Westdoc 2013: A Place for the Doc in the Wild West of Viral Cats and Managed Reality

By Chelo Alvarez-Stehle

Picture: Westdoc co-founder Chuck Braverman offers PitchFest winners producers Nimisha Mukerji and Kaitlyn Regehr a $7,500 check for their "Tempest Storm: Burlesque Queen" documentary project

If you've had the chance to attend the latest edition of Westdoc in mid September, you would have learned what is the new Facebook when it comes to promoting your social-issue documentary campaign or how Netflix is concocting its original hit series such as "House of Cards."

Westdoc 2103, held at the Landmark in West L.A. in mid September, gathered over 500 reality and documentary producers, broadcast executives and other industry professionals. "It is the only documentary conference in the West Coast of the United States, and in Hollywood," said distributor Richard Propper co founder of the conference. And still, as it full name shows, the West Coast Documentary and Reality Conference is a hybrid forum, with half of its offering devoted to the ever growing sector of unscripted TV. 

"With the other conferences like ReelScreen moving so much into reality, it is great to see that Westdoc has a place for the doc," says Sue Norton, a veteran documentary and unscripted executive producer. "One of the keynote presenters, Ondi Timoner," added Norton, "is a brilliant speaker with a hard core true documentarian attitude and approach to filmmaking—which is a dying art. When you do not put an end date to your project and you keep doing it until it ends, that is very different to the reality world." Timoner, an expert on digital self-distribution and crowd-funding platforms, advocated for filmmakers to maximize the potential of the digital world. "It's videos of cats what goes viral on YouTube. How do we compete?" said Timoner,  a two-times winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and currently hosts the weekly online talk show "BYOD" (for "Bring Your Own Doc".)

Another veteran documentarian, Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Rory Kennedy discussed her wide-ranging career in a workshop dedicated to showcasing a glimpse of her more than 25 documentaries and dove into the human aspect of documentary filmmaking. Speaking about her Emmy-award nominated documentary series "Pandemic: Facing Aids", which premiered at the International AIDS Conference in Barcelona in 2002, Kennedy explained how at the time the US was giving $1 million worldwide for AIDS. "After I showed my first 15 min work-in-progress shot in Africa to a group of over 50 senators, the US added $25 million to the AIDS budget. Now the US gives $5 billion." Producer Chuck Braverman, co founder and managing director of Westdoc, who was moderating the discussion, summarized Rory's film's impact with a statement that has universal resonance: "You have the power to influence the world through your films more than through politics..." Of course, it helps to carry a legendary last name to navigate the high levels of politics. However, Rory's proven record in documentary films on pressing social issues shows that she has approached her films with the same passion—and her films' subjects with the same compassion— as many in her lineage. "We need to be ready to go through an emotional roller coaster with our characters," said Kennedy, after showing a clip of her 1999 HBO documentary "American Hollow," about a struggling Appalachian family "I so appreciate their willingness to share what they are going through."

For others, it was an eye opener to the expanding world of unscripted TV. "I came to Westdoc to pitch "The Matchmaker of the Century," a reality TV show series about Hellen Chen, an unorthodox matchmaker working with people who do not want to get married or who are skeptical about marriage," said Wuna Wu, award-winning director/producer with Classic Vision from Taiwan. "I saw how reality shows are so popular and creative in the US. At the MipDoc Cannes, I learned more about the documentary market."

The pre-conference day offered a master class entitled, "The Key Success Factors in Nonfiction Programming," presented by Peter Hamilton, consultant and publisher of DocumentaryTelevision.com and Ed Hersh founder of Story Centric. In this intensive half-day workshop the consultants helped producers understand the nonfiction market and how to develop effective strategies to capitalize their properties. Trends have changed. "In the world of managed or fake reality, dramatic conflict, action overshadows story," said Hersh. "Networks executives are out there looking for reliable content, content that was a hit. They want to replicate it." "It's a viciously competitive cycle," added Hamilton, "and the race is on." 

"The race is on and its clear," said one of the conference attendees independent producer NALIP member Angel Vasques. "Execs are opening their doors for that person to walk in with that project that is going to be BIG. An executive said "It's a needle in a hay stack," but," noted Vasques, "you might be the one to find it."

"I loved the master class at Westdoc," said Wu. I saw how different the approach is in the US, compared to what I have experienced in the China and Taiwan market. I learned how to quickly find out what the Networks are looking for, and be able to present a package that suits their needs. Not to be so concerned about what I have, rather focus on what I can give that fits their needs. I believe this new view point will help me succeed more."

"Ninety nine percent of the networks are leaving a new breed of viewers behind," warned Stephen Harris, a surprise visitor at the master class and an Executive Producer with broad experience with networks such as A&E and founder of wtf.com (What the Funny.) Harris noted the need to acknowledge how the new generations consume entertainment in devices well beyond the black box. "If they are not careful, what happened to Blockbuster is going to happen to them." Pointing at the success of new platforms like Netflix, Harris added, "Netflix is using analytics to define their original content series." They produced "House of Cards" based on Kevin Spacey's films demographics.

This year's conference had good panels on how to sail the digital world, some with very young panelists, such as the "Promoting Your Film Online" panel. April Arrglington, digital content strategist and transmedia consultant said, "Discover your hidden market." She noted how the producers of the Twilight series which targeted teenagers found their hidden market in a large subculture of moms addicted to the story. Also in the panel was Jason Brubaker, Film Acquisitions Manager at Chill, a company that defines itself as "A New Model for Episodic Entertainment," a platform in the direct-to-consumer movement where filmmaker, musicians, comedians and brands distribute and market their content directly to the fans over the Internet. Brubaker announced that Facebook is becoming outdated, "Kids are not in Facebook, they are in youtube, Twitter, Tumblr..." and said that Facebook Page 'likes' are more or less useless, as they do not necessarily translate into fans' future visits, and that you' ll have a real commodity when you manage to get your followers' email address and mobile phones.

Among the most popular offerings were the countless one-on-one Face Time meetings and 38 small group Sit Downs. "They had Sit-Downs", said Wu, "where independent producers meet reps from Networks and pitch their ideas. I'm very impressed about how industry match each other in this way. I hope I can bring this system back to my country."

The conference's culmination was the much anticipated PitchFest. This year's PitchFest Pitcher Award went to Canadian director/producer Nimisha Mukerji ("65 Red Roses") and producer Kaitlyn Regehr for their film "Tempest Storm: Burlesque Queen," an in-progress feature documentary that captures the tumultuous life of the legendary sex icon. The $7,500 cash prize provided by sponsors Merrill Lynch Wealth Management, will allow the filmmakers to shoot a benefit event for Storm. "She is in a muddy waters state," says Regehr, "And this is a benefit to save her home by a group of people who care about artists from that era." Asked what they thought made their pitch stand out, the producers noted that having spent four intense weeks prepping their crowd-funding campaign had given them deep insights about their film and boosted their self-confidence. "This big check will go to our Kickstarter!" said the excited producers, whose Kickstarter closed on the day of this writing with a goal well surpassed. And to top their prize, the Los Angeles Times devoted the first three paragraphs of their conference coverage to their project. A great push for two indie producers under thirty.

As per missing elements in this year's convention, Norton said, "I would have loved to see more case studies, like Timoner's. It is great when producers share success stories," she noted, "not just a filmmaker talking about their beloved film, but when they focus on their distribution and fundraising strategies." Timoner's recent Kickstarter campaign" achieved 150% of her fundraising goal, making A Total Disruption the top documentary series event funded on that platform.

"While there were some companies developing content for foreign markets," said Vasques, "there was little discussion on the Latin American market, one of the largest markets. That is where the NALIP Conference, with its Latino Media Market, has been successful, targeting content for Latin America."

The 20 panels gathered over 100 panelists, but representation of Latinos among the panelists was practically non-existing. "We do not discriminate," responded co founder Richard Propper, who says the conference did reach out to NALIP when it was first announced and that this year they were approached by a number of executives hoping to be invited as panelists.

While Westdoc offers were quite appealing, it is still hard to lure the majority of the independent filmmakers in the L.A. area who consider the registration cost too high for their pockets. Even with a 10% discount offered to local film organizations such as NALIP, there were very few "indies" in attendance. "The price of our conference is well under the price of many other similar forums in the US," said Propper, who said the conference also accepts volunteers and this year they had 50. "This conference not a money making machine and we are making a huge effort. We need the support of the community so that we can keep bringing this unique event to our region." 

NALIP member Chelo Alvarez-Stehle is a world reporter and documentary filmmaker based in Los Angeles. Her current project, SOS, is a multiplatform engagement campaign on gender-based sexual violence through the documentary SANDS OF SILENCE, the social impact game SOS_SLAVES and an interactive micro-documentary experience. She can be reached at info@sosdocumentary.org