Expert Series: Realscreen Summit 2023 with APM's Jim Cathcart
Reelscreen Summit is the ultimate annual conference for unscripted and nonfiction entertainment. It offers a wide array of top-notch content, including keynotes from some of the most influential people in the industry today.
The summit is attended by thought leaders, TV programming, acquisitions/development executives, producers, distributors, agents, buyers, and many more.
APM's account director for Film & TV, Jim Cathcart, attended the summit this week in Austin, Texas. We caught up with him and asked about his experiences there, his take on the industry, and how production music plays an integral part in making unscripted and nonfiction content.
Why is it vital for you to be at The Realscreen Summit?
Jim: The summit has long presented an opportunity for producers and creators to pitch and sell their productions to buyers. While the focus of the event centers around this dynamic, it also includes incredibly insightful panels and keynotes that feature many of our creative clients, such as Hulu, Nat Geo, and Jigsaw Productions. It's just as important to me as it is to the people I work to serve musically, to recognize the current trends, challenges, and what's on the horizon for all of us in the evolving mediascape. As a former TV Development Executive, I also understand how important it can be to package your project in the most professional way possible. I always want to avail myself and APM's services at any step of the creative process, whether it be providing music in the pitch phase or throughout the entire series. Realscreen celebrates and champions unscripted and nonfiction storytelling, and so do we.
You attended a panel entitled: Case Study: The Real Housewives Phenomenon. Tell us about it. What were the most interesting moments?
Jim: That was a fun conversation, and I enjoyed hearing the panelists discuss how The Real Housewives, in its various iterations and while a franchise, still shared the commonality of reliance on real people and their stories. It works when it's authentic and when there are existing friendships to back it up. The peek behind the curtain was that the subject's significant life events are often disclosed to the producers even prior to the knowledge of some family members.
Reality TV and competition shows amass tens of millions of eyeballs, from Big Brother to the Housewives series to The Challenge to The Circle. How does music contribute to their success? Can you give us an example?
Jim: If you've ever seen an episode of Chopped, which utilizes APM in nearly 56 seasons, you know just how dynamic the music can be. It creates suspense for an audience. You can almost feel the tension of cooking under pressure with a time constraint because it's been heightened by the track underneath. Could you imagine watching Chopped without music? While the content itself might still be interesting, it certainly would be missing that feeling that we've all come to recognize. For reality and competition shows, music can serve multiple purposes, from transition to climax, failure, and success.
What's the prognosis for premium docs? Has it reached the summit? Why is it important to keep producing top-notch documentary films?
Jim: The prognosis is "cautiously optimistic". I work with several documentary filmmakers, and we've all heard the tale of this being the golden age of documentaries. With the current mergers and platform developments, many are wondering what this means for docs. My favorite takeaways from the panel were that storytelling and the POV of the creator matter. Regarding "premium" documentary, Ethan Goldman, Founder of Anchor Entertainment said, "It's something you experience and think about beyond it." The space has come a long way from the days of not being taken as seriously in the marketplace to an increased demand for this type of content during the pandemic. I'm paraphrasing, but Adaora Udoji, the VP of Programming and Operations at PBS referred to the current state as "a waterbed." She said: "The streamers, the economics, it's all real, all right now, but we can do different things with our products and how we tell our stories. Pragmatism is called for. We're facing so many outside forces, theatrical changes, inflation, etc. … it didn't suddenly become easy. It's always been this way." If there's a story worth telling, there's an audience and place for it.
Alex Gibney is one of the most successful documentary filmmakers today. What were the most insightful things in his keynote?
Jim: He gave a phenomenal keynote in which he was interviewed about his career and shared similar insights regarding the "content boom." In it, he discussed the imposition of pop structure on great films, a push to chase algorithms and money vs. storytelling, and consolidation potentially disrupting its future. However, pushing back and telling the truth keeps creativity alive. He also remains "cautiously optimistic" for the next few years.
How does music help documentarians tell powerful or entertaining stories?
Jim: It can be as subtle as an underlying drone indicating something's amiss or a retro French pop song set amidst a romance, such as the use of APM's track "Deux Amoureux" in the Oscar-nominated documentary "Fire of Love." Not every story is the same, and not every music need is the same. However, every song tells a story, and when you find the right one, it can help you tell the story you want to. Music has the power to transport audiences to a specific place, time, or feeling. The more authentic, the better.
Can you give us examples of documentaries that used music as a great storytelling tool?
Jim: We're grateful to have provided music for some of the most captivating documentaries and docuseries to date, including but not limited to "The Last Dance," "The Invisible War," "The Dawn Wall," "The Imagineering Story," "Icarus," "The Endless Summer," "Crip Camp" and more. I also love working with music docs when they need authentic period tracks to complement the music by the artist featured or provide historical context. It provides them with a budget-effective solution while maintaining the overall authenticity and cohesion to the tone of the film.
The Genre Jams - Premium Docs panel looks cool What was it about?
Jim: Akin to the Prognosis for Premium Docs and Alex Gibney's keynote, Genre Jams offered executives who are heavily involved in the programming and acquisition of nonfiction the forum to discuss what they feel categorizes a doc as "premium". At its core, it often comes down to telling a unique story in a captivating way and one that may not have been told before. Examples given were: "The Octopus Project" and "Inside the President's War Room."
30 Mins with Jesse Springer: Nat Geo Wild. How did that panel go? Did they talk about the role of music in nature shows?
Jim: Jesse shared with us the upcoming slate for Nat Geo, which looks incredible! Breaking past zoo formats, the caliber of content coming from their teams takes advantage of today's technological advances in filmmaking. A number of series in conjunction with James Cameron point to that as well as the ongoing interest in nature programming. I'm most excited for the upcoming series "Queens," an exploration of matriarchs in the animal kingdom. It's content like this where I feel as though the role of music can emphasize the emotional undercurrents of the animal experience. I also can't wait to watch "Extraordinary Birder" another series that was also mentioned in the fantastic panel "After George Floyd: The Power of Black Content in Unscripted." That panel was one of my favorites, as Aneka Hylton-Donelson from National Geographic Partners put it, "bringing awareness to the blind spots."
Can you recommend 3 albums that would be perfect for a Nat Geo show?
"Cellospheres" is gorgeous. The album "Still" is great for cinematic atmospheric beds.I like "Drama and Raga" for some of the intense moments, among several other albums we have, to raise the stakes. And as a bonus album, we represent the score from the BBC / Netflix series Attenborough's "Life in Color."
The Buyer's View: Navigating The Road Ahead - what are the upcoming trends for unscripted programs, and what are the challenges?
The main questions were what's the appetite for new unproven formats vs. tried and true or rebooting existing concepts and content. The answer was don't be reckless but don't be too safe, take some swings and see what resonates. Today's avenues provide so many outlets for content the platforms are integrated with traditional broadcast and vice versa. Additional formats such as podcasting provide ample ground for exploring concepts as well as supplementing one's production. The ecosystem has grown. There are more ways now than ever to reach an audience.
What are the most critical takeaways from this year's event and why?
While the documentary and reality space might face changes, it always has, and it always will. There will forever be a need for new stories in our world. Humans are interested in what other humans are doing. We're fascinated by learning truths and exposing falsehoods. If you're making a documentary or an unscripted series, coming from a place of honesty and passion is the best way to engage a viewer. Creators not only endure but have new opportunities to distribute their work with a multi-faceted distribution approach.
How can APM contribute to making non-scripted and unscripted productions reach new heights?
By partnering with APM to provide music for your project, you're expanding your creative choices for the sonic palette of your film, trailer, pilot, series, and podcast. Let's say you've hired a composer, and there's a particular moment in your production that requires a certain style of music that falls outside of their wheelhouse. We've got it. Or maybe you're on a tight turnaround to get into festivals, and the scoring is behind schedule. Our 6 in-house music directors can pull together focused options for you under your creative direction to help you get across the finish line. We provide flexibility and genuinely want to help elevate your work. For 40 years, APM has been entrusted by the greatest studios, networks, music supervisors, and independent storytellers. We would like to do the same for you.