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May 3, 1999 2:00 AM
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FESTIVALS: MIPDOC where TV Documentaries and Mimosas Mix

FESTIVALS: MIPDOC where TV Documentaries and Mimosas Mix

by Michael Lee



A week of Moet mimosas, free French food, stacks of business cards, always in sight of the beach but seldom actually on it. . .

484 booths, 2,389 exhibiting companies, 2,649 buyers, from 97 countries, and a total of almost 11,000 participants, and above all, a price tag of more than $2,000 per company (up to 3 people) for attendance -- the printout stats I'm reading on the Friday evening flight from Prague to Cannes make me salivate and panic all at once.


MIPTV (which runs April 12-16) is maybe the biggest TV conference in the world, certainly the biggest in Europe. The immense numbers almost disguise the true nature of this convention -- it could be a gathering for makers of paper products.

But it's not. Nearly every TV station and distributor in the world is coming -- their buyers, and main development execs, no longer locked in high offices defended by assistants who route all calls and e-mail. Here they will be, raw, naked, available, walking and talking and who knows what else right in front of me.


I'm registered as press. But my real concern is finding backing for my doc-in-progress. Luckily, this is also my indieWIRE assignment: to explore the feasibility of working MIP as an extreme independent, a total outsider.


How extreme? I'm working on my first full-length doc, about poor Zulu musicians in a squat in Durban, South Africa, which is being renovated to become a functioning black cultural center. The renovations began in January, and I was forced to start shooting on DV without backing, scrambling for donations of equipment, phones, etc. Still unfunded, I need to go back this summer to shoot more. In a world of year-long turnovers, the position's untenable. Worse, I live in Prague, not exactly the center of financial coproduction. And my company, trafika films, has been officially founded just for this trip -- e-mail address signed up on Yahoo yesterday morning, business cards and letterhead printed today at Copy General just hours before this flight. No office, no staff, no bank account. . . but it does have US non-profit status.


I don't know or like business; I'm a novice waiting to happen. Call me a moron, but I didn't KNOW you were supposed to set up your meetings months beforehand, and since I didn't even know MIP existed until late March, it wouldn't have mattered if I did. Anyway, I just got back from Africa a few weeks ago and am still sorting through the tapes, so I've scrapped my old proposals and haven't managed new ones yet, much less selection of sample clips and music. After the biz cards, I spend my last couple hours in Prague taking snapshots of frames off the television.


No money. I wouldn't even be able to stay here where closet-size rooms cost nearly a hundred dollars a night, if I didn't have a friend with a hotel room. Pretty much, I have nothing backing me. Except: my story. I think it's a good one, and others have agreed. And I hear it repeatedly over the next few days, shockingly, more here in the heart of the biz than I've ever heard it before: "This is an IDEA business. Presentation, background, finance matter. But the MAIN thing is your story." It helps that it's a doc. Someone slogging fiction would be totally sunk in my position.


MIPDOC didn't exist at all two years ago. Docs were lumped in to drown along with everything else. Now they're the launching pad, the whole opening weekend. I'll be here five days in all, the two of MIPDOC, the first three out of five of MIPTV. In my bag is Guy Debord's "Society of the Spectacle," the basic French situationist text, my own private joke, my talisman against the media monster.


When we arrive, it's still quiet around the Croisette. A glance through the windows of the Palais des Festivals reveals a corporatescape that looks more like the aftermath of a manic conference than one about to start: half-built walls, broken boxes, piles of wrappers. . . . Despite the enormous Warner Bros banner over the exterior staircases, MIP seems almost as badly prepared as I am.


Here's why: the Palais doesn't open til Monday. MIPDOC is held entirely in the Hotel Martinez, a ten minute beachfront walk away.


Saturday

The Martinez is a wasteland. MIPDOC is mainly a screening program for buyers -- several rooms of video booths exclusively for them. Polite MIP officials keep track of each doc checked out so sellers can efficiently, scientifically follow up. Press is, sorry, not permitted.


I check in: they take my photo, give me a badge and a canvas shoulderbag stuffed with MIPDOC info. For the extreme independent, the thick MIPDOC guide is alone worth the trip. It lists every participant -- meaning nearly every TV station in the world, and hundreds of other important outlets which show, buy, sell, produce, finance, etc, docs, along with the names of key acquisitions and co-production execs, and their contacts at home and here, in many cases even listing their hotel. In the hundreds of full-color pages that follow, every doc on offer is described, so I can even see what distributors might be interested in my project.


Today there is one worthwhile event: the "Channels Speak Out" symposium, in which several heads of non-fic programming give a rundown on what they're buying. It's very specific to these four stations: History UK prefers 3 or 5 part series, WGBH one-offs, etc. None want my kind of project. The clearest unified message is: it's best to get support up front: Finland's TV station, YLE, for instance, will co-produce for a third of the total budget, but none of the participating buyers pays more than $5,000 an hour for a finished doc.

Sunday


Free juice, croissants, and coffee before today's Bourse Aux Coproductions, in which producers of 5 very different docs and series pitch their projects to a panel of experts. Two of these experts dominate the talk: Anna Glogowsky, deputy head of docs at France's CANAL+, and Chris Haws of Discovery. I read about Haws last night, in one of my stacks of info. He recently spearheaded a project at Discovery to nurture first-time doc makers. The first cycle of that project focused on South Africa.


As soon as the panel is over, I'm up and by Haws. He asks about my story, then quickly cuts me off. "The person you should talk to is across the room." He stands and leads me to her, the new doc head of a private station in South Africa, and introduces me with the words: "Meet someone who'll be making one of your next shows." Thanks, Chris.


We exchange cards practically before handshakes -- a common practice here. She's friendly, but tired, asks what my doc is about but only half-listens. "I'm not in pitch mode," she says with a just-off-the airplane smile. We make plans to meet Tuesday at noon, at the coffee bar by the Channel 4 booth. She's a bit pessimistic; she doesn't like arts docs. But it helps that she knows my Associate Producer in South Africa. Later, I ask Haws quickly if I can drop off a page for him to look at and offer advice; he says he'd be glad to.


Then I'm standing by Glogowski, who's telling me about the doc she made in the 70's in a hospital in Mozambique. I'm fighting myself to listen and learn, not to play my cards too soon. To experience these people as people at the same time as you're doing business is a skill I'm not adept at yet.


I see Glogowski again at the CANAL+ press luncheon. The Carlton Hotel, they say, has the best food in Cannes, and we're served it seated, by waiters, in courses, separate wines for each, as the programming heads of CANAL+ stations in seven different countries outline the differences in their doc policies. Purchasing for each station is totally separate. There are a few similarities: no CANAL+ station buys series, programming must be exclusive in each territory, they show the director's edit, not their own, and only Italy buys shows with a host. This last is common practice in all of Europe, I soon learn: stations here scorn the US style of docs with hosts. Even onscreen interviews are becoming anathema in Europe, with most stations allowing no more than 10% of screentime for "talking heads."


I'm next to the head of programming of CANAL+ Spain and across from CANAL+ Nordic, who I just had a mimosa with, along with his friend Carole, the charming Belgian international programs buyer from the Paris branch. Also here is a publisher of a Spanish TV news journal, who by the end of the meal offers me a job as an editor in Madrid. And, most importantly, Marianne, organizer of the conferences within the conference (such as the Bourse this morning), who will turn out to be an excellent guide, advisor, and friend.


After lunch, I chat with Andrew Solomon, head of DOCSTAR, the international coproduction, financing, and distribution arm of CANAL+, the real money man. I describe my assignment: a filmmaker posing as a journalist in order to be a journalist posing as a filmmaker: my dual passport intrigues him, as it will others. He's heard of indieWIRE and wants its readers to feel free to approach DOCSTAR with their stories. "For coproduction, there are five main things we focus on. Natural history. People and animals. Biography. Long shelf life. International appeal." (Contact DOCSTAR by fax at 33 1 44 25 15 20).


To avoid tomorrow's crush, I go to sign up for MIP: another photo, badge, bag, catalogue, twice as thick but not as useful for my purposes; I end up barely opening it. This bag's also full of toys: playing cards, a yo yo, a Batman frisbee, a plastic skeleton. I give them away to street kids.


In case my head got too big at lunch, the night's MIPDOC closing party, sponsored by PBS, reminds me how small I am. Amid popping corks, flight paths of gourmet hors d'oeuvre trays, and spinning "MIPDOC" projections, the network premieres its upcoming EMPIRE series with a flashy Greece sequence that might have been shot for IMAX. Most of the conversation I have is flat and leads nowhere. From the badges, it's clear this is as much a pre-party for MIP as a closing of MIPDOC, and worse, that most of these hundreds of people already know each other. I just carry on with the mimosas.


I do manage to meet Bruce, a doc producer and distributor from Australia. With his lapel pins and bright ties and aggressive but stylish gluttony, Bruce has the enthusiasm of a parallel novice, but he's actually been coming here for years. I've found another ally: a real person with heart who loves the business as much as the art. He tells me about his recent projects in Russia and Romania as we adjourn to Vesuvio, his and maybe MIP's favorite Italian restaurant, packed to the rafters and owned by the same waiters serving you.


Back home, I type, fast. I have to finish my proposal.

Monday


They typed faster. Newsletter, MIPDOC: 347 buyers from 173 companies in 56 countries watched 1,087 programs from 217 companies in a total of 8,062 private screenings: an average of 23 per buyer. The two biggest watchers were from Discovery; both watched over 100 programs in the 20 hours the cabinets were open.


Said Rick Rodriguez, the second name on the list, to a friend of mine, "You have to remember, I have 8 screens in my office, running all the time." And I feel utterly tiny again.


Luckily, free press breakfasts have begun courtesy of the History Channel. Unfortunately, they've left out the mimosas.


[Part II of Michael Lee's adventures at MIP run tomorrow in indieWIRE where he enters MIPTV, meets with Dutch, French and South African broadcasters, and drinks more mimosas.]

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