A Special Report  By Dirck Halstead

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

The two reasons most of the producers came to the conference was to pitch projects to the broadcasters, and to hear ways of making their pitches better. The art of the pitch is the single most important element in selling a project.  All networks need product from outside producers. At the same time, there is consolidation within the industry to buy more product from fewer producers at lower prices. The top 10 cable networks are generally paying in the $80,000 - $200,00 price range for a completed show.  

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.    

The broadcaster essentially offers two kinds of relationships to filmmakers. The first is "Commissions," in which the network will own all rights to the shows. The Discovery Networks tend to use this model. They want to be able to use the shows in whatever way they chose, across a broad spectrum, which includes online use of outtakes. They have 52,000 hours of programming to fill across all their networks each year.   

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 advance.  

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 include clearances.  

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 show.   

2000 was supposed to be The Year.  Interactive and broadband has not delivered. The size of the audience for the online panel was one of the smallest at the conference, reflecting the state of the dot-com industry. Steve Rosenbaum of said, "we are at a critical moment, "but then observed that a website was important for a producer because "it allows him to have traction, and serves as an aggregator in the harnessing of material." He felt that as a marketing tool for pitching television, it "couldn't be beat."  

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.    

As a photojournalist turned producer, who has generally worked in the news arena, the issues of releases has not been paramount. The panel "Release Me," was moderated by Joan Lanigan, Vice President for Legal Issues of Devillier Donegan Enterprises, and included: Carolyn Norton, Sr.VP of the underwriting office of New Century Global; Lynn Wallace, Associate General Counsel of National Geographic; and Steve Rossenbaum, President of, and CEO of

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 they arise.  

Some helpful guidelines from the panel.  

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       show?)  

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 event will be taped, and anyone who does not want to be included, should not enter. In this case, you must shoot the sign.  

It is clear that the entire industry is going through enormous changes. No one really has the answers. As Richard Dreyfuss said, "every time you sit down to do a deal you have to reestablish your authority."  

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 century.

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!"

Dirck Halstead is a contributing editor to The Digital Filmmaker and the editor of The Digital Journalist at

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