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Documentary

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? 

By Krishan Arora

I'm an experienced television executive and producer. I started out at the BBC in London, working as assistant producer and director on a variety of documentary and magazine programmes. I then went to France to be one of the first programmers at Arte in Strasbourg when the channel launched in 1992. Returning to London after three years in France, I became Producer and Head of Development for documentary company Antelope. There I produced docs for all British broadcasters, with many co-productions on international subjects including the award-winning feature documentary Srebrenica - A Cry from the Grave, produced for BBC, NPS, PBS, and WDR.

After a year developing and producing through my own company Electrify, I rejoined the BBC in 2001 as Commissioning Executive in Factual, commissioning Science, History and Arts documentaries and series from independent producers for all four BBC channels. In 2005 I became the BBC’s Independents Executive, responsible for the BBC’s strategic relationship with the UK independent television production sector across all genres – factual, drama, comedy and entertainment. In mid-2011, I went back to the world of production and consulting, for clients including NHK, Steps International, the Sunny Side markets, French production company Gedeon, and now the Australian broadcaster SBS. Of Indian and German parentage, I'm based between Copenhagen and my native London.