BY CYNDI GREENING, AUSTIN, TEXAS, USA (CINEMA MINIMA) — I’m attending the International Documentary Co-Production Panel at SXSW Film Festival this morning. It looks to be a great panel. The panelists include:
- Ralph Holt of Telefilm (Canada)
- Tom Koch of WGBH/PBS (USA)
- Andrea Meditch of Discovery Docs (USA)
- Galen Yeo of Moving Visuals (Singapore)
- Mirko Whitfield of TV Formats (Germany, UK)
I’m going to blog “live” at the event so you might want to hit refresh every now and then. It could be that it will prove to be uninspiring and or difficult to blog it live … but I thought it was worth a try … to see how much we could have you experience the SXSW Film Festival as though you were right here with me, hearing the same information as I am. As a point of information, the panel is done in about an hour (noon, CST, Sunday March 12) so, after that point, it’s all standard blog reference material.
While I’m waiting for the panel to start, I want to encourage every college, university and secondary school professor/instructor to add SXSW to your CONTINUING EDUCATION options. I’m luck because I teach at Mesa Community College in Mesa, Arizona. They’re very good about funding us for professional growth opportunities — even the odd ones like Sundance. I’ve always been encouraged to go to the festival to view motion media and digital video art. SXSW has the added plus of offering more traditional educational experiences that fit more comfortably into educational budgets and requirements.
THE PANEL BEGINS with a Mirko Whitfield’s Powerpoint on documentary elements:
Main Categories of Docs
Art and Culture
Where to find contacts
Real Screen Summit
(three more I missed)
Why commission a program?
Meditch: Discovery Docs (two years ago, theatrical arm of Discovery). Documentaries with potential to go commercial. Prior, did development for channel. Looking for series that can sustain themselves over time. Costs are tightly controlled. At most, it will take all North American rights for a longer period of time. Brand for Discovery requires more surrender of rights. Commercial, looking for participation on a commissioning level.
Koch: Wearing three hats. Similar to Discovery, PBS is brand-based programming. Difficult for broadcaster to fit greatest film into schedule without preformatted strand. They try to build an audience and a case for that film. PBS strands are a little bit looser in style and format. American Experience is history. Goering wouldn’t work. Nova is the science slot. Heavy science versus experiential science.
Discovery Channel has 13 channels to program (Channel Chum). PBS has one. So, PBS leans to the higher end. Bigger budgets but much, much more competitive. American Experience does 16 films per year. Nova does 20. Funding with the logic that trying to serve the audience.
How far ahead are you working?
Koch: Already on 2009. WGBH supplies slots for PBS. WETA, WNET, WGBH also cover PBS; in fact, 80% of programming on PBS comes from those three sources. When pitching projects, consider what is your film and who is your audience. Consider who would fund you. Go to PBS.ORG. It’s all spelled out on their site in great detail. WGBH co-produces with Discovery Europe. Why would someone watching Discovery Europe care about this program. Significantly more documentaries produced in France in one year than air in US in several years. Other countries subsidize more product.
Yeo: Singapore is small, only 4 million people BUT the population pays a fee to watch television. So there is government subsidies for programming. Discovery, NatGeo and ESPN have Asian arm in Singapore. Makes it easier for co-productions. Must still remain relevant and know what is hot in the market. Right ideas. Right access. Question yourself, “Why would someone want to give you money?” If you can answer that, so can they.
Koch: Globally, finding money is easier if you can find more partners. The subsidy was designed in many countries to break cultural barriers by creating some content other than mainstream American stories. What was intended to protect the film business in those countries has become a subsidy of the DOCUMENTARY program in the country … to the detriment of American documentary.
Chickens chasing eggs.
Holt: The strand that Telefilm Canada supports the creation of Canadian content by Canadians. While there is funding for good programming, Telefilm Canada is primarily a Canadian subsidy program. Pre-sales is what supports making other programming. A production team approach broadcaster earlier in the process with a desire to find financial commitment from a variety of sources.
Meditch: Pre-sales at Discovery is different. You have to know who you’re pitching. We all turn down over 90% of what we are pitched. Discovery is now in 170+ countries with 27 different channels. You must pitch on Discovery.Com. People think it’s a general website that no one is watching but that is not true.
Projects that come in with “heavy encumbering” (too many pre-sales) may actual hurt the chances with Discovery. Big projects we’re looking for are ones that have strong international legs. In fact, Discovery has first right of refusal with all BBC. So if a great project is out there, Discovery may coordinate your funding with global sources.
Koch: For funding, find the path of least resistance. Before you go global, take the U.S. trip first. Within about 400 square miles, you can reach 99% of all the documentary producers in the U.S. You need to go meet these people and make yourself known to them.
Meditch: All of these many funding partners is like being nibbled together by ducks. Every one of the funders becomes your boss with a different audience, different slant and different needs. That’s why all this pre-sale funding can be a challenge.
Koch: You may think you’re getting your film made but you’ll spend money on legal, duplicating tapes, prepping materials in PAL and all those sorts of things that consume time and money. PBS, Discovery will try to commission it with control. Only a few big countries in the world that have money for funding. They are U.S., Canada, Germany, UK, Australia, and Japan. If you can’t get the U.S. funders, these are your best bets.
Meditch: Even successful documentaries must be “re-versioned” for different markets. The U.S. broadcast market is not the same as European and so on.
Whitfield: Advice to producers?
Yeo: Just producing two versions of a documentary is tough. You might have a passion project with a clear vision but being pitched to different channels, different nations may impact the project. You have to decide if you want to make the film you want that might only see a small audience or are you willing to re-tool for larger markets and potentially larger rewards. Go to SUNNYSIDE OF THE DOC; one of the best festivals in my opinion. Don’t be afraid to talk to people. They’ll offer advice. They may not buy but they will offer information.
Koch: Have a quiver full of projects that you can pitch. Know who you’re pitching and be ready to share projects. Don’t pitch every project if you’re turned down on one. Timing may be off on your project. You may need to build your luck and conditions for success.
Meditch: Know your broadcasters and know what they’ve already aired. You may be coming with a project that was recently broadcast. All competitors are watching each other’s schedules. Similar projects are in the works and developed. And success breeds similar programming. (MARCH OF THE PENGUINS).
I’ve got a Pauline Kael production. Is it dead in the water or is it a possible? Depends.
How to find money?
Koch: There’s money all over the place. Can you find it?
Meditch: Searching for money takes a lot of energy. You have to decide how much you’re willing to do. How much will that sap your creative energy? Should you spend your energy finding a good producer instead of working on finding the money?
Is Acquisition of already completed product preferred over development?
Meditch: Absolutely not. There is sooooo much product out there and nearly all productions require some shaping and development for the specific broadcast market. It needs to fit the audience and the needs of PBS or Discovery.
Koch: If the idea is good, you’ll find the support.
What about a feature documentary? Is it too long for broadcast?
Meditch: A feature documentary is a 90-minute film. It dovetails easily into broadcast.
Koch: Feature documentaries are original point of view. It’s almost a parallel universe to the developed documentaries. The Dutch and French snap these up?
When should you pitch your project? When you have a five-minute short and proposal?
Meditch: I want to see some footage. I know you have access. I know your style. I know what your point of view is. I want it past the “gleam in the eye” phase. Four to six minutes is ideal. Along with deeply researched summary. I want a two-page treatment. Who is the main character and how are you telling the story? I want your budget and your schedule.
Koch: We at PBS prefer the research document. We want the two-page summary with the 40-page documentary backing it up. We want the deep research.
Holt: There are specific pitch times annually. We also want the two-page summary and some footage.
Taking the trip? What if I’m ready to go meet the 99% who do the documentary product?
Meditch: Make an appointment. Shooting at the mother ship is much harder. Look at smaller areas like Discovery History, Discovery Health and so on because, even though they have smaller budgets, they’re a good entry point. Couple weeks before MIPED markets things are much too busy. Set it up ahead of time.
Koch: Cold-calling is tough. You may need a couple visits. The broadcasting schedule and genre is the tougher part. Look around for Frontline World and other smaller strands. They take shorter projects (20 minutes or 30 minutes).
Meditch: Allows you to work with a known producer who can deliver on a reliable track record. You want the audience there and so does PBS or Discovery. So, easier to work with a known production entity. In fact, pitch your project to those production entities. If they like it, you may have an easier entry.