Wildscreen…I think I love you

Wildscreen is a conference and gathering held in Bristol for nature and wildlife filmmakers, distributors, and broadcasters. It happens once every two years, alternating with the Jackson Hole festival in Wyoming. Everybody clusters around Bristol’s lovely harbourside, like animals around a waterhole, wandering between the Arnolfini Gallery, Bordeaux Quay, and the Watershed centre.

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It’s relaxed, chatty, and dressed-down. 

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Nearly 30% of the world’s wildlife programmes are made by Bristol-based companies or crew. The BBC Natural History Unit was founded here over 50 years ago, and provided a foundation for the sector. Now October every two years is the place to be to watch, discuss and celebrate the genre. It has its Panda Awards, given out on the last night – and you can see the results here. Wildscreen feels very different from the business-driven ‘industry’ events like Realscreen, the Broadcast conferences, or Sunny Side. There are sponsors of course, but it’s all low-key.  Like the World Congress of Science Producers, Wildscreen feels run by the community for the community.

After I left for dinner on Wednesday I’d like to think the crowd at Bordeaux Quay would have got down grooving to this little number:

There’s a strong production aspect to Wildscreen – about actually making films as well as financing them. There was much talk about the need to innovate in camera techniques to boost declining audiences. Camera manufacturers and rental companies had their own room to show off their kit, usually with seriously long lenses attached. 4K is now standard for filming wildlife.

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Janet Han Vissering of Nat Geo Wild handed out lots of chocolates, and got the members of her panel on coproduction, the first of the day, to wear T-shirts with flags of the countries they were from. Everybody on the panel knew and had worked with each other. Janet’s metaphor for coproduction was a holiday with a friend, and she entertainingly got audience members to talk about the pitfalls of such holidays. All the panellists looked as if they’d be pretty good holiday company.

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Partnerships across borders are now essential in factual programmes. Hence the very international feel of the market. I met Germans, French, Austrians, Australians, Irish, Americans, Canadians. Kenny Bae from Korea was there with his hi-tech selfie-taker

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 Hiromichi Iwasaki of NHK in Japan told us about their very big budget Giant Squid documentary from earlier this year. The production used a boat costing $50,000 a day, for 60 days, to try and catch the first images of the squid. $3 million just for the boat, with the rest of the cost of making the film on top. (Though that $3 million did apparently include the submersibles).

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The US producer on this coproduction (on the right in the picture above) told the audience that having invested in the huge cost of the expedition, Discovery said that they wanted a ‘monster‘ film, not an expedition one, as ‘monsters were hot right now’. They needed quite a bit of persuading to keep the expedition aspects in, apparently. 

I’ve been making it my business to work in the coproduction area over the past three years. That’s been with the Sunny Side and Asian Side of the Doc markets, helping the international development of Gedeon, and now consulting for SBS in Australia. Wildlife is a very international genre, but because of that – and the fact it often doesn’t date – supply outstrips demand.  And the audience is always asking for something newer and different, particularly in Australia where both the ABC and the commercial channels show the cream of natural history filmmaking. I’m realising I need to ‘think different’ and find more partnerships with broadcasters – and not just the usual suspects – to secure the impactful shows that we want to bring the SBS audience. I’d love to hear and talk about ideas along those lines you might have.

Suzanne Harle from distributor Green Planet Films,  seeing that I represented SBS, told me of when she was a student in the early days of SBS, where it was associated with programmes about drugs, peace and love. Apparently in those days the student audience watching it was mostly stoned, and SBS stood  not for Special Broadcasting Service but for the Special Bong Station. I will look that when I go to Sydney in December…

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Chasing content and dodging cloudbursts in Cannes

Three and a bit days in Cannes for MIPCOM have just come to an end. The Indian summer gave way to dramatic cloudbursts, making the Croisette  look like somebody had gone overboard on the CGI budget.

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Shine International party, Majestic Hotel

Drama subplots were everywhere. Warner International’s semi-open stand on the beach got flooded out; All3Media laid on Tuk-Tuks to their lunch for Lion TV’s 17th birthday, only for their drivers to get arrested. Companies that were big were becoming even bigger.   Shine International had fine Sunday evening weather for their opening drinks by the pool – likely one of their last markets as a standalone outfit before the Endemol-Core merger. Your correspondent can report that Shine’s Espresso Martinis were excellent. May such creativity not get lost in the merger.

The frequent downpours in elegant if overpriced Cannes seemed to echo the rapid changes in the industry. A global industry crammed together in a small space, sent scurrying for cover by unpredictable events.  Digital distribution was once again the talk of the market. Ted Sarandos of Netflix gave a keynote – comin’ atcha, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. HBO announced a streaming service. The stands and posters though were all still about the content – in that sense, little changes at MIPCOM from year to year.

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The market at 0815 on Monday morning

The days were full with half-hour meetings – ‘speed-dating’, as my boss at SBS Peter Andrews called it – and my notebook quickly filled with titles, delivery dates, and conversations to follow up. Being with my new colleagues Peter, Ben Nguyen, Tony Iffland & Andrew Golding  as we were pitched by distributors and producers was a great way to learn about SBS, and my version of the SBS editorial pitch is now flowing a bit more naturally. Our acquisitions wishlist and programme catalogue got held up in French customs for a day, but eventually it became a useful prop to head off the ‘what are you looking for?’ question. Let me know if you’d like a pdf emailed to you  – though it’ll also be online soon.

Wednesday ended with BBC Worldwide Australia & New Zealand’s drinks and dinner on the roof of a chi-chi hotel. Plenty of new contacts to follow up on when I get to Australia in December.

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BBC WW ANZ drinks, V Hotel

It was good to be back in the swim of broadcasting,  and I’m really looking forward to my new role.  Next time I come to Nice airport though, I’m going to remember to pack my helicopter.

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Being Buster Keaton

I’ve mostly been at the writing/producing/commissioning end of the documentary-making business, (though I did start out as a photographer). Last week I did some real actual filming for the doc I’ve written called YARN. It was in Barcelona at the SWAB art fair. Helgi Felixsson is the director (and has also shot a lot of it) Iga Mikler is the DoP, but neither could make this particular event with one of our characters. So I said I’d go. How hard could it be?

After my few hours filming, I’ve got a new respect for what doc filmmakers (I mean anyone who holds a camera). I rented a Canon 5D MkII. Hardly an enormous camera, but after a few hours you can feel the weight. I also don’t know how anybody does manual focus with that camera’s LCD screen – I was sometimes setting the focus on the lens barrel according to the distance, as I just couldn’t tell from the screen what was sharp and what was not. Or giving up and going autofocus. I know there are some tips and settings I could have used – but I didn’t know about them, and only had an hour after getting the camera before starting filming.

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Filming movement, like Olek‘s crochet-clad performers – was a real challenge. You had to be aware of what people were doing, what they were going to do next, be looking behind you to see what else olek crochet models

was going on, constantly thinking about how to make a conversation into a 3 shot sequence. And worry about sound. Which I failed totally at. Plus you have to keep the shot steady, hoiking the camera on and off the monopod. Oh, and did I mention finding unusual creative shots with movement and interesting composition? Then when you add data management, (knowing the right camera settings, having the right cards, downloading it all correctly) it all feels too much for one person. Yet that is the reality of documentary filmmaking.

I know we could have hired a camera operator instead of just the kit, But a) we didn’t have the money; b) I knew Olek and what the other material looked like; and c) I fancy myself as a photographer and wanted to give it a go.

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Re-reading Viktor Kossakovsky’s rules for documentary filmmaking, I realise how little attention I used to pay to the photographic nature of the work. With DSLRs it’s much more evident that the filmmaker’s role is to find images that capture a moment, rather than just record situations. As using a DSLR makes you feel you’re capturing a still image, it also makes you focus on what’s on the screen.

A lot of factual programmes can look very basic visually – not everybody is trying for a ‘photographic’ look. The ‘interviews + archive material’ formula to tell stories in the past tense is a formula for so much television. I’m beginning to understand why – it’s more straightforward to do, people sit in a chair and talk, and interviews can be planned in advance. The craft of filmmaking – whether that’s a short TV report or a long feature, I’m not making a TV-film distinction – is taking a situation and making a sequence out of it – not just one image, but several which together create a mood, an emotion in the viewer.

But I think of all the researchers and assistant producers being sent out with cameras with next-to-no training, particularly in the UK,  generally on their own as part of a larger team to get material for formatted factual series. As they’re having to deal with the actual situation they’re filming, the craft of what they’re doing understandably gets lost. And their shots are then edited by an edit producer with no reference to them, or the time to talk to them about what they’ve shot and why. Except to moan about how they’ve forgotten GVs, close ups, and so on.

I guess I’ll get better with practise, and it’s about time I bought my own documentary-ready DSLR. If anybody has tips and recommendations about what I should buy, I’d love to hear them.

 

 

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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? 

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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…

 

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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…

 

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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.

 

 

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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.

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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.

 

 

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My travels in TV and media-land