Posts Tagged ‘Real Screen’

Letter From New York, Feb 10, 2012

February 10, 2012

Or, as it seems to me….

Last week, at the Renaissance Hotel in Washington, DC, gathered the glitterati of the non-fiction film business, if the folks who work in this world could be called “glitterati.” It’s mostly a hard working crowd, the folks who produce, program, schedule, develop the hundreds of hours that fill the schedules of any cable network that shows non-fiction programming. The event is called Real Screen.

Across the ballroom where the opening party was held, sponsored by A+E Networks, David McKillop, now SVP of Programming for A+E but who, until recently, was holding the same job for History Channel where he helped resurrect that channel from ratings doldrums with the like of Ice Road Truckers and Ax Men, not to mention Pawn Stars. Success there resulted in his moving to A+E, which had reached a ratings plateau. He is one of my favorite people in the business, a man who became a friend after helping resolve conflicts with a pilot I had worked on back in the days when he was with Discovery Channel.

I went to Real Screen without much of an agenda, not really being there to sell shows but to reconnect with people and work on distribution for Odyssey Networks. I spent Monday in the joyous process of seeing people, reconnecting, spending a few minutes with Steve Burns, who until recently ran programming at Nat Geo, who good naturedly was saying he was surprised anyone was talking to him since he didn’t have a budget anymore. But he needn’t worry; lack of budgets will not decrease his overall popularity; he is at heart a filmmaker and, as such, is well respected. He began his career in the cold and snow, shooting films for National Geographic.

When I first started going to Real Screen lo those many years ago, it was a clubby little world of a few hundred, most of whom knew each other unless they were neophytes to the business and looking for ways to “break in.” It’s different now, 2000 or more crowded the hotel. No one could get into the lobby without a pass; security was tight. In the old days, the lobby was full of folks who didn’t spring for registration but got the benefits of attendance by playing lounge lizards, taking up a bar stool and waiting for the world to come to them – and it did. No more. My friend Gail Gleeson and I had to meet across the street for a simple hello. Acadiana, a southern themed restaurant close by, found itself the recipient of extra business, I’m sure.

The cable business is in full bloom. The panels underscored the health of the present by focusing exclusively on that with no forward facing discussions about digital and its impact. The present is too rich, too full right now to worry much about a pending future even though that future is out there and coming on full steam.

That the present is full and rich and seen as getting richer was evidenced by the number of agents who attended. They were there from all major players; twenty-five from CAA alone! They gave extravagant parties, courting the cable players as they would court Hollywood. Let the good times roll.

Many of the young “Turks” making digital video successful would fall into the non-fiction category but there seemed no room in the tent of Real Screen for them – or at least not much room. Hence, the very nascent International Academy of Web Television that had its first awards show at the CES. Prediction: it or someone very like it will soon begin to have a conference like this but focused solely on those who are doing web TV, of which there are many and it’s a number that is growing.

Personally, it was rich, professionally helpful but ultimately, because I am now more of a new media person than an old media person, left me wanting something more, some workshops about the differences between producing for the web and for television – or are there any? But that’s not where Real Screen is now and may be never will be but that doesn’t change that the future is changing and we’re living in a more multi-platform world than ever before.

Letter From New York, February 4, 2011

February 5, 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.

Letter From New York February 8, 2010

February 8, 2010

Or, as it seems to me…

Every year for the last ten years or so, come the end of January, the beginning of February, documentary and non-fiction film makers descend upon Washington, DC for the annual Real Screen conference, a gathering that started as a conference and which has morphed into a market – a place to buy and sell non-fiction ideas, meet and greet, have non-stop meetings, eat and drink, back-slap, and party, see old friends, make new ones, feel connected to the business that consumes one’s life.

From the producers of Mystery Quest to the producers of John and Kate Plus Eight, they’re there. Ben Silverman, former head of programming at NBC, gave a keynote as did Abbe Raven, CEO of A&E Networks, which includes History Channel. If you are in the non-fiction film business it was the place to be.

At the end of the day, I still think what programmers are looking for in non-fiction boils down to this: networks are looking for larger than life characters who are in unique situations [preferably life threatening] that will give an embarrassing amount of access to their lives. If you have that, you have a good shot at a series.

While I was backslapping, eating and drinking, doing non-stop meetings, the world continued on its merry pace. If you call a financial crisis spreading across the southern part of the Euro Zone “merry.” Greece is in trouble, Spain and Portugal not far behind with Ireland beginning to look like a southern European country, at least financially. Toyota became even more mired in recall drama, its credibility damaged. Admiral Mike Mullen, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came out for an end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the military, a stance reinforced by Colin Powell, who announced he agreed with Admiral Mullen, saying times had changed since he had sat in that seat.

And while the world was moving on, as the deficit was mounting, as Greece tottered on the edge of default, while the fate of gays and lesbians in the military was again being debated, while the world continued its news making, I took a couple of days off to visit friends and family, a trip that reminded me of many of the good things about life – good people, who are part of your life, who have been and will be. I visited with my brother, soon off to Honduras to provide medical care to those who have none, with my lovely cousin Virginia, who has been a beacon of kindness my whole life, as well as her sister Marion, my friend Christine Olson, whom I have known since I was a sophomore in college, elegant as ever, real as always, my old friend Kevin Rozman, a friendship from high school days that has been revitalized since we re-encountered each other several years ago.

It was the perfect capstone from a week where I was surrounded by all kinds of people I know and love, first at the conference and then in my flying visit back to the land of my birth, for a few moments basking in the glow of friends and family, who are so important, particularly in a world as uncertain as the one in which we find ourselves…