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Letter from New York
Mathew Tombers is the President of Intermat, Inc., a consulting practice that specializes in the intersection of media, technology and marketing. For two years, he produced the Emmys on the Web and supervised web related activities for the Academy, including for the 50th Anniversary year of the Emmy Awards. In addition to its consulting engagements, Intermat recently sold METEOR’S TALE, an unpublished novel by Michael O’Rourke, to Animal Planet for development as a television movie. Visit his web site at

Week of February 1st, 2004

Getting Real at Real Screen

Thursday I lugged my computer with me everywhere as I intended to sit down and write my column while at Real Screen in Crystal City, Virginia. But the day flew by and I just didn’t get to it as I was deeply enmeshed in the Real Screen Adventure.

What is Real Screen, you ask? It is a conference, now in its sixth year that is held in Washington, D.C., which is fondly now known in the filmmaking community as Docuwood due to the presence here of the headquarters of National Geographic, PBS and the behemoth that is Discovery.

It used to be held at the Capital Hill Grand Hyatt in downtown D.C. but had to move this year to the Hyatt in Crystal City as it has now outgrown the Capital Hill facility.

Now compared with such shows as MIP and MIPCOM and NATPE, this is a very small show – a little under a thousand people but it is emerging as THE North American gathering place for non fiction players. Starting out as a place for earnest individuals who lovingly crafted individual films, it has now gathered everyone from those kinds of folks to the non-fiction factory powerhouse of companies like Towers Productions and Atlas Media.

And, while it is a conference with sessions, the real buzz and business was going on in the bar, where people, fueled by coffee during the day and cosmos at night, where working to network and pull together deals. Conversations hummed between Channel 4 and independents looking for international partners. A group gathered around Tom Ingold, an exec producer at Discovery Network, who has chosen this as his moment to retire. He was being feted by a dozen producers with whom he has worked over the years while in a corner there was a gaggle of former Discovery employees who were catching up with each other as they have now scattered to the corners of the earth.

Food Network employees were pummeled with questions over the changes in their department, now that Eileen Opatut has left the building and Brooke Bailey Johnson is in charge.

Rita Mullin, Director of Development at Discovery Health, was also fielding those kinds of questions as Health’s GM has also left the building, while taking pitches every half hour, like clockwork. Rita looked a little bit overwhelmed by the end of the day and who could possibly blame her?

Discovery Times teammates Bill Smee and Diana Sperrazza were surrounded by some of the most important filmmakers on the planet as they continue to build on their reputation as one of the few places to take intelligent programming concepts.

In 2002 Real Screen was a conference and market that was devastated as everyone went into their shells at networks post 9/11 and began to cancel projects right and left. Two years later, the vitality of the field has returned while everyone copes with some new realities which include, as one producer put it, “coping with the demand for cheaper and dumber docs.”

Hence the popularity of the Discovery Times team…

I had breakfast with Matt O’Neill, a young filmmaker who has grown up under the tutelage of Jon Alpert [think twelve Emmys and HBO Documentaries, including THE LATIN KINGS] who is currently a PEW Fellow down here in Washington, preparing to go to Venezuela to cover its wacky President. He reminded me of some of the reasons I have grown to love this business as he is full of the passionate love of career that infuses independent filmmakers which, when coupled with a love of subject, can provide the world with interesting and breakthrough programs.

Real Screen reflects the very real business of non fiction films. The most popular session today, I think, will be “How to Run a Production Company.” All of these filmmakers are also working to translate their passion for film into the realities of also running a business in a world where their passions are not frequently in demand by a market that seems to want “cheaper and dumber docs.”

Mike Darnell of Fox Television may well go down in history as the man who shaped all of non fiction film, all across the globe and across all networks. It is his kind of sensibility which seems to be winning the day.