StoryScout 2024

Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

Silverdocs Takeaways: ESPN Makes a Play, Trailer Tips, Learning from Reality, and More…

Silverdocs is a popular 7-day festival and symposium held just outside Washington DC and sponsored by the AFI and Discovery Channel.

Our colleague Eli Brown attended – and he made a ‘peer pitch’.  Here are his ‘5 Big Takeaways’.

 By Eli Brown

1.  ESPN Makes a Play

  • ESPN Films extended its 30 for 30 series and is making a real push to commission works by serious doc producers.
  • The key filter?
    • Modern sports stories from 1988-1998.
    • Session moderator Dan Silver pointed to June 17, 1994, a doc about the events of the day that O.J. Simpson “escaped” in his Ford Bronco.
  • Long-form content needs drill down through well-known sports stories.
  • ESPN is open to “less well-known” stories, but they mostly need to fall into the ‘Big 4’ sports buckets (baseball, football and basketball, plus hockey/soccer).
  • “Investigative” shows are steered to their Outside the Lines and E:60 strands.
  • ESPN commissions are all work-for-hire.
  • Their development team accepts pitches only after a producer signs a waiver.
  • ESPN is actively looking for short-form content, mainly for,their sports-culture journalism Web site whose editor in chief is Bill Simmons.
    • This content can stray from the “hard sports” angle
    • And also push the boundaries in terms of style.
    • They also take pitches for short-form, which is also work-for-hire.

2.  Trailers Are the Key to Funding.

  • When you’re trying to get financing for your doc, don’t make a “theatrical trailer” — make a funding trailer.
  • Remove the mystery and make sure the targeted funders know exactly what they’re getting.
  • Grab the audience with your visuals.
  • Reveal your characters and story points quickly and thoroughly.
  • Show them why they should give you their money and partner with you.

3.  Docmakers Aren’t into “Reality.”

  • Sessions by commercial channels that focus on Reality programs were sparsely attended.
  • But the rooms were packed for PBS as well as for lower budget and long-shot funders like the NEA and Documentary Channel.
  • It appears that the gap is growing wider between serious documentary producers and the channels that reach most of the TV audience.

4.  BUT They Can Learn a Lot from a Reality Series.

  • The typical filters for a reality show also make for the most impact in documentaries.
  • They are “Character, High Stakes”, “Access” and “Conflict”.
  • Authenticity is the key, as captured by grand jury prize winner Only the Young, which engages the audience by following its characters as they simply live their lives.

5. There’s Gotta be a Mattress

  • Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (Brother’s Keeper, Paradise Lost) received the Guggenheim Symposium award.
  • They started their careers with a real leap of faith, and said that sometimes you have to make that leap.
  • “Trust in the process, jump out that window, and hope there’s a mattress there.”
  • It is the best of times – technology has democratized the production and post-production process, bringing high-quality tools to more and more filmmakers.
  • It is the worst of times – funding for important and life-changing stories is harder and harder to find.

About Eli Brown

Eli Brown is an experienced Brooklyn-based filmmaker who made a “peer pitch” at Silverdocs. His credits include Santa Fe ProductionsThe Brain Fitness Program which helped raise $30 million for PBS. Eli is currently developing several documentaries, including A Magic Lantern, and he consults for producers on production and post-production. He can be reached here.


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Speaking Engagement

Culver City, Los Angeles
September 9-12

Come to my one-of-a-kind workshop on the basics of the business:

  • What do US factual channels want?
  • How do they make decisions?
  • How much do they pay?
  • Who gets the work?
  • Why?
  • When? September 9, afternoon