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Producing International Documentaries: Marion Renk-Rosenthal of Renk-Rosenthal Media Production

Part 3: Product placement, Advertising, and Tour groups’ cultural challenges

Marion Renk-Rosenthal

Marion explains how she navigates the politics of both state-run and private media companies. There are different rules to follow, and there are pros and cons for both. The world is changing, and the younger generation has a different mindset. Marion explains how the world of documentary filmmaking is changing.

Highlights:

Government-run or subsidized media

VIP tours

Navigating cultural issues

Marion Renk-Rosenthal Bio:

Marion is a California-based, American and German multi-lingual and cultural TV producer and project manager who has lived in the UK, France, Germany, and Luxembourg. She speaks fluent French and German and excellent Spanish and works in media, PR, and tourism. Her projects range from producing European documentary films to managing international VIP business travel programs in the US. In all her projects she bridges linguistic and cultural gaps between global clients and their audiences or participants.

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Full Transcript

Hello everyone. Most of our bloopers are wonderfully amusing, but this one is not. It’s not hilarious, but it illustrates how, when amateurs and nonprofessionals do translations, they don’t quite turn out the way they should … the way they’re intended. 

A sign in France said in French, “For the respect of everyone, please leave the toilet in the state in which you would like to find it upon entering.” And the sign in English said very similarly, but not exactly the same, “For the respect of all, thank you to leave the toilets in the state where you would find the entrance.” So that’s not exactly what it was supposed to mean, but it’s an example of what happens when we don’t translate information correctly. 

Today’s guest is very special. She is Marion Renk-Rosenthal, and she’s a California-based, American and German multilingual and cultural TV producer and project manager who has lived in the UK, France, Germany, and Luxembourg. She speaks fluent French and German and excellent Spanish and works in media, PR, and tourism. Her projects range from producing European documentary films to managing international VIP business travel programs in the US. Marion bridges linguistic and cultural gaps between global clients and their audiences or participants.

Welcome, Marion. We’re delighted that you’re with us today.

Hi Philip, thank you so very much for having me.

Unlike in the United States, European television stations are almost entirely government-run or subsidized. Are they much more specific about what they will accept or will not accept? Will they only want subjects, such as nature, that have a large audience?

Well, the networks won’t allow product placement inside of a news department documentary. As a result, by law, educational reportage and documentary must be informative. We have to fact-check. We can’t just blather nonsense. It’s very strictly controlled. We do a lot of research once we’ve filmed something, there’s a lot of fact-checking and background-checking. 

We have to have consent from everybody, and we have to have permits for the locations. Subjects aren’t completely off-limits. So, we can’t have somebody holding a certain brand of beverage if it’s being sold in our broadcast area. If it’s not sold in the broadcast area, that’s a different story. 

We’re not allowed to pay for interviews. It’s a huge no-no because you’re not… You don’t want somebody telling you whatever, to come up with nonsense just to make $1000, so there’s no interview fee. We talk people into participating and spending time working for free basically because it’s a topic they want to discuss. They have an interest in telling their story, especially if it’s linked to scientific research. 

Very often, those are faculty, though they are usually university departments or non-profits for their fundraising efforts. Having media coverage can be very beneficial, so it works for them because they will end up having a product that helps them raise money. They are, of course, mentioned in the credits and on social media with their handle and hashtags messaging as well, so we collaborate on that level, but we’re not allowed to pay. 

We can only reimburse the real cost without any extras, but if they incur a cost like gas money for running us around on a boat, then of course we reimburse that. We don’t want people spending their own money, but we have to have receipts for every purchase. 

There are also private channels in Europe, and they are less strict. They’re actually keener on broadcasting things that are definitely audience-friendly because they depend on viewership more than the networks. The networks aren’t that concerned with it because the money is state-funded and, of course, we want good ratings, but RTL, Pro 7 and for instance the French channel M6 are advertising supported. They do have the concern of being very popular with audiences. They tend to be a little racier. They may shy away from certain stories because of this. It could affect advertisers, so I helped a friend of mine, for instance, on the US side. It was an international look at the deadly side of Red Bulls. The beverage, however…

Say that again, please?

Red Bull, the energy drink. Red Bull also supports a lot of extreme sports, and basically, the drink is sold because Red Bull is more of a media company. They have a huge amount of event production, international events, sporting events, a lot of documentary filming, and a lot of Red Bull channel content with extreme athletes, and it was a look at the dark side of that industry. how they push athletes to perform stunts. They have to be ever faster, higher, riskier, and more dangerous, and what kind of risk do people take to get financial support?

A lot of athletes have died. So, I brought it to a public broadcaster and will take that on, but not necessarily a private channel. If they get a lot of money from Red Bull advertising, they won’t broadcast.

So you have to know where you are. Can you say that story to us, and we can solve those questions beforehand, right?

One of your other business interests or companies is to do VIP tours. Can you tell us a bit about your experiences touring different foreign groups in the United States? Are they coming for a specific purpose, such as for a specific industry, or for a specific conference such as about agriculture, for example? Or are they generally mixed groups?

The large majority is business oriented. I got into that side stream of work, and actually, now it’s dual tracks because I had written a travel book for Germany, which led to me meeting my cameraman, who was also working with local American entities that were collaborating with the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board, which led to me creating videos for international conventions, which led to me meeting all of these agents, and so on. 

Here I am working with receptive tour operators and an international agency for business incentive and reward travel as well as research travel. So that can be a European automobile maker inviting their top sales force to an automobile-oriented visit in the United States.

Just before the pandemic, I had started traveling with agricultural research organizations. And there are agencies in Europe that specifically do these scientific research trips. We are not going to tourist attractions; perhaps one day. At the beginning and end, they have a half-hour tour of the city, similar to a half-day tour of a city. However, otherwise, it’s about irrigation. It’s about fertilizers. It’s about pesticides and how they’re being handled in different areas. 

Because rain patterns in Europe are less predictable, I had European, German vegetable growers. We were visiting California and Arizona to check into irrigation because they hadn’t had the problem in the past, so we were in Yuma, AZ. We were in El Centro, CA. We were in Bakersfield. I learned a lot about our broccoli seed and organic baby carrots. 

It’s fascinating because you learn an awful lot, and I have to prepare for every single trip prior because, obviously, I didn’t know anything about agriculture before, so the agency provided me with a lot of materials, and I did a lot of my own research. Similar to a documentary film to know what’s going on. Then it turned out that I had to translate a lot.

Thankfully, some of the chemical words are very similar as one participant knew, because that was for me of course, could have been Chinese just because I really almost flunked chemistry in school. And that’s not my strong point. 

And so those trips are really fascinating because you learn a lot. Or I am learning a lot. And it’s fun to help people. You know, have a successful trip. Go back to what they came for. I’ve also done some leisure trips that are more mixed up. However, that’s not what it’s like. Basically, when the agency says we have an emergency, could you go on the road with a group? But then they usually give company trips as rewards, and then it’s more of a mix of generations and departments. Where they’re not specifically for business purposes, they’re not meeting business contacts here. They’re getting rewarded for outstanding performance in their own country, and then they get the trip of a lifetime, sponsored by the company.

Do any cultural issues intervene?

Yes, I was on a program at times. I’m not going to mention details because they could hear it. We were invited to a presentation here in LA. A very high-level international executive from an American communications company was doing a very interesting presentation with a large part of the group. It had about 80 participants; about 65 of them ignored the presentation and were on their phones. I was very embarrassed. I found it very rude. 

Was it Americans doing that?

And no, that was Germans, and I found that very, very disrespectful, and there’s nothing I can do in that instant except just go. And, uh, it was interesting. To see that the boss, the only one in charge, was, of course, very polite and engaged. So were his immediate staffers. It was the lower-level, younger people who basically tuned everything out, which I found quite perturbing. 

Younger, as in under 30 years old?

Not all of them. But most of them were younger, yes.

You know, I can easily imagine young Americans doing the same thing.

Yes, and I’ve seen it once a year as well. I used to travel with French kids teaching English as a second language. Two French students are traveling with a language organization called Nacel. The driver had been doing that trip for – well, it stopped in 2020 – but prior to that, he did that for 15 years, and he’s an American guy who observed the change. We had these conversations about how the kids were changing.

At the beginning of 2014 or ‘15, all the kids were laughing and singing and playing card games and engaging in conversations with me, the driver, and the chaperone. And as time passed, particularly in the last year, in 2019, they were on their phones and headsets. They didn’t even mingle with each other anymore. 

All these kids know each other because they are staying with host families in California for two or three weeks prior, they go to a classroom setting to learn English and have local experiences engaging in American life. 

And then there are seven final days, they go on the road with me, so they know each other already. They were, however, just everyone in their own little corner until we arrived at Bryce Canyon and saw this one viewpoint: Inspiration Point is where you see the whole amphitheater from a higher elevation, and it’s an amazing, gorgeous view. I tell the kids “OK, we have about a 15-minute hike to get to this amazing viewpoint, and this is one of the most beautiful, most fascinating views in the West.” 

And it’s a beautiful day. In the distance, you can see Navajo Mountain, a sacred site to the Navajo Indians, and this one kid is saying, “Oh, I’ve seen that on Google Earth, I’m not going.” I replied, “You are getting off the bus right now because the driver needs a break and it is the law. He must first get everyone off the bus and lock it before he can take a break, legally.” 

But, you know, it’s sad to see how poor people are. Cultures have become what they are, and people have become what they are because they’re no longer looking around. And it was quite sad. 

Well, it makes me a little bit more optimistic or happier to know that Americans are not the only ones who do that. 

No, it’s everybody.

So, it’s the younger generation in the western world.

Yeah, and another problem that can occur is smoking. Europeans still smoke more, as do Filipinos, but Filipinos are very polite about where they smoke. And not necessarily Europeans. 

So sometimes—like, uh, No smoking here. Excuse me, you know you have to enforce some local rules, which is also contradictory, because, on the one hand, Germans will chew you out for wasting too much water. Or, you know, something that is very common such as how much electricity we [Americans] use, how many old-fashioned cars we still have, that there’s no public transportation in the West, and all of that stuff, etc. 

And then the next thing they do is throw their cigarette butts into nature. So, it’s like, Didn’t we just have this big conversation about nature and conservation and how much worse it is here than it is in Europe? And now you’re just dumping your chemical garbage into the canyon? So, you’re dealing with all sorts of adventures on the road. 

That’s wonderful. Thank you. Is there anything else you’d like to add before we close? 

I feel very privileged because I really enjoy my work and all the subject matter. I can dip my nose and my feet in and learn about all the people I meet from all sorts of totally different walks of fame. It’s a huge event. Sure, and it’s always a privilege to go out on the road and film or travel or do both together. And I’m grateful for that, and I encourage everyone not to become too engrossed in their computers and phones. There’s a world out there, and its communication and the experience of different cultures that enhance that communication, which will enrich your life tremendously, and I hope we continue that.

Absolutely well. Thank you so much, Marion. It’s a wonderful pleasure to meet you, to get your superb insights, and to hear you share your great experiences.

Thank you so very much.

Thank you. 

It was wonderful to meet you. Thank you very much for the opportunity and the invitation.

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