ARMA Editorial - January 2013
John Clements ARMA Director Fight InstructorAuthentic Mare & Historical European Fighting Arts on Television? ...Don't hold your breath

By John Clements

For the past two years now I've had the privilege of being under a signed option agreement with a NY television production company to develop a program around myself involving the exploration of Medieval and Renaissance close combat. A few years back they auditioned me and I was fortunate to not only get the offer to host their planned program, but they then decided to directly center a six-episode series around my interest in exploring Mare and HEMA.

I was flattered and also astonished at my luck, given the people out there struggling their whole adult lives to break into media in some way or another. Alas, the program never materialized, due first to the economic downturn, but then because of the new direction producers and cable networks began heading —i.e., bizarre reality-based shows rather personality-driven documentary content. The creative side of the cable television production business is a notoriously fickle one, I found out.

But, on the upside, I've learned a lot about how the business works and over this time have had direct access to contacts at a number of production houses to pitch all manner of historical programming ideas related to our subject. I've even been asked to submit full treatments on the Masters of Defense, Gladiators, Fiore dei Liberi himself, and the modern revival of Mare. Who knows if any will ever see light. Over the past two years now I've been able to pitch all sorts of ideas for specials on subjects like Paulus Hector Mair's Compendia, George Silver's life and works, Renaissance fencing history, hypothetical match-ups between historical warriors, knights vs. samurai (one that's currently alive, fortunately), modern gladiator sport tournaments, and a few other more extreme possibilities that would have you either laughing or cringing, or both.

Here's the thing, though; while I'm busy trying to excite industry folk about the authenticity of this subject and the worldwide interest in recovering our genuine heritage, their responses have generally been to... well... push back as to whether any of it can be "idiocracized."

You know what I mean: Does it involve caustic personalities with alternative lifestyles arguing obnoxiously or behaving like crass idiots in contrived situations? Can we show highly unusual people in strange settings dealing with the consequences of their bad decisions? I was asked repeatedly how the passion for our subject could be depicted as "extreme" or the people involved shown in, let's say, less than flattering ways. (Think "Jersey Shore" meets the Renn Fair, or "Medieval Doomsday Preppers," and "Real SCA Wives.")

It's neither history nor traditional martial arts that producers are buying or that developers are selling, I've been told. So, I turned down a few opportunities to present the exploding interest in historical European martial traditions into what I considered exploitative and inappropriate characterizations. "Blade Goons" is not how I want to help them profile anyone in this subject.  There was one conference call with a production company I will never forget.  After some twenty minutes or so of explaining about efforts around the world to recover the forgotten teachings of the Masters of Defense, the senior party present finally spoke up and I was essentially asked if I could "find quirky characters and unusual people with alternative lifestyles" who were practicing European martial arts. Dumfounded, I responded that I was proposing a documentary series exploring exciting real world history I was literally met with silence at the other end.

It's bad enough we are trying to raise the credibility and legitimacy of our lost fighting arts in the face of generations of costumed role play, stunt fencing, and pop-culture misrepresentation; I wasn't about to sell it out so a few ignorants could thuggerize and trailer-parkify it. Too many sincere people are working too hard to recover something serious to let that happen. [Not that I haven't had a few conversations with would-be developers that had me saying something like, "Uhhh… monkeys in hats??? …Yes …yes ...That was my next thought too, exactly what's needed here, that could work, sure."]

I responded to more than one request to re-conceptualize one of my pitches from an entertaining exploration into what would have been more or less "Swamp People" with swords. I'm sure there are plenty of bozos out there dreaming of appearing in such crap, but I'm not interested in helping depict anyone remotely involved in this subject like that. But turn on Discovery, Nat Geo, or History Channel, and that's mostly the kind of programming you're going to find for the next couple of seasons. (Full-metal jousting anyone?)

Putting together a new show, even a pilot, is an expensive and risky gamble that is really about selling it to media markets in numerous countries. To justify the production funds and the labor involved, it has to be something the decision makers believe will give them a far better roll of the dice at succeeding in this. They put their fingers up to the wind and make a guess what will work for now ...until the next time.

And get this, here's what else I discovered: thousands of new cable programs are pitched every year and hundreds of actual pilots get made, but only about a dozen or so of these are ever actually aired, with some 8 out of 10 of these actually losing money when they premiere. ...Whoa. Explains a lot.  So, as the saying goes, "Nice work if you can get it..."

Anyway, I don't let any of this affect me or my work. I've learned not to be distracted by it. I persevere. If I get a call and there's an opportunity to present our subject on television in an intriguing and exciting format, then great. Meanwhile, it's back to work.

Jan. 2013


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