A multinational panel gathered on the first day of Cannes Docs, the Cannes Film Market sidebar, to discuss how having a strong, international, diverse and expert network is more important than ever to succeed as a documentary filmmaker today.

Moderated and curated by Brigid O’Shea, co-director and co-founder of the Documentary Assn. of Europe, the panel brought together Nadja Tennstedt, director of DOK Industry, DOK Leipzig’s industry event, Nora Philippe, head of program at Eurodoc, a training program for producers with documentary projects in the development stage, Egyptian producer Kemsat El Sayed, and Michael Krotkiewski, producer and co-owner of Stockholm-based production company Momento Film.

Entitled “Creating a Collaborative and Transparent Training to Market to Audience Value Chain,” the conversation explored the connection between film markets, training programs and the independent sector as one of the most important pathways to international co-financing and distribution for documentary filmmakers.

Opening the conversation, O’Shea asked the panel about the importance of film markets. There was consensus, as Philippe put it, that “you have to know the landscape before going to market.”

“You have to choose the right market for the right project,” said Krotkiewski. For example, a really artistic film might be hard to sell at IDFA: it has to do with the kind of film you have, and that’s the producer’s responsibility.”

Helping producers identify their objectives and orienting filmmakers in the right direction – toward the commissioning editor, fund or program that will correspond to their film – is what good training should do, said Philippe: “A training [scheme] is a safe place where you can learn and test things, whereas a market is a place where you have to perform.” 

All agreed it was also crucial to build a strong network of like-minded allies with similar values.

“You have beautiful professional love stories, sometimes unexpected co-productions,” said Philippe, who explained that, since its inception in 1999, Eurodoc has built up a valuable bank of knowledge on co-production landscapes in different countries thanks to content shared by their trainees over the years. 

One important part of the training offered by Eurodoc is that it is also open to professionals involved in the support of documentary film production, including commissioning editors and programmers, as trainees themselves. “We invite decision-makers as experts, not as buyers; as people who advise and meet the producers, so it puts them in a position of responsibility that isn’t usually theirs – that’s a good thing,” she added.

Creating a more horizontal pitching format with one-to-one or roundtable pitches rather than central showcases is another way of creating a safe space for filmmakers to present their projects at markets, said Tennstedt.

“During the pandemic, we did a lot of on online tutoring leading up to the event, creating a lot of community around the project teams: we will keep that experience, it helps teams give each other feedback and conquer this thing together,” she said. 

This horizontal approach was commended by two other panelists: when he pitched recently at Visions du Réel international documentary fest in Switzerland, Krotkiewski was delighted to share a table with a director, a commissioning editor, a programmer and a distributor. “It was interesting because the hierarchy is removed,” he said. 

El Sayed echoed those thoughts, saying she welcomed the mentorship she was offered before attending CPH:DOX from a more experienced producer present at the fest. 

On the question of the influence of streamers on documentary filmmaking and what some perceive as the threat of standardization, there was consensus among the panelists that it is up to industry players to trust the audience and not dumb down content to seduce the highest bidder. 

“All of a sudden, everyone is steering towards a Netflix ideal, which usually involves true crime or some celebrity voice-over, but I see it as an opportunity for European broadcasters to offer the kind of indie docs that Netflix doesn’t,” said Krotkiewski.

While she acknowledged that it is becoming increasingly difficult to produce independent, creative documentary films, Philippe said Eurodoc focuses on empowering producers, giving them the tools to stand by their directors and protect their films in the face of the streaming tsunami. 

Wrapping up the discussion on a positive note, Tennstedt said: “There are openings: for example, some of the people at Netflix come from public TV – broadcasters are developing their digital outlets. Empowering teams to break open some of these formerly rigid structures makes me hopeful.”

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