What do you get when you hold 500+ filmmakers, funders and network executives in a lodge in the middle of Wyoming? Well, you get one hell of a party compliments of National Geographic, stimulating panel discussions about the future of nature documentary, and impromptu speed pitching sessions throughout the week long event. If you’re really lucky, you spy Jane Goodall holding court to a rapt audience in front of a roaring fire.
I talked with a lot of folks during my time in Jackson Hole for the biannual Wildlife Film Festival, arguably different pieces of the same puzzle, from network executives who curate content around the dial to the field producers who live in extreme conditions for months at a time to capture the story. We spoke about trends (animal dramas and stunt programming), innovation (large 4K format IMAX films) and metrics (everybody wants them).
One of the more heated panel discussions was about natural history media moving towards strong character-driven programs and what that means for a more traditional approach. A short compilation reel was shown which began with icons Jacques Cousteau and David Attenborough and then leapt forward to “Gator Boys,” “Duck Dynasty” and “Hillbilly Handfishin’.” I think this was meant to be funny, but after it was over, there was a palpable tension in the audience and you could have heard a pin drop.
To me, the trend toward irreverent personal narratives represents a schism between traditional filmmakers and the TV networks who have to answer to the demands of sponsors facing a diminishing audience. With 500 channels to chose from and a core audience that doesn’t even watch television any more, there is the movement towards sensational, stunt-driven event programming. The tension during the panel reached its height when an older filmmaker challenged an executive of Animal Planet with what he considered irresponsible programing, “Mermaids: The New Evidence.” With its pseudo science and “docufiction” paradigm, consider that this show reached 3.6 million eyeballs. The filmmaker’s point: how many people think it’s real? What does this mean for documentarians who are trying to incorporate real science into the storytelling, and what is the indie storyteller to do when faced with such fierce competition?
Every executive I spoke with said that content still has to be authentic and immersive. And story + metrics = funding. The best thing to do is prove that you already have an interested audience, which is where the metrics come in to play. You have to be able to answer how many people are going to see it, what is the scope of your project and how do you measure audience impact. One way to do that is to develop strategic partnerships with organizations that have similar interests and goals. College screenings are a great way to build buzz. Having loads of hits on a measurable social network source like Youtube is another approach.
So get busy, kids. Afterall, driving a media campaign is totally different from producing and directing a film. And remember, if it were easy, everyone would have their own TV show. Oh, wait…