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THE (DIGITAL) ROAD TO MONACO: The PGA Brings Its New Media Expertise to Monte-Carlo's Illustrious Festival De Television

Posted By Chris Thomes, Monday, August 10, 2015

The ocean was really blue. Like electric blue. Maybe it was because I had just woken up after a painfully long transatlantic flight, but I swear it was bluer than it should have been. A Photoshoped postcard wouldn’t compare. The smell of coffee filled the cabin, and window shades popped open, flooding the dark cabin with orange light from the Mediterranean sunset. These were my first few moments along the Côte d’Azur, the Mediterranean coastline of the southeast corner of France. Monaco was floating below, as was my final destination, the Monte-Carlo Television Festival.

Dream-like. Everything. Lack of sleep contributed, but as my Producers Guild colleagues, National Executive Director Vance van Petten and New Media Council Vice President John Heinsen, and I whisked along the curvy, seaside roads in a Festival van, the dream became more lucid. Like the exotic frames of a James Bond movie, the landscape inspired thoughts of endless sun, bikini beaches, tuxedos and cocktails. It was easy to see why such adventurous stories find a home in this place. It was everything the French Riviera is known for and then some—and a perfect setting for one of the longest-running and most glamorous TV festivals in the world.

PGA member Chris Thomes

In 1961 Prince Rainier III established the Monte-Carlo Television Festival torecognize television as an outstanding means of bringing cultures together and enhancing theirrespective knowledge. This past June, consistent with its 55-year-old mission, the Festival De Television sought to enhance knowledge and collective understanding once again by expanding the half-century-old program to include digital storytelling.

Although not nearly as old, our own Producers Guild has also continued to embrace change in entertainment. Since 2002, the PGA has stood behind and supported a vibrant and growing community of producers focused on digital production. In that time the New Media Council’s constituents have continued to educate, inform and provide perspective to the Guild on all matters digital. Regardless of new or traditional media, all producers agree that content is king. In Monte-Carlo they’re in good company, including a real king, Prince Albert II.

With barely time to wash my face and don my suit, another van raced us up the hillside to our first event: a reception hosted by the minister of state and the CEO of the TV Festival. The roads were narrow with tight corners, winding up and down the harbor circuit, so putting on my tie in the van was all but impossible.

 Nighttime at the legendary Monte-Carlo Casino

A reception line and handshake greetings with the minister of state and Festival CEO gave way to Champagne and cocktails that sparkled on waiters’ trays. An I-can’t-believe-how-good-she-looks Bo Derek stood nearby with an eager entourage while an eclectic mix of the hottest young stars and 1970s TV veterans graced the courtyard with bright smiles and excited conversation.

I took a moment as I sipped a bitter, bright red Campari and ice and looked out over the Monte-Carlo Bay. It wasn’t difficult to plug into the culture of the Festival. It truly is a celebration. Far from some gimmicky media event, this is a profoundly respectful, thoughtfully produced and vibrantly glamorous ceremony that truly honors television and those who live and breathe it. Network stars, veteran producers and guests from around the world come annually to recognize achievements in TV, including the radical evolution of TV into the digital landscape.

That’s exactly what Festival CEO Laurent Puons and Business Development Manager Joanna Merchie did when they added this year’s new industry conference and networking program, The Content & Multiscreen Experience (CME), to the Festival. As Puons explained, "What we’re doing with CME is bringing together executives and producers and all kinds of creative decision-makers to discuss and collaborate on the latest techniques in content creation and the management and distribution of that content.” That effort, inspired by the radically changing TV ecosystem, also encouraged them to seek out expertise from the Producers Guild of America’s New Media Council. And so there we were—Vance, John and myself, shaking hands and talking digital with the who’s who of TV.

From left, PGA Vice President of New Media
John Heinsen, Lisa Heinsen, National Executive
Director Vance Van Petten and PGA member
John Huncke compare notes on the Festival.

For the next few days the three of us, joined by fellow industry colleague John Huncke from AMC Networks, spoke on a series of forward-looking panels focused on digital perspectives, only occasionally stealing away to try our luck in the famous Monte-Carlo Casino. From rights and content licensing for digital platforms to overall production in the new media space, the sessions covered a wide swath of ground and provided insights critical for anyone jumping into the ever-changing and disrupted world of digital television programming.

In the first of two panels, we discussed development, production and distribution in the digital space, specifically from the viewpoint of the producer. Several questions came up around distributors like Netflix and how they are influencing the ecosystem. We agreed that while it is encouraging a lot of new production, there is a wide disparity between the budgets of Netflix and Amazon versus the smaller or multi-channel networks like Maker, Fullscreen and Machinima or production companies with consumer-facing brands like Buzzfeed or Tastemade.

While the House of Cards model is top-dollar, premium, digital-first programming, there are countless micro-budget, short-form digital series that make their out to the public via YouTube or Vimeo.Helping to clarify that not all digital content is created equal was a helpful stage-setter for the more detailed conversation around workflow that followed. We went over the value chain from beginning to end, while John Huncke walked through the evolution of a digital idea through production and distribution on the AMC side, illustrating the network approach for digital programming as more derivative in nature.

Attendees and press gather on the Festival
de Television red carpet

But everyone agreed that the producer, no matter the platform for digital programming, is the ringleader holding everything together. We reaffirmed that it will be critical for producing teams to become more savvy about scaling budgets and crews on new media projects, anticipating that many crew members will wear multiple hats throughout the production process.

I even concluded that a lot of digital projects will operate more like indie film than traditional television and that every department or group touching a show—from business affairs to post-production—will have to think differently. The end of the first panel landed on the simple idea that while digital distributors are creating more opportunities for producers, the rules are constantly changing, so producers are never really at rest.

From there we jumped to a second panel focused on multi-platform second-screen content. John Heinsen and I walked though several live event and pre-taped digital second-screen experiences both of us had worked on together for several years. We made it clear that a second screen has to be truly integrated into the larger program in a seamless way, or it risks being dismissed as ancillary. True value comes from producers in both traditional and digital formats working in unison to deliver a consistent brand value to the viewer.

We explained that digital tools like the second screen are enhancing fan experiences for TV programming as they proliferate across platforms, giving viewers new insights into favorite shows via exclusive second screen content. Vance, John and I acknowledged that second-screen enhancements most effectively complement live event programming. I even suggested (perhaps too boldly ... that was some strong coffee at lunch) that pre-recorded programming might be the next big opportunity in the second screen space, tapping directly into the writers room and developing unique points of view and "super” experiences that will allow showrunners to tell stories like never before.

That’s when we again reinforced the critical value of the producer. Having a solid strategy before committing dollars to a second screen or transmedia experience is essential. Heinsen said that savvy "transmedia producers adapt their IP to suit different platforms and even different demographics … but the one thing I don’t hear nearly enough when talking about transmedia is strategy, and you have to have that if you want to get the most of what you put out there.”

Inside the Festival awards ceremony.

As an example I explained that a recent digital series effort around ABC’s Secrets and Lies leveraged a strong transmedia strategy early on, conceived from the writers’ room and executive producers. "We funded that project from our own budget,” I told them, "which was critical. We couldn’t wait for sponsorship dollars to offset costs. We simply moved forward because the content was exceptional and it was the right thing to do.”

All in all, that was our message to conference attendees. When you make content for digital, it has to be just as good as any other traditional content. You cannot sacrifice quality. New media is simply another format; the one thing that stays consistent is great storytelling.

And that was what everyone was there for: great storytelling. For the next few days panels continued, screenings played, and Festival attendees strolled the halls of the Grimaldi Forum following red carpets, paparazzi flashes and the buzz and chatter of eager TV fans behind velvet ropes, all of it culminating on the final two days and closing with the Golden Nymph Awards Ceremony.

Kicking off with cocktail reception at the royal palace hosted by Prince Albert II of Monaco, the event finale was a spectacle like no other. As the sun set, I found myself in deep conversation over Champagne with The Six Million Dollar Man Lee Majors and toasting with Sons of Anarchy’s Ron Perlman and Lilyhammer’s Steven Van Zandt. Surreal for sure, and not just because of the unexpected mix of attendees but because of the backdrop of the amazing city, the investment from the community and royal family and support and passion of Prince Albert. It is unlike any festival—ever.

Festival attendees and guests enjoy a reception
in the Court of Honor of the Prince’s Palace, the
personal home of Monaco’s Prince Albert II.
 Down to the last day, the four of us (plus better halves Stacy Van Petten and Lisa Heinsen) made a magical day trip to Èze for sightseeing and shopping. Èze is now one of my favorite places on earth. It’s a renowned tourist site on the French Riviera, famous worldwide for the view of the sea from its hilltop, where it is home to a rustic medieval village built into the hillside. From the top of the gardens I could see it again. That ocean. Electric and blue and amazing. Even the smell of the salty air was mesmerizing. The day trip was perfect for inspiration and reflection before heading into the final night of our journey.

Just as quickly as it began, five days celebrating the best of television and its constant evolution—not to mention blue skies and seas, bikinis, tuxedos and cocktails—came to a close on Thursday night with the awards. Terry Crews, Ming Na, Lindsey Wagner and Bo Derek were among the stars that celebrated the festival and the winners of the Golden Nymph awards at the gala dinner, where we all danced into the wee hours of the morning.

And while it continued to feel like some lucid dream, the real-life impact of a festival like this is astonishing. It honors TV like no other event. The Emmys are well-established and certainly respected, but the Festival De Television takes it to a whole new level of glamor and sophistication, with content that’s far more audience-friendly than MIP TV or Mipcom.

As for the future of the fest, Puons believes that there is nowhere to go but up. "We’ve established a great foundation here. There is so much growth in television that we’re confidentmore and more high-level actors, actresses, executives and producers will see that this is a must-attend event and will add it to their calendar.” And the Content & Multiscreen Experience is sure to continue to enlighten the industry about the latest digital trends, just as the PGA’s New Media Council has done for more than a decade, both reinforcing that no matter the format, the producer is at the center of great entertainment.

Weary from a long week but invigorated from our adventures, John, Vance and I all parted ways at the airport—John heading to London, Vance to Switzerland and I back home to my family. I sat quiet and still on the plane. The cabin was dark and hushed. When I closed my eyes, the amazing visions and events from the journey flashed by like living paintings. I heard the casino and the paparazzi. I felt the sun from the beach as I turned and saw the narrow roads wind their way up the hill to the palace. I tasted the bitter, bright red Campari and smelled the salt from the electric blue sea.

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