A view from the Silverdocs Conference

Silverdocs may be a sweet memory but it is still very much on the mind of those of us in the documentary community. Our amazing film reviewer Matthew Radcliff from Paignton Pictures is splitting the Docs In Progress Silverdocs coverage with Erica Ginsberg this year.  Here comes the first report from Matt spotlighting some of the conference sessions he attended.


After several years of attending the Silverdocs International Documentary Conference, I continue to find the sessions to be extremely useful. Each year, Diana Ingraham, the conference producer, and her staff put together a schedule that covers all aspects of documentary films. From pitching ideas to planning distribution and outreach, the conference has you covered. While retaining information on the usual topics, they also stay at the forefront of changes in the field, particularly regarding new distribution methods. Plus, where else can you find and be able to approach pretty much all the movers and shakers in the business?

The week started off with a very interesting panel on "Documentary Ethics Inside the Family." Moderated by Pat Aufderheide, professor and director of the Center For Social Media at American University, the panel focused on four of the films screening in this year's festival. The Center For Social Media's new report on ethics in documentary film, Honest Truths, does not specifically address how family relationships between filmmaker and subject complicate the ethical questions. This panel was a welcome chance to continue to develop the issues covered in Honest Truths.

For three of the filmmakers, the film was an outgrowth of their own desire to "work through" their family issues. But Kaleo LaBelle, the director of Beyond This Place, maintained a distinction between showing the "personal" and the "private." The personal is the part of the story that the audience can relate to in some way, a detail that brings out an element of universal truth. The private are the specific details, about actions or thoughts, which are self-indulgent for the filmmaker to include. Doug Block, director of The Kids Grow Up, agreed, adding that the film should not be used as a form of therapy, even if it may end up being therapeutic. It was suggested that researching, filming, and/or viewing the film might be therapeutic for other members of the family, not just the filmmaker. Chico Colvard, the director of Family Affair, emphasized the need for the filmmaker in a truly personal film to reveal themselves as honestly and deeply as the film's subjects do.

For Doug, the ethical decisions are made during the editing stage, and not really during filming. He shoots lots of footage, not knowing what might happen, and then crafts the story in the editing room. At that point he begins to wrestle with the ethics of representing his subjects, whether or not they are family members. Ali Codina, director of Monica and David, proposed instead that ethics are always an ongoing discussion during the entire process of making a film. The central issue is what is shown on screen, and that decision is made at several points during the filmmaking process. Whether something is left off the screen because it was out of the frame during filming, cut during editing, or never shot to begin with, it is still an ethical issue.

Wednesday was a big day for me at the conference. In the morning, I attended a very good session on how to pitch to network executives. Presented by Peter Hamilton, the brains behind DocumentaryTelevision.com, and Stephen Harris, an executive at A&E Television, the session was titled, "Understand the Audience! Then Develop the Programs." One audience that producers need to understand is network executives, and Peter and Stephen did a great job of explaining how an executive looks at prospective program ideas. Stephen is always looking for good ideas, spending about an hour every day reading newspapers, the industry trades, and pop culture magazines gathering data on "the next big thing." He has four filters that he uses to sift through the tons of possible ideas to reveal the good ideas. A successful show from his perspective must incorporate: big characters, high stakes, unique access, and a resolution at the end of each episode.

Another great panel was "Science Media: Finding the Language of Engagement" and was moderated by Jody Sheff, a consultant formerly at WNET/Channel 13 in New York City. The panel featured Melanie Wallace, a senior producer at NOVA; Allan Butler, an Executive Producer at the National Geographic Channel; Debbie Myers, the General Manager of the Science Channel; and Larry O'Reilly, who is retired from the Smithsonian, where he was in charge of exhibits and public spaces. Larry is now a board member of Wildscreen USA, and starting a program for film students to develop projects about the US National Labs.

Allan Butler described the ideal show for Nat Geo, which had pretty similar elements to what Stephen Harris was looking for at A&E: passionate characters with a big challenge to overcome, a topic with universal appeal and big questions, fresh insights and new discoveries, and an active, in-the-moment storytelling style. Debbie Myers presented the new mission statement of the Science Channel: "Imagine the impossible and then make it happen." The focus for them is not the quest for knowledge, but the quest for the unknown; this is a fascinating and highly philosophical distinction, and I am excited to see where it leads them with their programming. Melanie Wallace focused her time on NOVA's reach into the online distribution world, through the NOVA ScienceNow spin-off, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. This magazine type show has attracted families and younger audiences and lately they have included a large online component. Dr. Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, is an extremely engaging speaker. She played a fun clip of him explaining how the ubiquitous AutoTune software works to adjust a singer's pitch. The clip included a before-and-after of Neil singing an astronomical blues song. It's worth a watch.

The best quote of the week came from Ed Hersh, Senior Vice President of Strategic Planning for Investigation DiscoveryThe Military Channel, and HD Theater. Speaking at the "Inside Discovery" panel, Ed said that network executives are looking for how the show will be executed. "You don't buy topics, you buy shows." The network needs to "see" what the show will be like. Andy Weissberg, Vice President of Programming for Animal Planet concurred, emphasizing the importance of a good demo tape. Short of that, you need to have something that conveys the visuals of the show. Stephen Reverand, Senior Vice President of Production and Development for Discovery Channel, said that a pitch reel is vital, because along with demonstrating the style and substance of the pitch, it shows commitment on the part of the pitcher. The panel also included Dexter Cole, Vice President of Programming for the Science Channel, and was moderated very efficiently by Wendy Thompson, President and CEO of EVS Communications (and a Docs In Progress alum).

Thursday started with "Anatomy of a Trailer," covering both pitch trailers and fundraising trailers, moderated by Kevin Schaff, CEO and founder of stock footage company Thought Equity Motion. Featuring pearls of wisdom from the Documentary DoctorFernanda Rossi, as well as media consultant John Ford, and Mark Berridge, the US Manager for Zealot, a film and TV marketing agency. At Zealot, Mark has developed trailers for several successful documentaries, including Man on WireFood Inc., and Silverdocs Closing Night film, The Tillman Story.

Fernanda Rossi alone gave out more information than can fit into this entire post. Suffice it to say, if you missed this session, you missed an education. She started with terminology, as pitch trailers go by many names, including tasters, sample, work in progress, sizzle real, demo, and teaser. End the teaser with emotion, and don't break the spell to list credits or contact info. Also, don't make it too complete. It's not a short film, and the more it feels like a short film, the more viewers will pat you on the back and say "thank you for sharing." Instead, you want them to want to see the rest of the story. And then give you money for the opportunity.

John Ford said that making a successful trailer is a combination of artistic and business skills. They need to be focused, and focused on the viewer. Network execs are all looking for a show that will be successful, but each network has a different interpretation of what is successful. You need to know your audience. Mark Berridge suggested using stock footage to enhance a trailer. His before and after example showed a significant improvement after including stock footage to provide context around the main topic. When used appropriately, stock footage can increase the perceived production budget and also demonstrate the environment in which the characters are working. Also, if not overused, watermarked footage is acceptable; meaning, you might not have to pay upfront to use the stock footage. Of course, check with a lawyer before doing anything involving copyrighted material....

At lunchtime on Thursday, the conference provided a unique opportunity to hear Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski in an informal conversation with Michael Winship, a veteran producer and writer and the current president of the WGA, East. Much of the conversation focused on Internet technology and how the FCC is beginning to grapple with the incredible changes afoot in the communications world. Genachowski discussed his belief that we are undergoing a massive shift in broadcasting, comparable to the development of cable or the switch from black-and-white TV to color TV.

The educational distribution market was the focus of a session on Friday morning (called "No Film Left Behind") that can be summarized in one famous line: "the times, they are a-changing." Featuring Melissa Regan, a filmmaker working with the distribution co-op New Day FilmsJohn Hoskyns-Abrahall of Bullfrog FilmsKathy Tan from Films Media Group (formerly Filmmakers for the Humanities), and Martha Girard from Consumer Products at PBS. Melissa presented a short description of New Day Films and her experiences working with them. All agreed that working with teachers during production often means a film will be more readily useful to teachers after it is released, resulting in more sales. All encouraged making a "teacher's guide" that listed specific sections of the film and offered suggestions for class activities around each section. Naturally, producing a teacher's guide is the job of the filmmaker, although it is possible to include the preparation costs for a guide into a grant proposal. Closed captions are a must, for accessibility reasons. All of the distributors discussed the need to move to online distribution, and indicated that their companies were working on solving that problem.

I ended my time at the conference with a session that I am still digesting. Featuring Richard Saiz, senior manager for programming at ITVS, the workshop was an in-depth look at how to write a compelling treatment and create a dynamite work-in-progress tape. Richard provided a sample written treatment, which we dissected, and then showed us the accompanying work-in-progress tape. The treatment is the concrete version of the abstract idea that inspired the film. It is the road map to follow when translating your idea into a documentary. He spent some time drilling the crowd on the three important ingredients: first, the Premise, or the hook that distinguishes your film from the countless others on the same topic; second, the Theme, which elevates a program from a specific local story to one that is relevant to a wide-spread and broad audience; and third, the Story, which is a description of what will happen on-screen. The last element to be included in the treatment is an indication of how you will establish your "directorial authority." For instance, you might describe how you intend to use color or lighting to convey your theme.

By the end of the week, I had only been able to attend a small subset of the Conference sessions. At each one, I learned several things, and was able to meet and network with my peers. And the panels were a good opportunity to chat with the bigwigs who came as speakers. You're almost as likely to see a filmmaker here, as at the film festival, and avoid the scrum that forms around a filmmaker immediately after a screening. This year, all the conference sessions were in one cluster of buildings, creating a "hothouse" environment for meeting and greeting. The main location included a number of couches and chairs for informal conversations. The conference also provided a breakfast each morning, which was a nice incentive to get there early and chat with the other attendees. All in all, it was well worth the price of admission.

Full Disclosure: Matthew Radcliff served on the screening committee for Silverdocs, but was not involved with organizing the conference.

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