Documentary Fest Draws Indies, Programmers

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Aspiring to bring the creative and business sides of the
business together, next month’s Westdoc: The West
Coast Documentary and Reality Conference will be
home to a gathering of documentary and reality producers,
directors, writers, network executives, agents
and distributors.

Slated for Sept. 9-12
at the remodeled Culver
Hotel and the Pacific
Theaters Culver
Stadium 12 in Culver
City, Calif., Westdoc
comprises more than
30 panels, plus case studies, social events, screenings and
networking sessions. Topics run the gamut from project
conception to financing; selling a documentary or reality
TV one-off or series; and different distribution models
from theatrical presentation to digital delivery. Keynote
speakers include Howard Owens, president of National
Geographic Channels, and Oscar-nominated documentary
filmmaker Kirby Dick (Twist of Fate, Invisible War).

All told, more than 100 industry speakers and 400 attendees
are expected to participate in the third iteration
of the show, the previous two of which were held
in Santa Monica in 2009 and 2010. More
importantly, the conference provides an
invaluable commodity: real networking.

“Shows like NATPE became huge,”
said Richard Propper, the conference cofounder
and CEO of Solid Entertainment,
an international distributor of non-fiction
television programming. “It shut out the
independents, put them on the 45th floor
of some hotel. That doesn’t work. Westdoc
is a place where network decisionmakers
are next to the creators in a casual
environment. There aren’t a lot of people wearing ties.”

Programmers participating include: ABC, A&E, Animal
Planet, BBC, Bravo, CMT, Discovery Channel, Documentary
Channel, ESPN, GSN, KCET, MTV, National
Geographic Channel, Nat Geo Wild, OWN, Ovation,
Oxygen, PBS SoCaL, Spike TV, Style, Sundance Channel,
Syfy, TLC, Veria Living, VH1 and We TV.

While Westdoc may be rooted in documentary film,
reality TV is an integral part of the conference. “The
skill sets for documentary and reality production are
very similar,” said Chuck Braverman, conference cofounder
and a director of both narrative and documentary
films; he has produced programming that has
appeared on Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, A&E
and HBO. “Sure, there are lines drawn for both, but they
are drifting back and forth. Reality production is where
the money is today.”

Propper noted that the two genres’ differences in program
length and production lead-time can translate into
more income for indie filmmakers. “Some documentarians
are accustomed to working on one or two hours
a year,” Propper said. “Here the networks, whether it’s
TLC, Nat Geo or A&E, are all asking for unique stories
with big characters in half-hour episodes. Reality has become
a lucrative outlet for documentarians.”

Network economic realities have been beneficial to
this segment of the creative community.

“Ten years ago, everybody thought reality was a flash
in the pan,” Braverman said. “But with their lower production
costs, reality series are now a staple across many
broadcast and cable networks.”

Creative types gain their chance to meet with network
officials in sit-down sessions where, over a 30-minute
span, production companies and channels delineate
their specific short- and longer-term needs. Shorter
“FaceTime” sessions afford 10-minute one-on-one opportunities
for filmmakers to espouse their ideas to TV
executives, who can critique the pitch and explain the
next steps in getting a show started or licensed.

The conference’s final day centers around “Pitch-
Fest.” There, a dozen documentary and reality producer
finalists visually and verbally present their new works
in progress to funders and network development executives
in front of a live audience — which votes on the
winner — for potential acquisition, licensing or co-production
funding. The Gilbert Group at Merrill Lynch
Wealth Management-Bank of America is providing a
cash prize of $12,500 to the winner, up from $7,500 in
the past.

The inaugural PitchFest winners — documentaries
First Position
, chronicling the world of competitive ballet,
in 2009, and Indie Game: The Movie, about video games
and their creators, in 2010, have been on the theater circuit
in the U.S. and Canada. Both films started with
what Braverman called “great trailers.”

First Position raised money in the room, “ he said. “Indie
also really had not started. Shooting began the
first day after PitchFest.”

Added Propper: “There is a lot of business taking place
at Westdoc, or getting started there.”


The third Westdoc conference
aims to give independent
filmmakers visibility with TV