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Realscreen Summit Makes More Room for Indie Docs

By Lauren Cardillo

When the Realscreen Summit launched in 1999, Washington, DC was still thought of as a little production backwater, reality TV was just a baby, and the conference attracted only a few hundred people. Well, Toto, we aren't in Kansas anymore.

These days Realscreen is a full-blown, sold-out TV market complete with agents and lawyers; 2,300 attendees representing 24 countries; countless pitches, parties and hangovers; and even an outdoor heated tent venue. Next year the event is moving to a bigger hotel, the Washington Hilton, to "better accommodate"  the people that attend, says Claire Macdonald, vice president and publisher of Realscreen Magazine. The summit was criticized last year for what many participants thought was a crowded venue, but "this year there was a much better flow [at the Renaissance Washington DC Hotel]," says Macdonald.

You would think, with all that growth of the summit and reality programming, that this year's edition, held January 27-30, would not be paying much attention to the world of independent documentaries. But you would be wrong. According to Macdonald, "We made a conscious effort to do more panels" to appeal to that audience, based on feedback from last year's attendees. BBC commissioning editor Nick Fraser also joined the board to help focus more on documentary issues.

And the results were good. Each of the indie doc panels was standing room only. Erik Nelson (Grizzly Man) moderated a session about the future, "Feature Docs: The Road Ahead," which was a sometimes feisty gathering that focused on advances, distributors and the value of awards. It featured several key players in the market such as Fraser and Molly Thompson of A&E Indie Films. All thought the optimism on the part of distributors like Radius from The Weinstein Company was positive. But as to the future? "None of us can predict what will work," said Thompson. She did think Netflix and iTunes were great for the future of docs.

Fraser called the doc category "a niche of a niche of a niche" in the US, where, he contended, "very few people watch docs." He felt films here could profit from more global distribution and better storytelling. The conversation also briefly turned to the highest grossest film of last year, 2016: Obama's America. The film made over $30 million with little advertising but great distribution and word-of-mouth. Nelson suggested that "very commercial, partisan political films are economically good."

While the money might be good in that genre, indie filmmakers are also looking to make a difference. The popular panel "Entertainment vs. Altruism" discussed whether it was realistic to do both with one project. Evan Shapiro of Participant Media thought it was possible. "Our last four films have grossed more than $100 million," he said. The company so believes in its mission that it is starting a cable channel this summer for its films. Heidi Ewing, co-director of Jesus Camp and Detropia, believes you can do both, but in the end, "We believe in cinema first, message second." Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) agreed: "You can do well and do good at the same time, during the same day; it just depends on the story." Spurlock proved his point by showing a clip from Richard Linklater's feature Fast Food Nation that tried to do both-and failed miserably.

More blatant message films like those made by Michael Moore and the often mentioned 2016: Obama's America were also explored. "Nothing sells tickets like feeding the choir," said Shapiro. "What Heidi does is harder. She tries to tell two sides of a story. And it's hard to get a distributor when you do that." But Shapiro thought the good news was "docs have the power to move people, to start a conversation. TV and digital media are the future of these docs."

The conversation then turned to the subject of fact-checking these "message films" such as 2016: Obama's America. The panelists agreed viewers can lose faith with films if they are not truthful. Added Ewing, "Filmmaking as activism can be dangerous."

A keynote interview with Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side) by Nick Fraser gave indie filmmakers plenty to ponder. Gibney talked about his many current and future projects, and his new partnership with a UK company, Content Media. Gibney produces three films a year and floats among them all. "It is lunacy," he admitted. "Investigative films don't follow schedules. But my great gift is genius editors."  He conceded, "Basically, I work in life. That's all." His brutal schedule doesn't mean every film follows a set formula, though. "Every film's style is driven by content and story. We give lots of thought to this."


The BBC's Nick Fraser (left) interviewing filmmaker Alex Gibney. Courtesy of Realscreen


On his very full plate right now is the current release of Mea Maxima Culpa on HBO, about sex abuse in the Catholic Church; a film about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, which had just screened at Sundance; and a work-in-progress about disgraced biker Lance Armstrong. "We are furiously re-editing the one on Armstrong," Gibney said. "We have stuff in there nobody else has." And while some think his films bring plenty of discomfort, Gibney's aim is a bit different.  "The film has to be made entertaining; people will then watch."

The "Future History" panel dissected the prospects for historical shows down the road. All the experts at this panel agreed that history shows are in "good shape." For PBS, the genre is a core part of the programming. "We get lots of eyeballs," said Bill Gardner, PBS' senior director of general audience programming. "Shows like Ken Burns' The Dust Bowl are big hits." Gardner previewed some future shows including a multi-hour series with AOL about women's history, a modern exploration of the US Constitution, and an autobiography of Stephen Hawking.

Julian Hobbs of History called today "the golden age of factual," but he advised attendees to not  "pitch us with what we have, like antique pickers and pawn brokers. We need another subject." What everyone on the panel agreed was that there was still a big global demand for anniversary shows: Programs that put a new spin on the Titanic, or that focus on wars, always do well. The only advice? Pitch far ahead of the actual anniversary date.

Several other presentations at Realscreen not purely about feature docs added some insight about the industry today. "Factual Drama" looked at the current trend of scripted dramatizations such as History's successful series Hatfields & McCoys. It seems that every major player now has one in the pipeline. National Geographic Channel is producing Killing Lincoln, Discovery Channel has put its money behind Klondike, and Science Challenge is tackling a film about the Challenger disaster starring Bill Hurt. Any fears that the channels have about making their brand more muddy by jumping between doc and fiction were not realistic, the panelists insisted. Viewers don't care about the format; they care about characters and the level of authenticity.

The final panel of Realscreen proved to be one of the most popular. "Constructed Conundrum" explored the fine line between producing and manipulation in reality TV today. With the recent charges levied against Storage Wars that the show is rigged, it was a timely topic. Moderator and NHNZ executive Phil Fairclough opened with an entertaining reel that questioned just how real reality programming is. Yet it was clear from the panelists and the audience that "reality" is a very serious subject. What some people call "manipulated," others call "produced." Said CMT vice president Joe Livecchi, "No one wants to deceive, but the bigger offense is a boring show."

Producer Erik Shotz thought there is a line of credibility in all shows. "If the viewers care about it being credible, they won't watch ...If they don't care, they will. Some of it is highly constructed and some of it is documentary." How far a show is willing to go depends on the network. "We have our set of rules," said Nat Geo's Howard Owens. "Everything is vetted, everything must be true." He explained it might be easier for the show Diggers to plant meteor bits in a field for people to easily find, but that wouldn't be true.

Yet, attendees discovered that if you were working on Dance Moms on Lifetime, it would be totally acceptable for producers to cross that line and make a character confrontation happen on their timeline and for the cameras. This was one of the more interesting exchanges of Realscreen as you could sense the real discomfort between camps, proving once again that TV is anything but old, dwindling or falling out of favor. Nonfiction programming is as vibrant as ever, and at Realscreen 2013, that included the world of independent documentaries.


Lauren Cardillo is an award-winning Washington, DC-based filmmaker. She thinks she has been to almost every Realscreen Summit since its start, and has the swag to prove it.