By Panayiota Pagoulatos
Realscreen Summit (RSS or Realscreen, for short) is an annual global market and conference dedicated to the business of unscripted and non-fiction entertainment in film and television. Three and a half days are filled with high-level keynotes, topical industry panels, networking events, pitch competitions, awards, and programming briefs from top buyers. This year’s summit ran from January 23 – 26, held at the JW Marriott in Austin, and featured 1,350 delegates from North America and some global territories such as South Korea, India, UK, and France, among others.
My experience attending Realscreen goes back many years and though it’s been a while (first time since before COVID—last time I will ever say this!), it certainly felt and looked different. Walking through the halls of the JW seeing new faces and meeting passionate producers with unique, diverse stories to tell was really inspiring. Because of this, the tone felt very positive and welcoming.
The conversations on stage were different as well, a reflection of the time we’re in now following a global pandemic, political unrest, and escalating police violence against communities of color.
One example of this was a panel titled “After George Floyd: The Power of Black Content in Unscripted” on progress in the industry after 2020’s racial reckoning here in the U.S. Conference organizers typically shy away from hard-hitting conversations, so this was a refreshing change of pace. Moderated by Angela Rye, the dialogue was frank while also offering very practical takeaways for executives in positions of power to take note and effect real change. The panel featured Aneka Hylton-Donelson (National Geographic Partners), Valerie Idehen (Hot Snakes Media), Donny Jackson (This Machine Filmworks), and Dane Joseph (Hulu). I encourage you to read Justin Anderson’s lengthy recap of the discussion on Realscreen’s website.
Something else I really appreciated was when RSS organizers acknowledged the event was taking place in Texas, a state that effectively banned abortion once Roe v. Wade was overturned. There is a revolving conversation about whether companies should move productions and events from states with these draconian laws on the books. It’s a complicated topic, but I appreciated the effort made to recognize the issue.
Getting back to the content, kicking off the summit was a dynamic conversation between Kathleen Finch (Chairman & Chief Content Officer of Warner Bros. Discovery’s US Networks Group) and Peter White of Deadline. Acknowledging the tumultuous year, she brought the focus back to what’s coming up, including the recently announced TLC show MILF Manor (now don’t go confusing it with that other show). She also emphasized that producers/production companies should continue to pitch them projects as each of their brands “needs 700, 800 hours a year of fresh content.” More on this in a minute.
And finally, I was able to attend Realscreen’s Women in Leadership Luncheon where I had a chance to catch up with Sunita Uchil (Chief Business Officer, International Co-Productions) from Zee Plus, a division of India’s ZEE Entertainment Enterprises Ltd., one of the largest media & entertainment companies in the world. Although she is a seasoned executive (once named by The Hollywood Reporter as one of the Most Powerful Women in Global Television), this was her first time attending RSS and I wanted her take.
Below is a brief transcript of my conversation with Sunita Uchil, (edited for clarity):
What kind of projects are you working on at Zee and who were you looking to meet at RSS?
My division focuses on co-productions and we are constantly seeking to develop our network of producers, creators & distributors. We are genre-agnostic and welcome ideas from science to history and wildlife as long as the concept has a connection/relevance to India. In an advanced stage of development we have a historical docu-drama, based on unsung warrior queens of India and a thriller anthology. We also have our soon-to-be released series The Spice Trails, a 12-part travel/lifestyle/food series spanning eight countries in South America, and Lions’ Last Roar, a premium doc analyzing the concept of hunting as a means of conservation.
As we move into a post-COVID world, how are you finding the mood in the global industry? Is it back to business as usual, in terms of international cooperation?
While the pandemic gripped us with fear, it taught us to let nature heal itself and not take it for granted. Be grateful for life. It also reinforced the fact that people are the central force of everything worth talking about. Our very first collaboration with Televisa Univision is a testament to this sentiment. The Spice Trails was under production through the pandemic period and it has turned out to be amongst our most spectacular heart-warming series ever!
What are some trends in unscripted entertainment that you wish would come back?
The landscape of unscripted entertainment is changing continuously. We have a variety of shows and formats, including studio game shows, talent shows, and social experiments, and this is set to grow even more. What I’d love to see in unscripted shows is to promote more family engagement.
On that note, it seems that despite the many changes in the industry, broadcasters of all forms and across the globe are looking for fresh stories. If you’re a producer or content creator, getting your ideas in front of the right people can be a huge roadblock (especially for us non-nepo babies). Events like Realscreen Summit put you in the same room with decision makers, a great opportunity to meet a ton of likeminded industry execs and learn a tremendous amount (a very underrated activity). Luckily, there are tons of conferences, markets, and festivals that take place year-round to choose from and maybe (I hope) I’ll see some of you there. For now, adios Austin.
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