Westdoc II: Through the Looking Glass: Character vs Story
By Chelo Alvarez-Stehle
If you tweeted at the second annual edition of the Westdoc Conference, which took place in September in Santa Monica, CA, your hashtag would probably have looked like '#character + + + #story - - -,' as one panelist after another proclaimed that, while story may never be dead, stress on character is well alive and demanding. Peter Hamilton, who taught the Master Class Network License Fees, when asked his impressions about Westdoc, responded, "The conference provided insight into fast-changing situations." Hamilton, whose blog, DocumentaryTelevision.com delves into "the business of unscripted television," continued: "Like the Travel Channel's move from destination-based programs to character-driven series." The big take-away: "Give us access to big, unique characters and unusual situations! Pitch us series that can become tomorrow's franchises."
One of those unique moments is when the filmmakers themselves become the character, as with Joe Berlinger "as himself" in the real story-within-a-story surrounding his latest film, CRUDE: The Real Price of Oil. His panel, "A Conversation with Joe Berlinger," was one of the favorites due to the significance to the documentary field of his battle against Chevron's move to appropriate his filmed material. The oil giant forced the filmmaker to deliver 600 hours of footage to support their case in the ongoing lawsuit (Berlinger's legal fees to date amount to $600,000). Watch a clip of Joe Berlinger's Q&A at Westdoc here, where he shares how Chevron, not satisfied with the huge amount of subpoenaed footage, is now pushing him to depose his "observations" during the moments he turned the camera off--something that most documenters of reality do when their characters require privacy.
The 32 conference panels were built around two small towns that lie in the shade of the film industry seat and that are defined in the official program as "The Documentary Village" and "The Reality Village," with the addition of a sprouting new category, "Hybrid Events," that housed the many overlapping topics of interest for the attendees. This scenario reminded me of the villages and hamlets that proudly fought for their own identity in La Rioja, my home region in northern Spain. The towns were often facing homonymous rivals located a mere half a mile up or down the river, such as Arenzana de Arriba (upper Arenzana) and Arenzana de Abajo (lower Arenzana). The homonymy presented a problem when in the year 1020, Sancho el Mayor, King of Navarre, decided to leave "Arenzana" to his minor son, without specifying if it was de Arriba or de Abajo. It was finally determined that it had to be de Abajo because de Arriba belonged to the Monasterio San Millan, the birthplace of Spanish language, where the monks--the Twitterers and content creators of last millennium--were busy at perfecting this new dialect on the margins of illuminated manuscripts written in traditional Latin. I can't help comparing the patronship of one of the villages by the nobility, and the other one by the Church, to the sponsorship of TV shows of today by corporate networks and of indie documentaries by government agencies such as ITVS.
When I reported on this conference last year for Latinos In The Industry, I was a bit skeptical about this "forced marriage" between reality and documentary filmmakers, my perception then being that they stood on opposite sides of the mirror called "reality." This year, however, though I still feel their fields are worlds apart, I started to understand what Westdoc cofounders Richard Propper and Chuck Braverman had in mind. Westdoc would be an opportunity for both documenters and makers of reality--reaching through the looking glass--to go beyond the relaxed social vibe that, in the words of Hamilton, "encouraged casual access to network buyers," and find common ground in the tools of the trade and unravel auspicious synergies.
Furthermore, the cofounders' intention is to prompt indies to get out of their home-office or cubicle, bypass the cold-call pitches they sometimes see as their only option, and reach out in a personal, intimate way to those who hold the precious keys to financing: network executives and commissioning editors. When I pointed out that many of the independent documentary filmmakers that populate Los Angeles had not yet responded to the call of Westdoc, Braverman said, "There are two kinds of documentary filmmakers, the New Day, NALIP, Grant [pursuers], ITVS-type filmmakers," those who view the conference registration as still too high, and those filmmakers that think it is a good investment because of the access it provides, such as literally bumping into a network executive and practicing your elevator pitch, or signing up for one of several of the popular and timely "Facetime" sessions, or one-on-one encounters to get the financing you need. Braverman points to the fact that both Propper and he himself work in the independent producing arena, and Propper, also an ex-IDA president, hopes indies will understand that "this is a dedicated event to support the community." To their credit, they offered discounts to most film organizations, a "without-lunch" registration fee, and had a big volunteer turnout. "We even had people showing up at the door saying they could not afford the registration," said Propper, who made sure they were given the necessary access.
There were 35 sit-downs (30 minute broadcaster overviews from the networks outlining their needs of today and tomorrow) and 32 formal panels during two days, but, according to Propper, some people "never went to the panels, they just went to the sit-downs!" Ross Borden, creator of Matador Network, a web traveling magazine, said, "I am an entrepreneur and I am here for networking, but what interests me the most is the 'processes,' how projects become a reality. Here I can go to a sit-down with [Senior Vice President and Head of] Lonely Planet Television Sue Norton or meet with Discovery Studios' [Vice President, West Coast Development and Production] Sean Atkins, to pitch my Breaking Free TV series, now in development. Nothing will happen if I do a cold call to them, but now they know me."
Latino presence, both among speakers--with the exception of Fernanda Rossi's Master Class "The Perfect Pitch"--and the attendees, was still quite low. Pitchfest, which was sponsored this year by the Gilbert Group at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, with $7,500 in cash prizes, is a great forum to test your project's strengths. Among the 11 pitch finalists at Pitchfest were NALIPster Dawn Valadez and Hima B., who pitched License to Pimp, their promising upcoming documentary about strippers and their working conditions. The prize went to James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot, who won $5,000 in cash for Indie Game: The Movie. Their artistically edited work-in-progress features game creator Edmund McMillen sharing how his childhood secrets inspired his enticing, tiny creatures games, such as the award-winning "Aether," the inspiring story of a lonely boy which could be called "The Little Prince on alien land." "The best part of attending Westdoc," said Swirsky, "were the connections made and the general feeling that broadcasters, distributors and other collaborators are indeed accessible. They are real people looking for great projects, and if you have a great project, you have a shot. That's something that is exceptionally encouraging to a pair of filmmakers from Winnipeg, Manitoba."
Another of the handful of NALIPsters attending Westdoc was documentary producer Robin Rosenthal--whose current project is Escaramuza: Riding from the Heart. She said of her Facetime session, "My project had been previously turned down by ITVS, but a face-time meeting with Richard Saiz, followed immediately by his eye-opening ITVS 'How-To' workshop, left me feeling reinvigorated and ready to give it another shot. As Richard reminded us, and as corny as it sounds, 'rejection' and 'discouraged' are not in the ITVS vocabulary. The fact that less than five percent of applicants are funded is indeed haunting, but as the PBS panel participants reminded us, that's where the big pot of money lives."
"Thanks to a successful turnout of over 30 sponsors, from Getty Images to Santa Monica Video," says Propper, "there were also several sponsored social events." Cocktails took place in upscale locations at Santa Monica's Third Promenade, where people mingled and could fortify themselves with some vino to face off that seemingly unreachable network executive. Which reminded me how, in the best tradition of the villages in Spain, whenever one of the town's fiesta time arrives, rival villages leave behind their differences and eagerly travel distances to join in the fun. And there, while tasting some tapas or the Rioja wine that some still skillfully pour from the wineskins, or bargaining at the cattle market, the villagers find common ground and start new ventures with their kinsmen.
Chelo Alvarez-Stehle is a writer, documentary and new media producer based in Los Angeles and a long-time contributor for Spain's daily El Mundo and other publications. A clip of her current transmedia project can be seen here Sands of Silence: Fighting Sexual Slavery and Trafficking.
Call for Entries: Miami International Film Festival
The Miami International Film Festival (MIFF) is a world-class platform for International and Ibero-American film. Presenting its 28th edition in March 2011, MIFF showcases the work of the world's best emerging and established filmmakers to the diverse South Florida community.
Submission Deadline: Monday, October 25, 2010 (Late Deadline)
Save $5 by submitting through Withoutabox
Details and submission information available online here.
Deemed "a Sundance for Ibero-American films" by the Wall Street Journal, MIFF has become the natural gateway for the discovery of Ibero-American talent. Cash awards are given in four competition categories. Prizes of $20,000 are awarded in the World and Ibero-American dramatic competitions, $10,000 is awarded in the Documentary (DOX) competition, and $2,500 is awarded in the Shorts competition. Non-competition categories include Cinema 360 and Cutting the Edge.
The 2010 Miami International Film Festival attracted more than 70,000 people and over 200 filmmakers, producers, talent and industry professionals from around the world. MIFF presented 117 films from more than 53 countries, including several international prizewinners and 72 East Coast, US, North American and World premieres. Headquartered in the heart of Miami Beach, the Festival has had the privilege of hosting a noted group of filmmakers and talent, including Pedro Almodvar, Abel Ferrara, Spike Lee, Andy Garcia, Alfonso Cuaron, Kate Hudson, Jonathan Demme, Liv Ullman, Luc Besson, Hector Babenco, Willem Dafoe, Demi Moore, Viggo Mortensen, Patricia Clarkson, Chris Cooper, Helen Hunt, and Danny Glover.
For exceptional exposure in Miami and Latin America, submit your film to the Miami international Film Festival today.
Call for Entries: Los Angeles Women's International Film Festival
The Los Angeles Women's International Film Festival is currently accepting entries for it's 2011 festival. March 2011 will mark the seventh year of this festival which features short and feature-length fims of all genres written and directed by women. In addition to screening narratives, the festival programs films which educate and inform audiences of critical issues impacting women globally and generate awareness for organizations that help women.
Final Deadline: Friday, October 15, 2010.
Details and submission information available online here.
If your film or screenplay is NOT selected, you will still receive an All-Access Pass to the festival!
The 2010 festival opened with Serious Moonlight written by the late Adrienne Shelly. Director Cheryl Hines introduced the film and informed the audience about the Adrienne Shelly Foundation which provides resources for women filmmakers.
The 2010 centerpiece presentation of Poto Mitan: Haitian Women, Pillars of the Global Economy was introduced by a representative from Partners in Health who informed the audience about the organization and gave an update on the Haiti crisis and Partner in Health's PIPs fundraising relief efforts.