Piano Lessons Breaking into the world of television requires a little schmoozing, a little chutzpah and some talent By David Johanns You may remember me from performing jazz this past winter at the GLC. Not just a lounge singer, I also write music for film and television, and this year I finally attended the Banff Television Festival. A friend of mine was going to Banff with the objective of selling her documentary at the festival. I had just finished scoring some music for her film and after adding the last note Friday afternoon, decided Banff is just 10 hours away in the turbo Volvo. It was a last minute decision but I think universal forces combined to make sure I would attend the festival. We arrived in Canmore at midnight, where for one week our principle residence was the lovely Assiniboine Bed & Breakfast, owned and operated by former Whistlerites Steve & Cheryl. The Banff Television Festival is attended by people in all facets of the television business from all over the world. This year’s festival drew 1,800 delegates. If you want to know about the business of television this is the place. The schedule for the week included seminars on writing, new media, producing, global markets, new technology, financing projects and selling ideas to distributors, also referred to as pitching. I was hungry to learn and excited thinking about the people I would meet. My objective was twofold. As a composer of music I wanted to meet producers who would buy my services. The business of getting your music to a producer is no more difficult than riding a toboggan down the Couloir Extreme without falling off. And meeting producers face to face is about as likely as skiing with Prince Charles on Blackcomb. My second objective was to satisfy a growing desire to become a producer. I find the role of production satisfies my innate desire of telling people what to do with themselves. After producing several corporate videos I have ideas for documentaries and wanted to learn how to develop them. So Monday morning I arrived at the Banff conference centre and was greeted by a sea of suits and skirts — nobody seemed dressed to hike any mountains. I was in the midst of the Wild West World of deal making and schmoozing. The players were armed with laptops, portable DVD players, cel phones and the phrase "Have I got a deal for you." Truly I felt I had met my tribe. Upon arriving everyone was given a beautiful canvas briefcase loaded with promotional goodies. It was the motherlode of freebies: cool sunglasses to complement the deal-maker look, foam Frisbee, a few disposable cameras, coffee beans, note pads, coasters, tons of industry trade magazines, dinner coupons, a video and Melanie Doane’s latest CD, Adam’s Rib. The best item was an envelope containing passes to all the gala dinners, luncheons and cocktail parties hosted by various companies. I emptied the free booty into the back of the Volvo and filled my new briefcase with my own promo material, which I would dispense freely throughout the week: demo CDs of my music for scoring, promotional brochures of my company and copies of my latest jazz CD, Just For You. Fully armed, I was now ready to enter the schmooze zone. The Showcase of Excellence kicked off the festival by honouring two individuals, Martin Short and David E. Kelley, for their career achievements. I knew of Mr. Short but had never heard of Kelly. For anyone seeking creative inspiration and principles on work ethic may I now humbly suggest looking into the life of David E. Kelly. Alone each day inside of four walls, this man sits and writes out 50 pages of script using the ancient method of pen and paper; no computer, no word processor. For him technology removes the creativity inspired by the kinetic experience of pen to paper. David is the creator and writer of the now much-heralded television series Ally McBeal. He also writes for another series he created called The Practice. I had the good fortune of bumping into David at the illustrious washroom exit. We spoke briefly and of course I managed to move the conversation over to jazz. This provided me the opportunity to reach into my newly acquired cool handbag and hand him a copy of my CD. At this moment David and his lovely wife Michelle Pfeiffer are probably hanging out in their LA pad listening to our wonderful music. The afternoon sessions started with New Media Focus: Cyberpitch, followed by Sharing Stories: Two In A Room. The panel for Cyberpitch was composed of techno "digerati." The discussion revolved around the potential convergence of television and new media, namely the internet. I had to disagree with their claim that television programs and movies would all be an interactive experience in the future. I was however inspired by a chance to win $5,000 in development prize money for a new media proposal. The proposal had to include the convergence of media and be an interactive forum. The shortlisted finalists would be announced on Thursday and than pitch their ideas in the Van Horn Ballroom on Friday. My mind began to work on designing an interactive Web page. Great ideas can be stimulated by the almighty dollar. After a quick daiquiri-do during the 15-minutes between seminars, I sauntered into the session Sharing Stories: Two In A Room. This year Two In A Room was hosted by commissioning editors Hans-Robert Eisenhauer from Arte network in France and Paul Gratton, senior programming executive for Bravo in Canada. These two gentlemen discussed the terms of a tender for a program proposal and established criteria for a documentary that both editors agreed in principle to support with up to $10,000 in development funding. All delegates at the festival were invited to submit proposals by 5:30 p.m. Wednesday afternoon. Five finalists would be announced Thursday morning. The finalists would than pitch their ideas Friday morning in the ballroom before all the delegates, or as festival organizer Pat Ferns described it, "Roasted before a live audience." Bravo is the Canadian television network airing art and music related programs. Arte is the European equivalent. Paul and Hans-Robert were looking to finance a co-production that would appeal to both their markets. The essential criteria they described was a one hour documentary featuring both Canadian and European content with an appeal to a younger audience. Here was a golden opportunity to pursue my ideas for a documentary and test its marketability before television executives. The next few days my mind was constantly working over concepts that would work for this proposal. I attended one more session that first day, Selling the World Documentaries. Four sellers from major distribution companies had 15 minutes to pitch their programs to executives from around the world. This was an opportunity to witness how the pros do it, discover what the networks are looking to buy and how much they are willing to pay. Here was the showdown, each apprehensive seller up against four hardened buyers. We, the audience, all quietly cheered for and supported each seller. After the tough negotiating shootout the hard reality of the market was unveiled. Not one of the acquisition executives showed interest in any of the programs pitched. Welcome to the world of selling a television program. A cocktail reception followed in the foyer, compliments of A&E. Champagne combined with information overload quickly produced a dizzying effect, and still several hours of schmoozing were left in the day. Being a cheap date I would have to pace myself. In a cool Hollywood demeanour I sauntered onto the outside terrace. A quick walkabout with sideways glances at name tags provided a list of who-to-meet targets. My first objective was the wife of the president of Discovery Channel International. I was soon at her side talking about her son’s music lessons, a subject which comes up frequently when you’re in the music business. Shortly thereafter she introduced me to her husband. Bingo! I had the handshake and coolly segued into my spiel on writing music for his network. He was very amicable and gave me several names of people to contact at Discovery. The rest of the evening was spent in similar fashion, handshakes, exchanging business cards and the statement "I’ll give you a call." By midnight I was schmoozed out. From the glamorous heights of cocktail receptions I was brought back to reality: finding my car on the back of a tow truck. However I was still in the mode and applied the full schmooze force on the tow track driver. As I suspected, he was not a jazz fan so the gift of my CD had no effect. However Melanie Doane looks pretty hot on the cover of her new CD. This, along with $30, and my car was back on the ground. I drove back to Canmore and collapsed in bed. Day two of the festival and everyone was settling into the groove. I attended Rich & Poor, hosted by Peter Mansbridge of CBC, a debate on the social and political power of television. The panel discussed the responsibilities of television towards two major issues in the world today, poverty and war. There are many wars that are not being covered by the media because they have little bearing on international interests and thus are not marketable. It was a sobering awakening to the shallow pitfalls of the entire news industry. But the realities of the third world were quickly forgotten during lunch. Global Television Network hosted a beautiful buffet in the Banff Springs Cascade Ballroom. A smorgasbord of wonderfully prepared dishes and a decadent display of desserts greeted us. Everyone at my table showed our respect and thanks by being last to leave the dining room. I recovered from lunch with a caffeine high from a few lattes. This kept me going for another pitching session called Selling the World Fiction. Once again the sellers had 15 minutes to pitch their ideas to the tough network acquisition executives. It was another lost battle. No deals were made. The BBC hosted dinner that evening in the ballroom. Brian Wilson, Minister for Trade, was the guest of honour. I did manage to give him a jazz CD. After dinner I attended a late evening screening of "Oz." I closed the evening with a few more cocktails and than returned to Canmore. Unfortunately the B&B was sold out that evening so I crashed downstairs in my sleeping bag. I awoke very early to what I thought was an amorous experience. I opened my eyes to the fury face of Ossa, Cheryl’s golden retriever, greeting me with a morning lick. Wednesday: The deadline for both the Cyberpitch and Documentary proposal was due at 5:30 p.m. I headed out the door with my laptop. First stop was the delegate lounge for the morning latte and then, finding a big oak table in a quiet place, I set up to work. My Cyberpitch concept was called Song of the World. Internet users from all over the world could collectively compose a single piece of music by interacting with a music-composing algorithm. The music would be constantly playing and forever changing on the internet. I formalized the concept into a written proposal complete with a budget. I was feeling quite confident about this idea and thought it would have mass appeal. I then began writing up my pitch for the documentary. As I had never written up a formal television pitch or budget I teamed up with Erin Musselman. Through her work at a Vancouver based production company she is savvy to the financial and network side of the business. I would handle the creative treatment and she would handle the financial treatment. The proposal was called Piano Lessons. In the hotel lounges, bars and cruise ships I have performed people frequently recount to me their experiences as a child with the piano. This inspired the following concept: Treat the piano as an entity, an individual. Create a documentary that exposes the relationship people have with this entity, good or bad. This would be contrasted by highlighting two internationally renowned performers who have created lifelong relationships with the piano. I formalized the concept into a one-page treatment with a proposed budget of $250,000. Just before the deadline I submitted both proposals. My ideas had been cast to the big players and now my fate was in their hands. After all that writing I needed to arise from my deep creative think tank. Fortunately Astral Communications was hosting an Award of Excellence champagne cocktail reception. Another ritual of toting glasses and salutes restored me to a lightness of being before returning to my sleeping bag at the B&B and my canine companion. Thursday was a big day, including one of the festival highlights, the Western Barbecue. I attended another market simulation seminar before the finalists for both the Cyberpitch and Documentary Proposals were announced at 10:30. I nervously clutched my coffee as the ballroom filled and everyone waited for Pat Ferns to read the list. The Cyberpitch finalists were announced first; my concept Song of the World was not among them. How could the judges have overlooked such a great idea? Then came the finalists for the documentary proposal. This was the Holy Grail of the festival, $10,000 in development funds and a contract with two major networks. Nervous apprehension filled the room. Ferns read off the names and I heard him say "Piano Lessons, from Sound & Vision Productions." I was mind blown. We had made it as one of the five finalists. We were up against seasoned producers with experience and the big players took my concept for a documentary seriously. For me, being a finalist was a success in itself. I found my production partner Erin in the foyer. After settling down we agreed to meet that afternoon to formalize a live pitch for our program that would be presented the following morning. During lunch I saw the executive producer from Arte, Hans-Robert Eisenhauer. I thanked him for considering our proposal. He turned and pointing his finger at me exclaimed, "Make sure you include European content." I took this advice very seriously. I ran to the pay phone and called Lex Japser in Holland, a well-known piano player and composer. He agreed to be a participant in the proposed documentary. It just so happens that in the foyer was a beautiful Steinway grand piano that had recently been tuned. Using that piano in my pitch would have a dramatic impact. Each finalist would have five minutes to pitch followed by five minutes of questioning from the two television executives. Erin and I discussed the concept for the show in further detail, considered visual treatment, distribution and financing. We would have to be prepared for questions on any of these topics. I wrote up an introduction about our show incorporating the piano. I would commence with a simple C major scale. As the music grew more complex I narrated how an individual can become more personally involved with this entity, the piano. I performed the presentation for a few friends. They all responded favourably. I felt the narration had a sincere emotional quality to it. There was nothing left to add. I had never pitched before so who knew what to expect. Time to forget about it and indulge in the much acclaimed Western Barbecue. I grabbed my straw Stetson and moseyed out to the bus, which herded us to the big event. Still wary of my schmoozing obligation I was loaded with business cards and demo CDs. Several outdoor bars welcomed us to the barbecue, while inside the big tents bands played country and people lined up to indulge in more generous helpings of Alberta beef. How did KD Lang ever survive in this country? After way too much cholesterol we lined up to learn some two-steppin. I could not help but be first on the dance floor. The fiddle player came out and choreographed us all into some real down home line dancin’. Yeah-haw honey pie, I was dancing up a storm and losing myself to the effects of too many rye and gingers. My only concern was I noticed no other finalists for the next morning’s live pitching session were out having a good time. Later I danced into my production cohort Erin and expressed concern that maybe we should be working on our pitch. As we dosy-doed she exclaimed, "We’ll be fine!" When I finally got home I set the alarm for 6:30 a.m., giving me a full three hours sleep. Being nervous that I would sleep past the alarm I spent most of the morning watching those bright red LED numbers change shapes. At 6:30 I quickly showered and donned my snappy cool black successful suit with my favourite blue tie. I arrived at the Van Horn ballroom to see the other finalists practising their pitches. I met the stage techs and performed a quick sound check on the piano and vocal mike. All systems were go. Staring out at all those vacant seats that would be filled I felt a little jittery. Time to complement nervous feelings with a morning latte. When the time arrived we all filed into the ballroom. Numbers were tossed in a hat and each finalist nervously drew one to determine the order of presentation. Erin and I would be up second. I was happy not to be first as I could witness the way the first finalist would be "barbecued." The first finalist discussed his concept of utilizing five different artists all independently creating an art form based on one theme. He handled the questions with a good dose of humour and remained calm throughout his presentation. Than he walked off the stage and our moment had arrived. I sat behind the piano and began my story. No different than hanging out in a lounge and singing a tune, I told myself. The words flowed easily, but my right leg began to shake uncontrollably. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before. "Keep cool," I told myself, nice and slow and smile to the audience. The performance went smoothly with no mistakes or piano flubs. Erin and I walked up to the podium as the audience generously applauded the pitch. The questions concerned who would be the highlighted artists? Would one hour be enough time to tell the story? Could we get a European artist to highlight? Deftly we handled these questions. To the amusement of the audience I suggested the proposal could be expanded to a series. Paul Gratton thanked us, stating there was nothing more to ask and the presentation was clear and solid. Nothing left but to wait. I was content to have been given the opportunity to pitch before all these key industry players. Whatever the outcome, performing the piano before all these producers would lend credibility to my marketing campaign as a composer. A project concerning a well known Toronto choreographer and the music of George Gershwin, the transcendence of sexual taboos into pop culture and the effect of the Second World War on the fashion industry were the pitches presented by the remaining finalists. Afterwards I wandered out onto the terrace to wait for the closing ceremonies to begin. I had hardly stepped outside when I was confronted by many delegates congratulating us on a wonderfully creative presentation and regaling me with stories about their piano lessons as children. Everyone expressed hope and encouragement that our proposal would win. Certainly we had struck a nerve. Three representatives from a network in Singapore shook my hand and expressed interest in licensing the program for their viewers. We exchanged cards and a promise to contact each other to further discuss program development funding. I was now confident that regardless of the outcome we would be able to successfully sell this production to several networks. I was very touched by the gift of a gold piano pendant given to me by a woman who expressed being very moved by our pitch. I pinned the pendant to my lapel for luck and will always remember her kind gesture. Finally we all paraded back into the Van Horn Ballroom for the closing ceremonies. The wait was getting unbearable. Several draws took place. Project funding for a number of producers was announced. Two winners shared the prize for the Cyberpitch competition. And then Pat Ferns introduced Paul Gratton to announce the winner of the documentary proposal for sharing stories. He began, "One presentation stood out from all the others. If half the creativity goes into the show that went into the pitch we will end up with an extraordinary production. The winner is Piano Lessons." The whole room applauded. I lost my breath and almost fell off my chair. I could not believe we had won — even now the idea seems bewildering to me. I had arrived at this festival as a complete unknown with the simple objective of learning about the industry and presenting myself as a composer. Here I was on the podium accepting the biggest award of the entire festival. I did not forget to thank my mother in the thank you speech. We left the ballroom and I was overwhelmed how many people shook my hands in congratulations. I walked around in a dazed shock over what had just happened. Somehow I returned to my car to drive back to the B&B in Canmore. In the morning haste I forgot a change of clothes and wanted to get out of the suit into something more casual. Driving down the Trans-Canada with all the windows open I began yelling like a maniac at the top of my lungs. I looked down at the speedometer to discover the Volvo was cruising along at a comfortable 170 km/h. That afternoon we were bussed out to Lake Louies for a few more cocktails. As I walked around people pointed me out, offered me congratulations and invited me to their table for drinks. It was a scene out of a movie. Later, I found a nice couch before a panoramic view. I sat down and lost myself to the incredible view and while pondering my good fortune, I passed out. After being revived by a kind person offering me another cocktail I returned to the buffet to indulge in the last round of food and drinks. That evening I called friends and family from my cel, relaying the unbelievable news. My bill this month will be huge. It was fated that I was at this festival. My objective of meeting producers to sell my music and learn more about the production world had been fulfilled. I arrived with no expectations and walked away with an incredible opportunity to produce my own documentary. Initially I did not realize the magnitude of this award. Now I have this documentary about the piano to produce that is still just in my head as an image. David Johanns and his jazz trio will be performing every Sunday evening at the Chateau Mallard lounge.