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Jumping on the BANFF wagon

Topper Montgomery gives old event new lease of life

TORONTO — Banff TV Festival’s new helmer, Robert Montgomery, has been busily reinventing the event since galloping in to save it after last year’s brush with bankruptcy. Now, he says, Banff is just about ready for the big reveal.

After last year’s uncertainty, this could be make or break for the fest’s 26th edition. Can Montgomery strike a balance between not fixing what ain’t broke and making needed changes to the picturesque Rocky Mountain confab?

“Banff is meant to bring together producers and broadcasters worldwide to facilitate content and creation,” says Montgomery, CEO of Banff’s management company Achilles Media and of the confab. “The creative part of this industry needs to be primed. It’s not a crazy trade show, it’s a serene place where you can combine inspiration with productivity.”

Montgomery says his main mission is to sharpen the festival’s focus.

He’s been putting out feelers and conducting focus groups as well as glad-handing executives to get input as to what’s needed and to encourage newcomers and old-timers to attend the “new Banff.”

“Robert has done an excellent job in speaking to key people in the industry, both in Canada and internationally, to seek feedback, and I think he’s taken it to heart,” says Shelley Blaine Goodman, VP for A&E Television in Canada. “I think he knows what Banff has to do to remain a destination for producers and TV executives, and you’re going to see this year that he has moved toward achieving that.”

A&E has been the event’s major sponsor since 1993, and Goodman is this year bringing along A&E executive and ubiquitous host Bill Curtis to add sizzle.

In many ways, Banff will stay the same, says Montgomery. It will still be a unique retreat-based kibbitzfest filled with pitching, master classes, kudos to quality TV and a wide cross-section of broadcast and producer representation from around the world.

He is, however, renewing emphasis on the international community — and the U.S. in particular.

“I think that Robert is working toward balancing the fact that this is a festival in Canada and keeping it relevant for the many Canadians that go,” Goodman says, “and at the same time making it relevant for the international community.”

To that end, fest has been renamed the Banff World Television Festival, adding the word “World.” And this year’s theme is “Tuning in the world, turning on the future.”

“We want to make sure that American producers know what a flight from L.A. is worth,” he says.

Montgomery hopes to get every U.S. broadcaster worth its salt represented and is working to entice more producers with a richer pitching slate.

“In U.S. television festivals, there is very little pitching,” he says. “We want producers to know that there are opportunities at Banff to pitch real broadcasters to get real money and to make the show. We had it before, but there will be more of it.”

However, Banff is not getting bigger. Steady growth topped out two years ago at 1,800 delegates, when some griped that Banff had lost its intimacy.

Entering into bankruptcy protection and being taken over by new management three months before last year’s fest, attendance shrank to about 1,300, which many counted as a blessing.

Montgomery estimates that 1,300 to 1,500 is about right. “Our goal isn’t to have the biggest event in the world,” he says. “It’s to have the right people there.”

Banff will be shorter, skedded for June 12-15, and fees will be lower, says Montgomery. There will also be a “rookie rate” for first-timers.

Instead of a spotlight trained on a country’s work, the focus will be issue-oriented, with this year’s theme being international co-production and collaboration.

In addition to individual screening spaces, Montgomery will be introducing group screenings.

This year’s panel topics include universal themes such as how to address Saturday night slots and how to close a funding gap. There’s also a panel in the works to help U.S. attendees understand foreign production treaties.

Although the social slate is still up in the air, it looks like the Western Barbecue may be no more. However, the golf tournament, inaugurated last year, will be back, and there’s talk of a return of standup comedy and karaoke fetes.

Attendees will find the use of space at the Banff Springs Hotel and the Conference Center rearranged, Montgomery adds, with more space for networking and meetings. There also will be more online, including bios of all delegates that can be used to arrange sessions.

Meanwhile, the Rocky Awards have new categories including reality, feature-length documentary and lifestyle programming.

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