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Market Downturn: Even in Decline, NATPE Proves a Valuable Learning Experience

By Brent Jaimes

Some of the attendees at NATPE 2003. Photo: Courtesy of NATPE.

As I prepared to attend the 2003 National Association of Television Program Executives (NAPTE) marketplace in New Orleans—my third such event—I wondered what type of conference I would find. In 2001, over 20,000 persons attended the event in Las Vegas. All of the major US and international broadcasters, syndication companies, distributors and industry vendors were present. Whether owing to fears of terrorism, an overall economic downturn, or internal organizational problems, last year's conference attracted only 9,000 participants. In a protest of sorts against the high cost of exhibition space, several major companies were located in area hotels and held meetings mostly by appointment only.

In 2003, this trend continued. Only 5,000 persons were in attendance and many major companies again chose hotel space over exhibition space. Several other US companies simply choose not to attend, reducing the impact and importance of this once-dominant market. NATPE was "much smaller with very little European representation," reports Sara Hildebrandt, formerly of Titlebild Subtitling, who now runs her own agency in London and Berlin. "NATPE has become far less attractive to Europeans who are increasingly deciding to give it a miss."

These changes in NATPE, coupled with the rise in prominence of events such as the Real Screen Summit, MIPCOM and MIPTV, leave independent documentary producers with a bit of dilemma. Does NATPE still offer the same opportunities to network and do business as in previous years? What are one's chances of meeting a distributor or broadcaster interested in picking up one's project? Most producers who attended NATPE and shared exhibition space with the IDA felt that the market was still a valuable learning experience.

Simply walking the exhibition floor can be a learning experience. Producers wanting to know more about errors and omissions insurance, closed captioning or tape-to-film transfer can talk directly with any number of vendors. Visiting with distributors can quickly let one know if they handle programs that are similar to one's project. The opportunity to listen and learn and to be seen as a peer with others in the industry can't be underestimated. "I came into this with very little knowledge of the business end of things, but came out of the conference armed with a great deal of information," says Angie Alexander of Tempest Productions, who was attending her first NATPE. She advised other first timers to "sit back and learn how things are done."

Producers should also be prepared to take advantage of the formal learning  opportunities NATPE offers. "Attend as many panels as you can," advises Alexander. These panels covered such topics as improving one's networking  skills, trends in programming and international co-productions. The panels featured key industry personnel who offered insightful, if somewhat gloomy views about the business.

I have always felt that the best way to take advantage of NATPE is to share exhibition space with the IDA. For a small fee, members of the IDA can share the organization's booth space and post one-sheets and other promotional materials. The booth becomes the members' office while at NATPE where one can hold meetings and meet broadcasters, syndicators and distributors who drop by the booth. It gives one a visibility that is otherwise hard to obtain. Joshua Tickell of The Veggie Van Organization quickly learned the "unspoken rules of the game" when he attended his first market place this year. "Having color one-sheets describing your program is a must. A video clip on DVD or VHS is helpful." Sharing booth space with the IDA provides a place to display those materials and a chance for one's program to catch someone's eye.

One of the most important attributes a producer should bring to NATPE is "the courage to talk about your show to anyone who'll listen" says Tickell. Sharing booth space with like-minded producers is a great way to bolster one's courage; there is a synergy that occurs from simply being around other independent documentary makers. That experience is often hard to come by in this business.

NATPE's decline as a premier market is distressing, but for the most part, these changes probably have had less of an impact on smaller, independent producers. For most US documentary producers, it is still the most important market. "NATPE was a great way to start the year, and it jump-started our business upon our return to New York" reports Karin Kunkel of Golden Lasso Entertainment. Taking advantage of all the formal and informal opportunities to learn more about the industry that NATPE offers is best way to experience the smaller, leaner marketplace.


Brent Jaimes owns Storyville Pictures, LLC, and produces documentaries in St. Louis, Missouri.