some of the
most important sessions
National Geographic Channel Vice
President of Programming Christine Kuppens observed, the first
goal for producers should be to "work out proposals that
don't waste our time." The producer should have
a good knowledge of the kind of shows the network airs, and be
able to discuss with the programmer their positive and valuable
aspects - why he or she likes these shows.
All the panelists agreed they like
pitches to be short, one page is the preferable. They recalled
that the best one-liner from a pitch was Michael Mann's, when he
sold "Miami Vice." He referred to it as "MTV
COPS." Passion in the pitch is important, as is
the credibility of the producer. Can he or she deliver what they
have promised? What is their track record? In
getting-to-know-you meetings, the main question the producer
needs to ask is "what do you want?"
One of the biggest advantages of the
new low-cost shooting and editing gear is that it makes it
possible to create trailers for pitches. HBO's Julie Anderson
says the use of DV can make for a strong pitch, but she wants to
see that the story is character-driven. It is the strength of
the characters that will hold her attention. The
matter of holding the viewer's attention is one of the reasons
the networks are moving away from series. The panelists pointed
out that there is a huge expense for the networks in promotion
of a show. With a series, other than "Survivor," for
example, audience tends to diminish over time, making it harder
to justify the promotional expense. Also, it is crucial that the
"acts" of a show be able to hold attention during
commercial breaks. The story needs to have a creative arc that
can be clearly explained.
BUDGETING & DISTRIBUTION
In producing the show, they feel they
are in a "partnership" with the producer. According to
Sarah Hume, Director of Production Management at Discovery
Communications, once a producer has started producing shows for
the network, a production manager will be assigned, who will
continue to work with the filmmaker regardless of where the show
or subsequent shows windup in the vast Discovery family. The
production manager is capable of helping the producer in the
cost-cutting area. Because of its size, Discovery can offer
deals that help bring down the cost of insurance, travel,
hotels, and give the producer access to the Discovery archives
for stock footage, as well as providing postproduction space in
their new tech center in Bethesda, Maryland.
At other networks, however,
trade-outs and sponsors attached to a project can be
troublesome. Essentially, if a producer brings along sponsors or
commitments it can become a conflict with the sales department
of the network - therefore, any such deals need to be cleared in
Surprisingly, the panelists said that
one of the most common problems is that the filmmakers will
under-budget a project. Often development costs are not given
the consideration they deserve. The turnaround time (the time it
takes for a budget to be approved by the network) must be taken
into account. Some networks are relatively quick, while others
can take forever, leaving the producer in limbo. Shooting
budgets must be well considered with day-to-day line items, and
The alternative relationship is
"Co-Production." It offers more flexibility to the
producer than commissioned work. Britain's Channel 4, along with
many European networks often prefers this type of relationship.
However, depending on the budget, it may be necessary to find
more than one co-producing partner. In international
distribution, the project may be presented in various versions
and languages. Also compression standards are different from
country to country. This means that for the time being, either
Avid Symphony or Media 1000 are the minimum post-production
systems that should be used.
Another important point for American
producers is that projects shot on NTSC cameras are not
acceptable for compression on European PAL systems. This is why
many American producers are using PAL versions of such cameras
as the Canon XL-1. With international co-production, markup in
cost to the producer can be 20%, but can add 50% to the budget.
The best aspect of this relationship is the producer owns the
High Definition Television simply has
not yet become a player in the industry. Panelists and producers
generally agreed that until the standards between the competing
"1080I" (interlace scan) and "HD 24P"
(progressive scan) are resolved the cameras are not there yet.
As a result, with the exception of the Japanese market, HD is
not a real consideration any time in the near future.
If there was any one seminar that
made me stop and think, it was this one.
The lines are rapidly becoming more
and more blurred between news and entertainment. The days when a
journalist could do a report for a network news show, claiming
traditional journalistic immunity from suit, are quickly coming
to an end.
Today, news is increasingly being
commingled with entertainment. What airs as a single
journalistic report may well become a website, or put into
distribution by a vertically integrated corporation. At this
point, releases become all important. Not only personal releases
from an interview subject, but also location releases from
property on which stories are shot, and even brand releases from
corporations who may sue for invasion of brand. BNN's
Steve Rosenbaum told his own horror story.
He was shooting a documentary about a
model. He and his crew followed her through her day. She had
signed releases before they started shooting, and the producer
had gotten releases from all the people she came in contact
with. Late in the afternoon, the subject decided to go out to
LaGuardia airport to pick up her boy friend who was arriving
from out of town. They shot her embracing her friend, from whom
they quickly secured a release. However, when it was time to air
the show, they had not gotten a location release from the
airport, and it was a big problem.
If this seems a bit anal, the fact is
that broadcasters now require any subjects, locations or brands
(such as the name of a newspaper) to be released before they
sign off on a program. It is not a matter of "well, they
may sue." The reality is that all projects must go before
the Errors and Omissions department. The budget can be withheld
by 10 to 15% until the E&O people are satisfied. The
working legal threshold is that there be no intrusion in the
personal lives or property rights of subjects, without a
release. There must be a "comfort level" with the
network that they will be protected from suit. The panelists
stressed that there should be an ongoing discussion between the
producer and the legal department to head off problems before
Some helpful guidelines from the
1.) Get releases from all subjects,
using a standard release form, including the property on which
they are shot.
2.) If working in a culture where
English is not easily understood, get an on-camera release
(i.e., a translator can ask the question: Do you give us
permission to use you on our
3.) Any investigative report must be
discussed in advance with the legal people, and must conform to
the local state laws.
4.) In shooting an event, it is
possible to post a sign at the entry point saying that the
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
It is also clear there are two
different production tiers in the industry. One is for shows
being bought for $200,000 or less. The other tier is for shows
in excess of $750,000. The pressure is on the first category. The
success of CBS' "Survivor" was on everyone's mind.
With a strike on the horizon from the Writer's Guild, and from
the Screen Actor's Guild, networks are already taking into
account that dramatic entertainment will be much less of a
factor in their programming.
Are we destined to endure an endless
succession of Survivor-type shows?
Richard Dreyfus doubts it, saying,
"Survivor represents a spasm in our culture. It will not
even survive in the list of great fads of the 21st
On the other hand, Thom Beers,
President and Executive Producer of Original Productions, who
moderated the final panel, observed: " Just think about all
the camera crews that were hired to make 'Survivor.' Let's think
about the cameraman's needs!"