A week in the life of an indie producer or “The week that was DocWeek 2014”

Greg Sanderson interviews Alex Gibney at DocWeek 2014

The idea of writing blog updates each day during the Australian International Documentary Conference, while a nice idea, turned out to be somewhat infeasible.  So now that I’m back in the relative solitude and calm of my hobbit hole here in Melbourne, and have had at least 48 hours to reflect on the week that was, here are my final thoughts and memories of DocWeek 2014.

Sally leaving on a jet plane for Adelaide for the AIDC “Docweek” Conference

Firstly, I have to say that, for us, the inclusion of the “Let’s Talk” component at the AIDC Marketplace was brilliant.  Being able to pitch directly one-on-one to the decision-makers from the local and international broadcasters and distributors in attendance, was exactly what this project needed to do at this moment.  Ben and I knew we had a lot of meetings booked and a lot of people to pitch to and we had done a lot of homework in the lead-up to heading to Adelaide to be as prepared as possible for each one.  What we we were delighted to have confirmed once we were in the midst of the action, was how truly wonderful so many of these people are as people and as filmmakers and/or documentary aficionados in their own right.

Passionate, funny, so switched-on – all wanting to bring the best stories possible to their audiences and the world.  We laughed more than we thought possible, shared views on the biz, learned more about the state of the industry worldwide and were truly grateful for the positive responses across the board to both our presentation and the film itself.

Whatever comes from those meetings (more news when we can share it), both Ben and I truly enjoyed the merry-go-round of “Let’s Talk” (which we and many of those we met with jokingly referred to as “Speed dating for filmmakers”), and the people we met.  There are so many good, smart people out there in the documentary acquisition and commissioning world whom it was a pleasure to meet, and in some cases, hang out at the bar with.

Not another email! to write!! Ben (jokingly) addresses the tiredness meets long hours meets losing our minds after 16-18 hour work days at DocWeek

Of course, due to the volume of meetings and the follow-up each one required, we didn’t get to hang out in the bar as much as we would have liked.  DocWeek is hard work – especially when you are bringing a project fully to market.  After a day of face-to-face pitching as well as attending a couple of the main Conference sessions themselves, then trying to fit in a few actual film screenings, Ben and I would retire to our apartment each evening to do a couple more hours of work with emails and notes, etc before collapsing into our respective beds until our alarms sounded at 7am the following morning.

But we’re definitely not complaining – it was worth it.  To be able to live, eat, sleep and breathe documentaries for that extended period of time meant that we were truly focused on just that subject and were able to immerse ourselves in that world to get the most out of the experience.

Which brings me to the Conference itself.  Such a wide range of topics and sessions available on the schedule, it was hard to pick which ones to attend when we had a spare minute.  Huge thanks to everyone who presented and hosted and to the AIDC organisers themselves for giving us such a plethora of choice.

Of those we did get to attend, highlights for me included Graeme Mason (CEO, Screen Australia) Opening Address on the first day, great ideas and thoughts – very hopeful for the future.  The fantastic session with Stephen Lambert (Chairman of All3Media America and Chief Executive of Studio Lambert, UK), where factual entertainment format was championed as king, but was so informative all-round for factual content worldwide.  One standout quote about why the documentary format is such an enduring genre (as tweeted a few times already):

“Documentary formats guarantee you a beginning, middle and end” Stephen Lambert speaking at @DocWeek #aidc

— Leila Monks (@_pinkeyelashes) March 4, 2014

Also, Fiona Gilroy (Flame Distribution), who gave a possibly frightening, but I think fairly logical prediction about the way the world is going with it’s entertainment-consuming habits, succinctly summed up by host, Sandy George:

Fiona Gilroy’s border less future: sponsors fund TV shows inc in prime time (no license fees), all docs online, viewers never pay #AIDC

— Sandy George (@scoopgeorge) March 5, 2014

The fascinating, entertaining (mainly due to Phil Craig) and over-subscribed session (we ended up sitting on the floor) from ABC Factual on what’s coming up on ABC screens from that department in the coming months and what they are looking for in the months ahead, was another I was glad we managed to spend some time at.  Very excited to see some of this content on screen, particularly the World War I programming.  I am still devastated that we didn’t get to hear Phil’s full rendition of a World War I standard folk song “Hangin’ on the old barbed wire” – although all present were witness to the first couple of lines, sung with gusto to try and make up for a technical hitch that prevented us from hearing the actual audio recording from folk singer and fellow Melbournian, Marita Dyson, before getting to see the trailer for “The War That Changed Us” (which we loved).  While we don’t have photos of that, here’s a shot taken from the stage during that session.

#aidc view from the stage ….abc factual session in progress now pic.twitter.com/HMQrLvYITk

— Phil Craig (@philmcraig) March 5, 2014

Speaking of the irrepressible Phil Craig, his interview with the equally brilliant Roy Ackerman got a lot of Twitter traffic, making it almost like being there, with some funny and useful quotes being shared.  One of my favourites being:

Self awareness is the trait you need in TV — if you’re already talented, hard working, determined. @FreshOneTV‘s Roy Ackerman #AIDC

— Sandy George (@scoopgeorge) March 6, 2014

And another:

“It’s about knowing what you’re good at- and we didn’t” – Roy Ackerman on he and Phil Craig’s comic career. #AIDC

— Historia Films (@HistoriaFilms) March 5, 2014

Speaking of which, we got to hear and have explained the phrase “docu-comedy”, which was a new one to me, as well as hear about Annabel Crabb’s unique way of pitching ideas to decision makers (it involves Ginger biscuits) from the ABC Entertainment department’s presentation and hear other theories on how our industry will develop in the coming years in the couple of “Fast Forward” sessions we managed to attend.  While many documentary makers may be reeling somewhat from the possibilities presented by this brave new digital world, what Ben and I heard cemented many ideas we’d discussed on how to gain further funding and eyeballs for this film, so it was good to know that we were all thinking along the same lines.

One of the other major highlights for me was the BBC’s Greg Sanderson interviewing Oscar® and Emmy award-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney (who has over 40 credits to his name, including “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”, “Taxi to the Dark Side”, “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson”, “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks” and “The Armstrong Lie”, to name but a few) over Skype from the USA to a packed room in Australia.

Great session with @alexgibneyfilm @docweek “structure your docs like feature films, eg. Enron = a heist”#aidc pic.twitter.com/MDtUwlJh5Q

— TVF International (@TVFInt) March 8, 2014

It was funny, illuminating and honest.  Greg asked the right questions and Alex gave clear and upfront answers and it truly was the Masterclass it was listed as being.  Pure class.

There were many more aspects of this trip that were just brilliant, that I can’t list here for space and other reasons.  But needless to say, it was a great four days in lovely Adelaide and we are both so glad we made the decision to attend.

New friends were made, new ideas were generated, new approaches were discussed and yes, quite a lot of our established ideas were ratified.  Thank you DocWeek organisers for giving us a fantastic first run at this long-standing celebration of documentary in Australia – and we look forward to seeing you next time.

To finish, I’ll leave you with some of my personal favourite tweets that carried the hashtag #AIDC over the past week:

#aidc abc director of TV illustrates the latest recommendations of #theaustralian for recycling key abc staff pic.twitter.com/IyJi4te112

— Phil Craig (@philmcraig) March 4, 2014

Best quote so far at #AIDC ‘I don’t want a mercy f**$ commission. ‘ from the brilliant Roy Ackerman

— Joseph maxwell (@Josmaxwell) March 5, 2014

Watch for the fab @docweek promo featuring Wayne in tears. The couple is @joostdenhartog‘s in-laws! He said he got them cheap. #AIDC

— Sandy George (@scoopgeorge) March 4, 2014

Words of #documentarywisdom : if three people tell you you’re drunk, sit down. Apply this to feedback says @marshallcurry#AIDC @DocWeek

— sam griffin (@samgriffo) March 5, 2014

Till next time …