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On The Ground at RealScreen '13

Posted By Renee Rosenfeld, Tuesday, January 29, 2013

 
Day 1: SIZZLING CHARACTERS ON THE MENU
The RealScreen Summit kicked off this week to a sold-out attendance for the second year in a row. PGA members are among the 2,200 attendees from around the world being welcomed to Washington, DC by the National Capital Chapter. The annual non-fiction summit is a mash-up of network execs mining for great content and producers pitching the next big hit.

If you’ve sat in on any sessions, there’s one buzzword filling your head: character, character, character. Character is driving non-fiction more than ever and the networks are searching for characters to launch breakout hits.

Lauren Cardillo reports that the verdict for the feature doc industry is that Netflix and iTunes are great, but international distribution is the key to success because indie docs here are a "niche of a niche of a niche.”

KC Shillihan brings tips from "Sizzle to Green Light.” Discovery’s Joe Weinstock and producer Scott Gurney suggest you ask yourself a few questions before making the investment in a sizzle…

· How many networks can I sell this to? If it’s less than three you might want to pass.

· How real are my characters?

· What is the show’s hook? Always place your hook (or key character) in the first minute of your sizzle and use the remaining time to create the "world” they live in.

· What makes your show stand out? Focus your sizzle on your unique access or strong emotional edge.

· State your case in 3-5 minutes; 3 minutes is generally agreed to be the sweet spot.

· Spend your money on an ace editor—they’re worth their weight in gold!

"You’re Trending, So What?” explored the intersection of digital and social media. Social shows are still the minority but are widely regarded as the future. The growth for social is coming from the younger (under 36) and African American audiences. Digital is moving so quickly that nobody is even sure what it is. The science of mining data from Twitter and other platforms still leaves a lot to be desired. Regardless, there are platforms and data services like Trendrr being spawned that are demystifying the key to driving audiences, buzz and creating evangelical "super-viewers.” Social will help put your fans to work for you.

Plan ahead and promote shows to seed events. A call to action is usually the best way to drive up social engagement. 81% of social engagement is coming from mobile devices and half of those are iPhones. By making characters part of the conversation, you expand the life of the show. Off-air conversations keep things going long after they’ve logged their first performance. Your super-viewers are hungry for content, so don’t forget to turn the camera around to give them a sneak peak at what’s happening behind the camera.

With the success of Duck Dynasty and Honey Boo Boo, comedy is on everybody’s mind. With the desire to have character drive content, finding funny ones is tricky. Then there’s the difficulty of the comedy translating in foreign markets.

National Geographic’s David Lyle led a discussion of "The Hunt for the Next Big Thing.” The character-over-format theme was reiterated. Look ahead to the next big thing; don’t try to catch up once the train has left the station. Freemantle’s Thom Beers sees a shift from blue collar characters to finding new angles on new-found wealth.

Probably the most interesting development since last year’s summit was the rise of "fictional drama.” Non-fiction networks are looking for that "big, noisy, brand-defining” scripted series that will move the network forward. The success of History’s Hatfields and McCoys has ushered in a new era. Audiences are responding to the level of authenticity behind narrative drama in the non-fiction arena. By using their reality reputations, nets are attracting new audiences with major actors portraying larger-than-life historical figures. Science is set to premiere Feynman and the Challenger starring William Hurt in the title role, following the man behind the investigation of the Challenger disaster. With feature budgets beyond reach, there’s opportunity for indie producers in unlikely places.

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Day 2: REAL INSIDERS

The discussion of factual television continued to take center stage at the National Capital’s signature Insider Breakfast series Tuesday morning, welcoming PGA member Lori McCreary, James Younger & Bernadette McDaid, the producing team behind Science’s hit series Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman. McCreary laid out the unlikely tale of how Revelations Entertainment’s early foray into digital delivery, "ClickStart,” gave birth to the series.

The integrity of the storytelling and commitment to craft are central to the producers’ belief in the show’s success. Everything from Younger’s insistence on shooting with Arri Alexa cameras to keeping the look consistent by using a core group of DPs helps create high production value. Despite its in-depth look into cosmic questions, ironically, explaining the science sometimes comes down to some pretty low-tech storytelling, a badge of honor the producing team is proud to wear.

What is the Science Channel’s brand filter?

McDaid explained that Science strives to be the thought provocateur. "Wormhole is brand-defining.” McCreary continued to explain that they make the show so that the subject matter is relatable and encourages the audience always to be thinking, not passive. The show keeps character central and the narrative on target with scientists. Wormhole has created scientists who are "cool” and have a loyal following. Add to that Morgan Freeman’s insistence on understanding everything he reads, and the production process ensures authenticity. To make the show work, the team is committed to "going for it.” If you’re going to jump off, then jump—grow the wings as you go.

Science is also using digital to drive viewership, combining a co-viewing app, transmedia and casting online. A social campaign called "flock to unlock” requires 5,000 tweets to release a cool clip.

What is Science looking for?

"Watch the channel,” advises McDaid. Science is looking for high-end productions. McDaid explained that they want thought-provoking, intelligent shows for a proactive audience. The network is in the market for a new tent-pole, something they can own. With Oddities and Through the Wormhole performing so well, what is the next network-defining series?

As with all the nets, producers must submit pitches through the producer’s portal.

Catching Up with Leopard Films’ Harlan Freedman

The RealScreen Summit is also a chance to catch up with PGA member Harlan Freedman, a reality TV veteran who has mentored many PGA members. Harlan says he’s found his calling as VP of Development at Leopard Films USA. He believes that RealScreen gives producers the opportunity to get the network execs out from behind their desks and interact. It’s a chance to see peers and celebrate the mission.

Harlan, working with his New York counterpart Michael Winter, has set up projects at Game Show Network, Food Network, The Weather Channel, HDTV and DIY. He describes reality trends as cyclical and following the current culture. He surmises that as the country is moving away from the recession, shows about love and relationships as well as comedy will be popular.

Nichelle Newsome reports back with these notes from the sessions:

Lauren Gellert, VP Original Programming, WE TV

• WE likes to indulge in programming that takes people away from themselves for a minute, away from the stresses of the economy.

• WE TV likes to work with smart, cost efficient companies.

• Their goal is to feature programming that shows how women contribute to the bottom line of a personal or family budget.

"The Real Business of Housewives: Translating A Hit into A Franchise"

with Matt Anderson, Lucilla D'Agostino, Shari Levine, Douglas Ross

• Key to making a show like "Housewives” successful is getting the cast members to trust you as a producer, to let you see everything in their lives.

• It's about catching "lightning in a bottle."

• The music, the look of the show, is the "frosting on the cake" and is an important part of the branding.

• Recasting is a big part of keeping a series fresh and keeps viewers coming back

and keeps the cast on edge and honest.

• Make sure you’re a "pot-stirrer."

The producers also took a moment to respond to the criticism of the show as "negative stereotyping”:

• The success of a franchise negates the criticism.

• Events that occur on the show are not contrived. You sit down with a paper and pen and write down what's going on in their lives.

• It's an organic process.

• People forget that cameras are there and they become free; thus driving where the story goes.

• "Audio drives reality...the mics are a producer's friend."

David Eilenberg, VP Unscripted Development, Turner

• Turner looks for quality popcorn, good mainstream comedy.

• Goal is to produce comedy that you can laugh with and not laugh at.

• Both networks (TNT and TBS) are gender-equal.

• Would like to jazz up programming without offending its core audience, which skews somewhat older.

From Lauren Cardillo:

Several panels stood out. Alex Gibney talked about his creative process, the recent acquisition of his company by a UK firm, and his newest film, Mea Maxima Culpa. While his films often are uncomfortable to watch, he said "each one has to be entertaining, too."

The "Future History" session looked at the future of history programming. The panelists all agreed that this a golden age of factual, and there are many great outlets for shows based in the past. Centering a show on a big anniversary (such as the sinking of the Titanic, or the start of WWI) with a new spin always sells.

Finally, "Entertainment vs. Altruism" explored the great desire to make docs that change something in the world. Is it possible to make money as a business and do good well at the same time? The verdict: Yes, but

From Dara Padwo-Audick:

Documentaries should create dialogue between opposing factions not just support the views of one side. One-sided docs are propaganda. Documentarians should strive for truth. The theatrical outlet is disappearing for docs. Documentaries of the future will find their home on digital platforms.

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Day 3: RealScreen Summit: Takeaways
By
Kate Culpepper

The much-touted So You Think You Can Pitch competition was off to a running start last night at Real Screen. The Ballroom was filled up with an eager crowd. A spot of serious fun--we get to be dazzled (or disappointed) by four on-the-verge new programming ideas and pick up some solid-gold tips on what to do--or not to do--in our own pitches. The big four lined up on stage, judging cards in hand. the panel for this year's schadenfreudelicious industry competition was: Tim Duffy, SVP of Original Series, Spike TV; Andy Singer, GM, Travel Channel; Nancy Daniels, EVP for Production and Development, Discovery Channel; and Robert Sharenow, EVP of Programming, Lifetime Networks. All four cast large shadows in our industry, and facing them all at once would have any sane competitor at least a bit sweaty-palmed!

With a million-watt smile and a quick wit, Survivor host and No Opportunity Wasted entrepreneur Phil Keoughan warmed up the audience and without further ado, the competition was on! Johanna Eliot and Jennifer Comeau from Ocean Entertainment took the stage with their true-crime investigative show To Catch a Killer. A strong showing, and a confident pitch. The panel didn't take it easy on the contestants--their questions dissect the show, it's goals, and how it will act on them visually and emotionally. Comeau and Eliot deftly handle every question that comes their way. Pitching tip 1--know your show inside-out and be prepared for anything!

Next up was the stylish team of Sara Madsen and Korey Miller from 1820 Productions. Even in this nerve-wracking environment, when a judge jokingly asked Sara if her shoes were Jimmy Choos, she turned it right back around and said there would be no Jimmy Choos in her closet until she sells this show! (Tip 2--have a sense of humor and use it!) They started off with a strong profile of their company and their successes and segue right into their show--a hybrid weight loss-singing competition called Sing It Away. Their energy was great, and the sizzle really popped. Back to the judges for feedback and scoring!

Our first solo pitch--and only European candidate--hit the stage next. David Notman-Watt of back2back introed and sizzled his high-octane rock-and-roll blend Highway to Hell-- AC/DC frontman Brian Johnson indulging his taste for exotic cars and race-car driving. (Tip 3--if you can attach a famous face, do it!) Duffy commented that he feels AC/DC's relevance is at a low-ebb (an assessment my colleague and I vehemently disagree with!), but the panel agreed there was something percolating in there, and scores are presented.

Another solo act (bravery!), Lunchbox Communications' Dafna Yachin takes the stage to introduce The Stable--a multi-episode reality program following 3 up-and-coming Philadelphia-based boxers. It's got heart, it's got action, it's relatable, and it's got a kick-ass sizzle--one judge comments that it could be aired. But it was what happened next that really rocked the room. The backstage curtain lifted, and our 3 heros took the stage sporting full-on boxing bling (I never knew those belts were SO massive!). (Tip 3--make it memorable!) Thunderous applause. I don't watch boxing, but now I want to start.

The four competitors brought their A-game and it was a tough stage, but in the end, with a final score of 33 out of a possible 40, Yachin KO'd the competition and won the night. And now if you'll excuse me, I have to go program my dvr with a wishlist search for The Stable!

The "Constructed" Conundrum

This was the panel I looked forward to the most, and it didn't disappoint. The panel was in agreement--to make an entertaining show with a satisfying payoff, some level of construction is essential. How much is permissible should be guided by your brand, what your viewers will still respect you for in the morning (so to speak), and staying true to your characters (the importance of careful casting could not have been stressed more by the panel). Moderator Phil Fairclough summed it up pretty succinctly saying: "Authenticity is key, don't forget the pig."

Global Production: The Pros and Cons

Adaptability is the key to survival when programming for multi-national audiences. Think when planning--can a great show for the UK be easily tweaked to play to local tastes in Spain or Singapore? While English is still the lingua franca for multi-national programs, heavy-handed cultural flavors (particularly American) are a turn off. The panel highlighted their interest in seeing programming that represented real, quality storytelling, scaling back on "constructed" reality, and keeping your topics relatable (avoiding localized issue-driven programming).

30-minutes with Nancy Daniels, EVP Porgramming and Development, Discovery Channel

· Looking for stories about nature, "man vs. wild", subcultures, and history.

· Primarily looking for episodic television.

· Humor is an important part of Discovery's programming, whether it stems from the characters or the situations. Even in serious subjects, look for places to add levity.

· Discovery Channel's programming skews to a male 25-54 demographic.

· Fit and Health skews to a female 25-54 audience, primarily caregivers looking for characters or stories they can relate to. Their top-rated show right now is True Stories of the ER.

Future History

Fresh storytelling is the future of the history market--breathing new life into a familiar or dry topic can be as simple as finding a new way in. "Disastertainment" and big anniversaries are bringing success, but it's finding new ways in that is key. Multiple Titanic stories rated very well in 2012, and European and Canadian broadcasters are commissioning for the WWI centennial (July 2014 is coming fast!). Broadcasters are also increasingly open to scripted history, exemplified by History's upcoming fully-scripted show Vikings premiering in March. PS--If anyone has a brilliant WWI pitch, Sarah Jane Flynn announced she was still looking!


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