NATPE: plight of the wannabes

Guest Column

Breaking into showbiz has never been easy, but the barriers keep getting higher. Just ask any of the hundreds of wannabe TV producers who trek from one industry event to another in hopes of getting someone in some position of importance to take note of them and their projects.

The latest NATPE confab in Las Vegas (Jan. 24-27) was instructive in this regard. Hundreds of such producers fanned out through the confab, seeking to buttonhole the right exec.

After all, these folks on the fringes have heard the same sage advice dispensed by the great and good on panels for the last decade: “The best thing you can do is find someone in the Hollywood loop who will champion your work and get it to the right people.”

Problem is identifying and gaining access to that right person is becoming ever harder — even at NATPE, which is billed as a preeminent schmoozefest.

Consider the ropes, or rather the duct tape.

For the first time ever, keynoters and panelists at the 50-odd talk sessions were roped off from the hoi polloi and allowed to exit the stage without being inundated by pesky producers (or, for that matter, the press). In a few cases, speakers had to rush to catch a plane, NATPE organizers were quick to explain, but in most cases, they were simply responding to execs’ reluctance to be dogged by unwanted pitchers.

The more aggressive wannabes resorted to using question time at the microphone to get their name and basic pitch out in hopes that someone in the audience, if not onstage, would take note.

One attendee complained publicly to Lifetime prexy Carole Black why no one had bothered to respond to his mailed-in program proposal. Her response: Nothing at the cabler is considered that doesn’t come from a known agent or lawyer — too many potential lawsuits otherwise.

At another session, a woman producer adroitly got off her question about the economics of the biz by mentioning that her latest project, “Hollywood by the Numbers,” was about how celebs spend their money.

At yet another, a young man queried panelists as to what he should do with 53 episodes he’s already produced about life up in California wine country (a “Sideways” for TV?). Panelists seemed stunned that anyone would go this far with their own rather than other people’s money, with one advising the wannabe to cut a short demo tape and try to get someone interested in that.

Meanwhile, gaining access to the booths of exhibiting companies on the convention floor also took some chutzpah: The bigger the company (think NBC U, Sony, Viacom), the harder it was to penetrate.

As one studio PR maven put it, “There’s no walk-in/walk-up to exec possibility anymore at these events.” There are folks manning the booths whose job it is to screen out all those without essential business and move them to the sidelines.

I guess that’s why the all-day session devoted to newfangled portable wireless devices — purportedly a medium that would be open to new content not served up or repurposed from the established congloms — attracted such an animated, hopeful-looking crowd.

Producers in this new arena — folks like StewdioMedia’s Stewart St. John, Two Minute TV topper David Post and SmartVideo prexy Richard Bennett — actually gave their audience hope that ideas could be turned into new-style content that, brace yourself, could eventually make money. And then they and others from the Mobile World mingled with the wannabes. What a concept.

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