Welcome to The Pitch. Each month, Kate Villevoye, VC member and independent filmmaker, speaks with a commissioner or executive producer at a leading international media platform to learn about the intricacies of their editorial processes and what collaborative opportunities exist for independent video journalists and filmmakers with an unmissable story to pitch.
Kate Villevoye: Zach, first things first: how would you describe the work of Scripps News, and specifically Scripps News Longform, the unit you look after?
Zach Toombs: Scripps News is a national news network available on all streaming apps like Roku, Amazon Fire, Samsung TV and YouTube TV. It's also just available on what's called OTA (over the air) – which means in local markets all around the country.
Scripps News Longform is a unit that produces, acquires, and sells documentaries. There’s a good range of different types of work that we produce. Tentpole products for us are documentary series like In Real Life, our hosted, correspondent-led documentary series. We're really just trying to advance the correspondent-driven documentary format, but also take some creative swings and keep journalism at the center of the work that we're doing.
We also produce a show all about video games called Next Level, the idea being that a lot of people play video games but it doesn't always get a lot of thoughtful, mainstream coverage and attention - so it’s a series about video games’ real world impacts.
We also partner with the investigative collective Bellingcat on documentaries and short form videos, and we've been doing that for a few years, but we're expanding that and doing more of these deep dive projects. This year we released Ukraine: Impacts of Invasion which shows how satellite imagery and social media really told the story of Russian aggression in Ukraine over the first year of invasion.
KV: It sounds like investigative journalism is always at the heart of Scripps News’ output.
ZT: Scripps is a journalism company and it's led by journalists — and I think that makes it special in the industry. Keeping the mission of doing great, sound journalism at the center of our documentary production is really important for us, especially at a time when there's so many conversations being had about ethics and documentary filmmaking.
KV: What themes would you say are most important to your viewers? Which kind of stories have gained the strongest reaction, or the most engagement?
ZT: I would say broadly we're trying to find stories that people haven't heard of before or stories that they haven't seen told in the way that we're telling them. We're trying to go to different parts of the country outside of just the major metropolitan hubs and tell stories from all corners of the country and across the world. Out of 20 episodes of In Real Life, usually at least five or six of those per year will be international stories.
More specifically, stories subject matter in tech, in nature, in science, in pop culture, has all played well for us. We don't do a lot of politics just because there is so much out there already in the news space. And I've always found politics to be kind of a challenging subject for documentaries, because it's so rapidly changing. We try to find stories that are going to be relevant for a long time, that are off the radar for our viewers.
KV: Roughly how many Scripps News films per year are produced in-house and how many are commissioned?
ZT: It’s shifting a little bit, because our aim is to acquire more documentaries for a first window run, and to work on original content.
In 2023, Scripps News Longform will produce probably 15-20 hours of original documentary content. That means 20 episodes of In Real Life, and then fifteen or so episodes of other series like Next Level and the Bellingcat projects.
If we pick up ten documentaries from independent filmmakers over this next year, I would be happy with that. I suspect it will be a lot of shorts, but I'd love to work with somebody to distribute their feature at some point with more filmmakers on distributing their films. So we will be doing more of that this year than we have in the past.
Our focus right now is making Scripps News Longform a known option for documentary filmmakers to take their short doc, in the same way that NYT's Op-Docs and The New Yorker have really built a tradition of working with filmmakers and releasing their short docs. That's a space that we're going to be in, and something that we want to do more of.
KV: Is there an average of how much funding is typically granted for one short project or does that differ a lot per production?
ZT: While I'm hesitant to give an exact figure, I would just
say that we've set ourselves up to be competitive with the other news
brands that are acquiring short docs for digital premieres. We're going
to be offering as much or more than what filmmakers could find from some
of the other major players in the short doc acquisition space in the
KV: At what point in the process do you usually prefer for a filmmaker to approach you? Is there an ideal stage to begin those acquisition or publication conversations?
ZT: There are a couple different ways in which we are working with filmmakers and will work with filmmakers going forward. One route is with a project that is almost finished or finished and ready to go out on the festival circuit or ready for conversations with distributors. But we also have been working with filmmakers who are mid production and they're looking for resources to finish their film. I think that's great because we love to be involved with a project before it's finished. It'll just give us and the filmmaker more options about how a project could be rolled out. And there may be some things that we can help with to improve the quality of the work during production, whether it's funding some part of your crew, or giving editorial input, or helping through post production, or all of it. We're definitely interested in doing more of that.
We're very flexible on rollout and on windowing. If a filmmaker is looking for a platform where they can premiere their film, but then want to take it off of that platform and explore other distribution opportunities, we can tailor distribution to a project in a lot of different ways. There's a limit to how many of these conversations we can have because we've already been getting a lot of pitches, but the door is open for people to come to us with pitches for shorts; pitches for In Real Life episodes, or come to us with a film that is in mid production or nearing the end of production.
KV: Do you find that your audience responds well to creative storytelling? Or does the Scripps News audience tend to favor more traditional observational docs? How do they like their stories told?
ZT: I think there are some forms of creative storytelling that are really appealing to a lot of different people across a lot of different walks of life. For example, Ropes In Brown Hands is a standalone documentary that we produced last year that I think is a really excellent example of a story that is accessible to a lot of different people, but also has a lot of creativity built in. And informs viewers. I think films that leave the viewer more knowledgeable about a community or a place, that's still a really important aspect of what we do because we're part of a journalism company and a news company.
KV: What's the best pitch that you've ever received, and why?
ZT: We got a pitch last year for our In Real Life series about stunt workers; a new generation of stunt workers and how they’re changing Hollywood. It's the kind of pitch that just has everything that you're looking for, where it's just an inherently visual story and has characters, it has access, but not the sort of access that's sort of like eyeroll PR access – these people are working behind the scenes on projects that you've probably seen on TV, but you may not know their names.
As far as the correspondent-driven hosted work we do for In Real Life, I would say Plastic Time Bomb, an episode that we did last season featuring the correspondent Nelufar Hedayat. It's a good example of what we're looking for out of hosted stories. It's a big global issue of microplastics that everybody can find some point of relevance on. And it's a story that allowed us to take the viewer into some spaces that I think were really eye opening. And it also was ultimately a solutions oriented story. And I think that's another major thing that we want, separating our work from some of the other work that's out there if we're going to try to put special focus on solutions and not just point to things that are on fire but also talk about how we put out the fire.
KV: What role do you hope Scripps News to play in this current landscape of online film; what corner of the internet might it carve out for itself?
ZT: I hope the work we're doing is seen as journalistically strong in the scope of documentary. Because I feel like that's something that increasingly is lacking in the documentary space, the knowledge that something was made with really sound journalistic ethics and standards. I really hope that we start operating in the same space as Op-Docs by The New York Times, and the shorts that The New Yorker acquires and features. I can only hope that we have that kind of impact on the industry and become known as that sort of place for filmmakers to go to. I have a lot of admiration for the team that Op-Al JazeeraDocs has built and what they've done in the industry.
We've tried to build out a team and brought on a lot of people who worked on some of these other shows like VICE on Showtime, Al Jazeera's Fault Lines; I think the show that we're producing now is of that caliber, and I just want to continue to put us out there in conversation with those sorts of programs.