Keeping it in the Nordic documentary family

A few days at the Nordisk Forum in Malmo have given me time to reflect on the documentary business in the Nordic countries. I live part of the time in Copenhagen, and I’m half-German, so I’m part-Nordic I guess. I was there for most (not all) of the doc pitches over the two days, pitched our own YARN project with the team, and observed the ‘Nordic family’ at work – as one of the moderators Mikael Opstrup called it.

The comments around the table are really one-liners giving general interest (or not) – you don’t hear much in 8 minutes, particularly when there’s 25 people round the table. Very few projects elicited a negative reaction (except perhaps the one I was pitching!) – the aim seemed to be to keep a positive supportive spirit around the table. The one-to-one meetings we got afterwards for YARN with Nordic funds and channels felt very good, and a bit different to what I’m used to in the UK. There was a focus on the filmmaking, the craft, and what the director wanted to do. Far less buyer/seller talk about the different TV slots, sometimes highly specific, or the impossibility of getting single docs on TV (language I used all the time as a commissioning editor at the BBC).

The assumption of most of the producers was that festival and cinema audiences would see the films first (in their ‘proper’ long version) and then a few months or a year later they’d go to TV in a ‘TV version’. The gap in Denmark between public TV and the film institute  (DFI) was pretty clear – Mette Hoffman from DR pointedly talked about whether filmmakers really should just focus on theatrical releases to tiny cinema audiences which prevented films – often topical ones – being shown on television to far bigger audiences for up to a year after completion.

The  public funding and significant development budgets available to some filmmakers maybe also means that they don’t try too hard to sell beyond their regional market.  I also don’t recall many projects with mixed teams to make genuine coproductions between countries. Maybe it’s just too complicated, particularly if it might change the film – what’s the point making your film international if you  annoy your principal domestic funder?  Also, if there are three or more Nordic countries onboard, then the Nordisk Film and TV Fund can pitch in with a further 15%-20% of the budget. There’s something of a mutual self-help pact amongst the Scandinavian family – if you take mine, I’ll take yours. 

The elephant in the room of this Forum (same goes for other pitching Forums too) was that the amounts to be had from presales from public channels for these documentaries were becoming less relevant in a financing plan, except to unlock other lumps of money from the EU MEDIA fund or the Nordisk Film & TV Fund. 

But the public money won’t last forever, and once it’s run out it’s an intensely competitive world out there (as the makers know). These films – and Nordic  creativity – really need to be tested on the wider market beyond the prestige film festivals and late-night doc slots. I’m very aware that, as someone who pitched a single arts documentary at the Forum, this very much applies to me too. But working together to create ambitious films and grab new audiences internationally is what we’re all doing this for, isn’t it? 

Finding stories for SBS Australia

As of earlier this week, I’m the International Content Consultant for the channel SBS in Australia. I’m still based in Copenhagen and London, but spending part of my week working to the team in Sydney to scout for programmes to acquire for the channel – factual/documentary, but also other genres too. Really looking forward to getting to grips with a new channel and above all a new audience. The job will take me to markets and events, but I’ll also be connecting with production companies, broadcasters and distributers in person and online. I’m taking over from Jane Roscoe, who’s gone to run the London Film School. Lots to get my head round, but it’s a great opportunity for me.

Peter Hamilton posted a note about it on the Australian page of his excellent Documentarytelevision.com site – scroll down here to find me on the page.

The logo above says SBS stands for Seven Billion Stories, so I guess I have plenty to choose from…

 

Pitching YARN at the Nordisk Forum

The other reason for going to Malmo was the pitch the documentary project YARN at the Nordisk Forum. I’m the writer and exec producer, which is directed by Helgi Felixsson, and produced by Heather Millard of Compass Films in Reykjavik. We’ve been developing it for a while, and have our characters, but this was its first formal pitch. Lots of meetings followed the pitch – 15 minutes to present and discuss it with a table of decision makers, in front of an audience – and it was the meetings that were most valuable. Good comments, and a connection with the people who we hope will put some more funding into the project so that we can continue.

It’s about crochet, knitting, and art. A hard film to pitch, but I know it’ll work. There’s no link to the YARN site, because we haven’t made one yet. But now I’ve got the hang of this WordPress thing, I can feel it’s close…

 

Nordisk Panorama Hackathon

Fresh off the plane from Rome, I went to the Nordisk Panorama in Malmo, Southern Sweden. It started with the Nordic Transmedia meetup – an unconference of different sessions, held at a club/music venue called Inkonst. Friday was the opening night of the Fest, and also the start of the two day Hackathon expertly organised by Cecilie Stranger-Thorsen who’s a transmedia consultant with her company Stranger, well worth checking out.

A different model to last year’s it divided us into seven teams of four to hack two different projects, both coincidentally Finnish. My team was with Per – who has his own blog here –  Andreas and Johanna. We hacked/transformed the Avatar project from Oliver and Terevo – the photo on their site doesn’t really do them justice – and tried to come up with something social media/collaborative art around social issues. The original project – which you can read here – was meant for Finnish public TV station YLE, but after two years of development they passed. And apparently didn’t pay a penny for it. (Which just sounds plain wrong).

Anyway, it was a good experience, I met lots of very different people from the media/arts field across Scandinavia, and there was a bit of collaboration between teams (though not that much). There were cosy dinners on Saturday and Sunday. When it went well I felt very creative…but I still don’t really understand coding.

Main thing I learnt was no matter what the idea – test it! That meant trying it out on whoever was nearby. Their input was always useful. I’m pretty used to only thinking about the user/audience once the project is quite far advanced. Here, you’re forced to think about the user from the beginning. And the projects are more focussed and better for it.

 

 

When in Rome…

I spent three days in Rome last week at the DocFactual Agora organised by Gioia Avvantaggiato and Bettina Hatami of distributor/producer GA&A, and organising supremo Valentina Brero. I produced a couple of sessions, one of which I moderated – on the way in which factual television covered social themes.  Benefits Street got an outing, along with plenty of other UK examples. The other one was on front-of-camera talent, elegantly moderated by Corentin Glutron of French channel RMC Decouvertes. That’s him on the far left.

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The event was part of the Roma Fiction Fest, in the beautiful setting of the Parco della Musica.

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I can’t say that I recognised any of the TV stars attending, but I did meet a Zombie from the series Walking Dead

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There was a lot of talk of Reality TV and casting, and tons of examples from US cable, which gave the conference a very modern feel. It was great to have broadcasters and producers on the same stage, in a country where they are often very far apart. The discussion of television, audiences, production and distribution was informal and insightful. I sometimes felt swamped by the entertainment-driven US style, and wondered if I actually wanted to produce TV with values like that. Italy has a huge amount of commercial TV, and maybe it needs more public service programmes than yet more commercial fare.

But overall it was a good event, with a good crowd, and the positive response meant that I’m sure it’ll happen again next year.

NHK looks for international audiences

Early September saw me invited to Tokyo to be an adviser to Japanese broadcaster NHK at their pitching event. The aim of the event was to encourage their producers to develop and produce for international as well as Japanese audiences. And to do that they needed to test them on some outsiders. Which is where I, Patrick Hoerl, Ann Julienne, and Tony Chow came in. A day of prep,  a day of pitches, and a day of followup. Well organised, and taken extremely seriously by NHK management in a large conference room on the 22nd floor. It was a good opportunity to see what the Japanese audience generally got – and to try and help broaden those ideas for a public beyond Japan. Sayumi, Yuko, and Miwako at NHK work very hard to convince the programming department that they should develop for other audiences, and I suspect the discussions carried on for a few weeks after the pitch itself.