Silvia Beutl is a Discovery Campus Masterschool fellow with her "Nanobots" project. She is 32 years old, lives in Munich, and works as a freelance TV producer.
The Discovery Campus Masterschool is an ambitious new school for TV documentary-makers. Making good documentaries is the focus here, of course, but also how to make a documentary that sells in a world-wide market.
Discovery Campus Fellows represent their ideas to broadcasting stations
The first group of 'students' met in Leipzig in March 2001. We come from Germany, Austria, the UK, Finland, Lithuania, Slovenia, and Romania. Hardly any of us was a complete novice--we are artists, TV journalists, camera operators, and a Finnish movie producer. Some of us are self-taught. One of us, Richard Ladkani, has just been nominated for the German Television Prize's documentary category for producing a feature about children fleeing from Tibet.
Each of the participants had applied to take part with a more or less concrete project in mind. A jury selected those ideas with the highest international marketing potential. The goal was to get the idea ready for production within 10 months. In that time, the project had to be researched, a concept developed, and a budget drawn up. We were to have access to the master school resources to help us, including four topic seminars and constant mentoring by two tutors who are themselves international professionals. At that stage, no funders had yet been located, but they were to be found later during an international reception that forms the closing session of the master school. On this occasion, every producer pitches his or her own project in front of TV editors from all over Europe. Good stuff sells--the more stations become interested, the better for the producer. After that, the documentary goes into production, or into international co-production.
What is being bought depends on several factors--the story itself, the author's approach, or just the persuasiveness of the producer. So a scientific story may sell as well as a critical documentary about child labour in Ecuador. The scientific genre offers a broad field for new perspectives and good stories: Siamese twins, military planes, dinosaurs, the psychology of love, Neanderthals, and nanorobots. This is all "pop science" which makes it into the most attractive time slots on the TV mass media.
However, the budgets that are allowed by the TV stations are small--especially when compared to movie budgets. And scientific stories have to compete for prime-time slots with history and animal shows, at least in Germany.
So what career options are there for scientists in the making of television programmes? In fact, the producer does not really need an understanding of science, as expertise can be brought in. But the process of making a movie or documentary is something that does need to be learned.
Nonetheless, the classic career of a moviemaker--from school to a university of fine arts--does not guarantee success. That type of moviemaker usually considers themselves to be an artist. But the TV station, the customer, is not looking for artists, but for easy-to-sell, mass-appeal productions. Therefore they are not looking to buy creativity, but a formatted product that is so brilliant that it can be sold to 20 other countries immediately. That is the most profitable option for the station.
Today, successful documentary-style popular science shows, such as "Welt der Wunder" or "Planetopia" (German TV shows) offer good opportunities for scientists to make it into the world of science TV. Here, even doctors of biology have found their passion. TV formats such as "Galileo", a daily prime-time show, consider themselves to be "scientific", but pressure for good rankings forces producers to concentrate primarily on entertainment. If someone has some talent for this kind of infotainment, it may result in a junior editor's position after months of unpaid internships, which may lead to a senior position after several years of work and unpaid overtime.
Those who want to join the freelance documentary-making market should have an additional, lucrative and flexible job, or rich parents. In 9 out of 10 cases, the idea does not lead to anything other than unpaid work. Hardly anyone has made a fortune in the documentary branch of moviemaking. Instead, all you get is a little fame and a few dozen prizes and awards.
So the question is: Why make the career transition from scientist to moviemaker? Science as a genre has only just made it into German living rooms, aside from a few efforts by the public broadcasting stations. Many keep saying that there's still potential because Stephen Hawking sells like mad. German television needs capable science communicators, also for the sake of science itself. Without public understanding, scientists will have a difficult time in future in justifying their financial needs. And, last but not least: Why should only the BBC folks make a profit from nice dinosaur movies?
International film salespeople keep telling us that science is a stable and still growing market. But German productions still have a hard time in both the national and international markets. Although great productions exist, they are often considered too heavy and too much from the author's personal perspective.
The Discovery Campus Masterschool is trying to work on these shortfalls. Backed by the success of the American station that has succeeded in making documentaries ready for pay TV, the Discovery Channel, its aim is to open moviemakers' eyes to topics of interest to an international audience.