Letter From New York, February 4, 2011

Or, as it seems to me…

Last week in DC, the 13th Annual Real Screen Conference, a gathering of non-fiction filmmakers from all over the world, was held. Approximately 1500 filmmakers and executives gathered in DC at the Renaissance Hotel to survey the state of non-fiction filmmaking, to learn what might be coming next, to postulate about the meaning of changing technology to both the art and the business of non-fiction. It was the biggest Real Screen to date.

The meeting took place against a turbulent landscape, both inside and outside the particular slice of an industry being examined. Out on the great stage of the world, the hotel monitors displayed the ongoing protests in Egypt that are re-shaping the geo-political landscape. In that country, the unthinkable is occurring: Mubarak is falling. Now. Perhaps today. What comes next is the biting question. Out of Tunisia has come a wind of unrest that is unsettling the entire Middle East and leaders are scrambling to hold back the deluge.

All of this has been facilitated by the new technologies, by Twitter and Facebook, the presences of networks like Al Jazeera, not to mention CNN and all the other windows on the world technology has provided over the last two decades.

And technology has provided an enormous number of new outlets for non-fiction films over those same last two decades. Cable networks have been growing up and have become powerhouses. Their ratings are beginning to reach parity with broadcast networks, their stars fill the covers of the celebrity rags, and their programs are water cooler worthy. A lot has changed since Real Screen first gathered thirteen years ago to discuss Fair Use in documentary films.

You know an entertainment sector has become important when Hollywood agents descend upon its event and they were here in force this year for the first time. CAA, WME, APA, and ICM – all the big initial agencies had their minions present in numbers. It was the most commented upon fact of this Real Screen. The clubby atmosphere of years ago is fading.

What’s hot? Let me share with you something I have run by a number of network executives, none of whom have disagreed: bring a network LARGER than life characters, in interesting, perhaps exotic, hopefully life threatening situations who will give you an embarrassing amount of access to their lives and you probably have a chance at a show. That’s the basic formula right now as far as I can tell.

To me, it’s a bit sad. I admit to missing the more straightforward docs of yesteryear. But there are those executives and filmmakers who feel that today is a Golden Age of documentary filmmaking. Regardless, right now it’s all about the characters.

There is soul searching going on, wondering what the newer new technologies mean for the older new technologies and their futures, their business models and what the value of their brands will be as the proliferation of distribution platforms continues to accelerate. How big a threat is Netflix? Is it additive? Or not? Netflix now has over twenty million subscribers, second only to the world’s largest cable company, Comcast, in the number of subscribers. How can content providers monetize their investment against this kind of landscape? And not just the providers but also the creators, who are feeling incredibly squeezed by their network buyers to produce more on less money with no rights maintained for future exploitation.

It’s a tough world out there for everyone even while the business has never done better. Ratings are up for most. History Channel has pummeled its competitors and is probably the leader of the pack these days among male oriented non-sports non-fiction networks. Ice Road Truckers is a monster hit. Larger than life characters, etc.

Real Screen is an industry event. Perhaps not seemingly important to Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea unless you think about the fact that much of what you will be seeing on non fiction cable networks in the coming year will have been pitched and perhaps purchased during the last week.

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