Writers Guild Award-winner Robert Levi on Produced By: New York 2015

Robert Levi fullBy Robert Levi

The Producers Guild of America’s 2nd annual Produced By: New York conference took place on Saturday, October 24, at NYC’s Time Warner Center. Spotlighting the latest trends in film, television, and new media, the event featured a dozen conference sessions and small-group mentoring roundtables.

Choosing which seminars to attend was challenging, as three met concurrently in four time-slots. Deciding between the Showrunner and Documentary seminars was especially hard, but I wanted to see how my nonfiction colleagues were developing and creating first-rate programming in a vast landscape of cable offerings.

“The Truth Sells: New Opportunities in Documentary Features” featured case histories detailing the challenges faced by leading independent directors and producers in bringing their projects to the screen. Their ambitious “one-off” films each encountered innumerable obstacles that had to be overcome before finding a home on PBS, HBO, and other nonfiction venues.

Panelists were well selected. Through a miraculous effort, Jehane Noujaim was able to make THE SQUARE, an Academy Award-nominated film documenting the ongoing Egyptian crisis through 2013, beginning with the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 that took place in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

In CRUDE, Joe Berlinger documented the 2006 and 2007 progress of a $27 billion legal case brought against the oil producer Chevron, following the drilling of the Lago Agrio oil field, a case that activists call the “Amazon Chernobyl.” In a shocking development after the film was completed, Berlinger’s refusal to turn over his outtakes to Chevron resulted in damaging financial settlements and a legal bill that exceeded his film’s entire budget.

Rounding out the panel, moderated by Discovery’s John Hoffman, were Leslie Norville, Producer of Nelson George’s A BALLERINA’S TALE about Misty Copeland, the American Ballet Theatre’s first African American female principal dancer; Laurens Grant, Producer of Stanley Nelson’s THE BLACK PANTHERS: VANGUARD OF THE REVOLUTION, and Danny Forster, director of RISING: REBUILDING GROUND ZERO, an Emmy-winning 6-part series about the rebuilding of lower Manhattan after 9/11.

I wanted to hear more general information about what forms of content and subject matter broadcasters look for; what the “new opportunities” mentioned in the seminar description are; what the steps involved in green-lighting a show or series are; how broadcaster protocol impacts deal-making with independent filmmakers, how revenues are shared, and what constitutes a mutually rewarding working relationship. Still, this was an excellent seminar.

“Tomorrow’s Tinsel: The Future of Film Financing” was a seminar whose importance is evident. We all wonder how a project, once conceived, packaged, and green-lighted, is able to raise and apportion financing, and I wanted to increase my knowledge of the film, television, and media financing models now driving the competitive global marketplace.

A key takeaway was an explanation of the term, “monetizing an eyeball.” While familiar with established methods of banking debt finance, presales, gap and bridge funding, I learned that “monetizing an eyeball” is internet-speak for determining how much each visitor to one’s website is worth. Monetization of twitter followers is also key for financiers.  Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson had his Twitter followers grow from 5 to 30 million this year, a phenomenon that makes him extremely valuable to a production, and reinforces the power of celebrity in casting.

Another discussion focused on “crowd-funding,” a trend popularized by Kickstarter and Indiegogo that has grown in popularity over the past six years, in which backers receive tangible rewards and one-of-a-kind experiences in exchange for their pledge, but have no equity or rights in the projects they fund.

In a significant departure from the Kickstarter model, Panelist Ron Miller, CEO of StartEngine, explained his company’s new variation of crowd-funding: this past summer, for the first time in 80 years, the Securities and Exchange Commission revised rules to allow “regular people” (i.e. non-professional or accredited investors) to invest money in new companies or projects – a seismic shift in the finance market. The difference between the old Kickstarter model and StartEngine is that with this new SEC ruling, funders can now become equity investors and shareholders in a project, creating an ongoing and permanent relationship – a huge change in the paradigm. This concept may be more aligned with Millennials who want to involve themselves with the project they support.

StartEngine funding can also be “first money in” to help raise additional capital, which may be the biggest boost in bringing partially financed projects into the equity marketplace. Successfully executed, it can also bring an audience with it, so when the project is pitched to other funding and broadcast sources, there is a built-in audience and following, which, as our other seminars have confirmed, is a powerful consideration.

As I found out after the seminar, however, a successful StartEngine investor launch – filing paperwork and creating “buzz” – can entail $40 to $50k in startup costs, unlike Kickstarter. Rounding out the panel moderated, by Joe Chianese, were G. Mac Brown, Janet Brown, Craig Engler, Scott Greenberg, David Oliver, and Lydia Dean Pilcher.

A recurrent theme of “The Rise of Digital Content: Media, Channels, Brands” detailed a key transition from the Boomer to the Millennial (i.e. 17 to 37 year old) generation. Broadcasters, content creators, and financiers consider millennial participation key to the success of most projects when hearing an outside “pitch.” Not only do Millennials account for one of the largest viewing sectors of all media watchers, but they’re critical in the research, development, and funding of new products.

Panelist facts and insights were plentiful, so I’ll highlight some with bullet points:

  • There is more quality content than ever before. Nobody settles for mediocre shows.
  • Networks are now more open to brand involvement. It’s money on the table for them.
  • 40% of Millennials are now parents, a major shift that occurred in the past 36 months. Subsequently, in 24 months, Netflix went from the #4 or 5 to the #1 destination for kids; most folks using Netflix are Millennials.
  • Specialize in one form. There is long and short form television, social media, feature films, episodic, and branded media, too. It’s about who is really good at what.
  • Reality, sitcom, and Instagram offerings are now “branded media” too. Find different places to create content – there’s definitely an element of matchmaking to all of this.
  • Authenticity and consistency are key for content creators; emotional connection is required: laugh, cry, educate, be relevant; create something people that can relate to!
  • Research and numbers are key – facebook.com/signal tallies up numbers. Metadata analytics are critical. It’s not solely about the description anymore – it’s about tags with metadata. In a huge shift, networks are now asking producers to do that.
  • Agents are still key – when an agent packages well, broadcasters listen. And agents are always looking for great producers to align with.
  • Content creators should research agencies, clients, and avoid copy and paste blasts.
  • Finally, design your content to stand out, and find the correct platform for it. The Huffington Post, for example, has fifteen million followers. Your work would definitely be seen there.

In summary, to connect and expand millennial target audiences, programmers need to be creative in both the content they provide, and in how they deliver it. While Boomers sat in front of large flat-screen televisions and paid exorbitant cable bills, Millennials have and will continue to devise new methods of streaming and experiencing content. Moderated by Jamie Schutz, this panel included Nathan Brown, Joe Calabrese, Steve Forde, Evan Shapiro and Priyanka Pruthi.

The PGA’s goal was to broaden our understanding of new technological, business, and economic trends, and this all-day event offered an exciting way for influential and innovative decision-makers to share information and insights with working members of the global production community. Produced By: New York was a well-produced conference that I hope will continue to be an annual event.